Sunday, December 14, 2014

On the occasion of my father's 69th birthday.

As today is my father's birthday, and because I marked ten years since his death by introducing the Michael King Memorial Lecture at this year's Auckland Writers Festival in May, I decided it would be appropriate to post that introduction here. There was so much more I could have said as a tribute to him, but I was limited to five minutes and it was an introduction after all, not a lecture, and maybe the occasion of his 70th birthday is when I will write the essay that expresses everything I have to say about him. But until then, this will have to do. Happy birthday Dad.

My name is Rachael King and it is my pleasure to introduce this year’s Michael King memorial lecture.

For those of you who don’t know me, Michael King was my father. It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years since he died, and 11 years since he stood, not on this stage exactly, but at this festival, and delivered his final Auckland Writers Festival address, entitled ‘Maori and Pakeha - which people and culture has primacy?’ It was a typically enquiring, thought-provoking lecture, and it came at a crucial time in a year, 2003, when the issue of race relations in New Zealand needed level-headed commentators. He went on later that year to publish the Penguin History of New Zealand, and to receive one of the inaugural Prime Minister’s Awards for Literature, along with Janet Frame and Hone Tuwhare, both of whom are also no longer with us. To say Dad was taken away at his prime is an understatement. 

Dad has been recognised in many ways since he died, but I hold a particular fondness for this lecture. He was always involved with this festival; he loved this festival, and he passed that love on to me, right from the beginning, in 1999, when it was a much more intimate affair than it is today. In fact I grew to love festivals so much, I am now directing my own, in Christchurch. [at this point I could hear Dad’s voice in my head saying plug your festival so I obeyed - it’s what he would have done]

There’s nothing like the buzz of a writers’ festival to enhance father-daughter relations and as we lived in different places, the Auckland festival was a chance for us to catch up and bond. I remember meeting him at the Hyatt, I think it was 2001, and he dragged himself away from the writers’ welcome drinks to have dinner with me. He’d had to excuse himself from talking to a nice young writer he’d met called Jonathan Franzen - had I heard of him? I had. I had given Dad The Corrections the previous Christmas, as well he knew.

Dad participated fully and with gusto. One festival he introduced historian Antony Beevor, who was giving a very serious talk at a dinner at the Heritage. Dad’s introduction was outrageously funny - just as funny as anything at the comedy festival that was going on down the road. I’m not sure what Antony Beevor thought about following on from that introduction.

I was talking to someone the other day who always remembered my father at the festival, and what good-natured company he was. The festival was a chance for him to get away from his quiet life in the bush, by the sea, and catch up with his many friends and fellow writers. Many people here will remember him, always wearing his  cream linen jacket: I thought he only had one of these jackets, which he wore all the time, but after he died I found a whole wardrobe full of them.

I’m grateful to the Auckland Writers’ Festival - to Jill Rawnsley who initiated the lecture, and to Anne O’Brien who has carried on the tradition.

I know Dad would have been honoured to know about some of the people who have given lectures in his name: Deidre Bear, Judith Therman, Hermione Lee and John Carey to name just four. Dad would have been thrilled to see how huge the festival has become, to see so many people caring about books and ideas, and he would have been right in amongst it all. He would have loved sitting down and talking with Eleanor Catton,  sharing stories with Alexander McCall Smith, and meeting Huw Lewis-Jones, the “barefoot historian”. Although, to be fair, he probably wouldn’t have bungy jumped from the harbour bridge or gone out to sing karaoke until 4am [all things festival writers did that weekend]. 

Thanks again to Anne for inviting me to come here to speak. It’s the best way I can think of to say to Dad, “You… are… missed.”

[There was a lot of applause at this point which was lovely and I didn't cry]

I want to just read you something he wrote in 2003, a passage that closes The Penguin History of New Zealand. “And most New Zealanders, whatever their cultural backgrounds, are good-hearted, practical, commonsensical and tolerant. Those qualities are part of the national cultural capital that has in the past  saved the  country from the worst excesses of chauvinism and racism in other parts of the world. They are as sound a basis as any for optimism about the country’s future.”

And my father was optimistic and he did like to find the best in people. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have come up to me, often at book festivals, and said “oh, I knew your father; or I met your father once; he helped me enormously with this or that, he was so generous with his time.” I don’t know how he did it - he made people feel that they knew him, because he took an interest in them and their lives. He made them feel interesting. He was inquisitive… curious… a quality I personally hold in high regard. 

Dad was deeply interested in the history of New Zealand and its people and this passion is shared by this year’s Michael King Memorial Lecturer Sir Ray Avery.