Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 19, 2020

Auckland Writers Festival Writers Winter Series, featuring Patrick Gale, Julia Ebner and Michelle Leggot, hosted by Paula Morris

This afternoon I listened to Episode 12 of the Auckland Writers Festival Winter Series, hosted by Paula Morris and featuring Patrick Gale, Julia Ebner and Michelle Leggot.

From the website:

PATRICK GALE (England) Patrick Gale is the author of the award-winning BBC drama Man in an Orange Shirt as well as 16 novels, including bestsellers Notes From An Exhibition, (see my review) A Perfectly Good Man and the Costa shortlisted A Place Called Winter.  (See my review). His latest novel is Take Nothing With You, an elegiac story of coming of age and the transformative power of music. (See Davida’s review at The Chocolate Lady here.)

JULIA EBNER (Austria) Julia Ebner is a research fellow at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue and a consultant on counter-terrorism to the UN. For her latest book Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists, Julia went undercover for two years, investigating the online lives of extremists; hanging out in the alt-right networks.

MICHELE LEGGOTT (Aotearoa New Zealand) NZ’s inaugural Poet Laureate, Michele Leggott, has been the recipient of a Prime Minister’s Literary Award and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of NZ. She coordinates the NZ Electronic Poetry Centre (nzepc) and has recently published Mezzaluna: Selected Poems.

HOST: PAULA MORRIS (Aotearoa New Zealand) Paula Morris (Ngāti Wai, Ngāti Whātua) is an award-winning fiction writer and essayist. The 2019 Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellow, she teaches creative writing at The University of Auckland, sits on the Māori Literature Trust and is the founder of the Academy of NZ Literature.



Patrick Gale was up first.  This is the blurb for his book.

1970s Weston-Super-Mare and ten-year-old oddball Eustace, an only child, has life transformed by his mother’s quixotic decision to sign him up for cello lessons. Music-making brings release for a boy who is discovering he is an emotional volcano. He laps up lessons from his young teacher, not noticing how her brand of glamour is casting a damaging spell over his frustrated and controlling mother.

When he is enrolled in holiday courses in the Scottish borders, lessons in love, rejection, and humility are added to daily practice.

Drawing in part on his own boyhood, Patrick Gale’s new novel explores a collision between childish hero worship and extremely messy adult love lives.

The first topic for discussion was why he chose the setting Weston-Super-Mare, a place that should be lovely but has become a place of old people’s homes, half way houses for drug addicts and people with troubled lives.  Gale found it the perfect place for the young boy Eustace to learn dark truths about life.  Paula asked about the ‘godparents of the book, the novel The Go Between, by L P Hartley and the children’s book Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield — how did these books influence the story?  Gale had a childhood ballet bug before music hooked him, but interested now in resilience, he thinks that both ballet and music teach learners resilience, strength of purpose and character which will serve them in life even if they don’t continue with these pursuits into adult life.

Although the book is about Eustace’s pathway to discovering that he’s gay, it’s not about the difficulties of that, but other difficulties.  Paula quoted a reviewer whose name I didn’t catch who said that the novel is not melodramatic or sentimental, and it balances light and dark in the representation of characters who are sometimes benign and sometimes not.  Sometimes Gale uses the comedy of pain of embarrassment to lead the reader into the dark places.  Paula suggested that many feel that pain of embarrassment in the teenage years.  Indeed.

Paula asked a very interesting question: What is the difference between keeping secrets and having discretion? Gale thinks that there are generational differences to this, and also that discretion goes to the heart of the British character.  (I reckon that reply is a rich topic for discussion in itself, eh?)

Julia Ebner has an impressive CV including being an adviser to the UN on issues to do with terrorism and extremism around the world.  Her research involved deception and manipulation in order for her to observe the world of neo-Nazis and others, and she talked about how creepy and dangerous it was to operate with a fake identity in this horrible cyber world.  She talked about ‘doxing‘ (which means to publish online private or identifying information about an individual with malicious intent) and the creation of instability which extremists use to intimidate and to create chaos.  Her book has become a bestseller in Europe, this is the blurb:

By day, Julia Ebner works at a counter-extremism think tank, monitoring radical groups from the outside, but two years ago, she began to feel that she was only seeing half the picture. She needed to get inside the groups to truly understand them. So she decided to go undercover in her spare hours – late nights, holidays, weekends – adopting five different identities, and joining a dozen extremist groups from across the ideological spectrum.

Her journey would take her from a Generation Identity global strategy meeting in a pub in Mayfair, to a Neo-Nazi Music Festival on the border of Germany and Poland. She would get relationship advice from ‘Trad Wives’ and Jihadi Brides and hacking lessons from ISIS. She was in the channels when the alt-right began planning the lethal Charlottesville rally, and spent time in the networks that would radicalise the Christchurch terrorist.

In Going Dark, Ebner takes the reader on a deeply compulsive, terrifying, illuminating journey into the darkest recesses of extremist thinking, exposing how closely we are surrounded by their fanatical ideology every day, the changing nature and practice of these groups, and what is being done to counter them

Paula asked about ‘The Great Replacement Theory’ which is the most prominent conspiracy theory at the moment.  It argues that white populations are being replaced by non-white populations, and it’s dangerous because it inspires many extremist atrocities (including at Christchurch). It was very interesting to hear about which books these extremists ‘approved of’, and also how they deliberately try to distance themselves from the Nazis because they know that they would never get support if they were associated with Nazism.  Paula also asked about sub-cultures, which use gamification as a form of terrorism.  That is, they modify and create digital games for recruitment and to spread their messages.  ISIS does this, for example, with video-game scenarios which they pasted onto the video game  ‘Call of Duty’ and called it ‘Call of Jihad’. With Christchurch the perpetrator used gamification for the purpose of the atrocity itself. (I’m not sharing anything she said about this because of what she said about Copy Cat Terrorism and because I don’t care to give this perpetrator any air).

This was a most disconcerting segment of this session, especially when there was talk about moving into a new era of extremism, but Ebner did have some ideas for positive action to deter it. She talked about the conspiracy theories being spread during the pandemic and how disastrous they have been, but she is optimistic about tackling this issue through education, starting in schools. Digital citizenship and digital literacy (which I taught even in primary school years ago now) but there hasn’t been enough teaching about the psychology of these sub cultures and how online group dynamics can escalate the difference between what’s real and what’s not, leading to radicalisation.  She says there are ten suggestions in the last chapter, but there wasn’t enough time to talk about them all, but she said she was impressed by the way New Zealand reacted to the Christchurch atrocity and acted as a catalyst for change.

Michelle Leggot has an impressive CV as a poet.  She has published nine books of poetry, and Mezzaluna is her latest collection:

Mezzaluna gathers work from Michele Leggott’s nine books of poetry. As reviewer David Eggleton writes: “Leggott shows us that the ordinary is full of marvels which . . . stitched, flow together into sequences and episodes that in turn form an ongoing serial, or bricolage: a single poem, then, rejecting exactness, literalism, naturalism in favor of resonance, currents, patterns of ebb and flow.” In complex lyrics, sampling thought and song, voice and vision, Leggott creates lush textured soundscapes. Her poetry covers a wide range of topics rich in details of her New Zealand life, full of history and family, lights and mirrors, the real and the surreal. She focuses on appearance and disappearance as modes of memory, familial until we lose sight of that horizon line and must settle instead for a series of intersecting arcs. Leggott writes with tenderness and courage about the paradoxes of losing her sight and remaking the world in words.

It was lovely to hear this eminent poet talking about the importance of bringing poets from the 1920s and 1930s out of oblivion and into the light of contemporary times. They discussed Emily Harris, (1837-1925) for example, who in NZ is primarily known as an artist, not as a poet, and Leggot’s quest to rediscover her poetry because much of it is missing.  (They know this because they have her diaries, which shows you the value of keeping them.  None of us expect our archive to disappear!)  What they have is valuable because so much of what she wrote then is still relevant today, for example, her concern for endangered plants.

(And of course, Harris’s oeuvre is part of NZ’s cultural history.)

I was interested to hear Patrick Gale talk about the demands made of writers these days… so many author appearances at festivals and other events, which take time away from writing and thinking which is what they should be doing.  I remember Louis de Bernieres saying the same thing after the success Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.  (It’s not, of course, a problem unless you’re a very successful author, and I imagine that many debut and middle-ranking authors would be only too pleased to have that problem, but still, many of those very successful authors are the ones we would like to write more than they do.)

My thanks to the organisers of this series, and congratulations to Paula Morris for chairing each session so well.

Next week’s session is the last one.  I’ll try not to miss it: Ann Patchett talking about The Dutch House; NZ author Rose Lu, discussing All Who Live on Islands, British travel writer Colin Thubron talking about Shadow of the Silk Road, and British author Maggie O’Farrell talking about her Women’s Prize nominated novel Hamnet. 



  1. I loved Gale’s book. Thanks for summarizing this for us!


    • This new one sounds good too!

      Liked by 1 person

      • If you mean Take Nothing With You, I’ve read and reviewed it. Really great book (and I HATE the cello)!


        • Thanks, Davida, I’ve added a link to your review above.
          That index of yours makes it easy to find a book, it must take ages to keep it up to date. (Mine never is).

          Liked by 1 person

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