The Prime Minister's Awards for Literary Achievement 2008 were announced tonight. The winners were:
Bill Oliver: Non-fiction
Elizabeth Smither: Poetry
Lloyd Jones: Fiction
I arrived at the gate of the place once known as the Murder House at the same time as Paula Morris. Premier House it is now, but once upon a time I travelled there by bus to have my teeth seen to by a bunch of savagely clean dental nurses (or savage and clean, however you remember it). Once the trip there and back from Karori West Normal was so long I wet my pants.
Tonight, there were teeth everywhere, but they were exposed through lipstick and over champagne flutes. Everyone was smiling - Paula Morris, the policeman at the gate, the women with the nametags, Midnight Oil's Peter Garrett, and a glittering display of writers and publishers, editors, journalists and politicians. Only the small children didn't smile.
The reception room, I was relieved to note, had been stripped of its squeaky linoleum and deeply carpeted. The heating was turned to tropical. Bunches of red flowers (rata?) lay on a table near the front to be given to the winners who were still - except to themselves and their whanaus (explaining the small and silent children) -a secret. Worth $60,000, the Prime Ministers Awards for Literary Achievement are quite something, and the air at the old house on the hill - once upon a time vinegary with tension - was honeyed with success.
Kate de Goldi was MC, the PM was PM and Fiona Kidman as the winner of the Michael King Writers Fellowship this year was first up. She talked about meeting Helen Clark at a book launch in Thorndon many years ago, and how nervous the young backbencher was to be included in the book Head and Shoulders which was about successful women. Fiona pointed out that she and the PM had moved onwards and upwards, and was thrilled with the MK Award which would allow her to write without worry.
Clark followed that up with a story of her own about how the media the day after Head and Shoulders came out reported that a female backbencher had declared male MPs sexist. 'Who is that brave woman?' she said to herself, before discovering the comment had been made by her in the newly released book. A visit to the then Prime Minister was required to explain herself.
And then for the big announcements.
Bill Oliver gave an eloquent and generous speech from a wheelchair, thanking a raft of other people for his being there tonight. He explained that in his 'very long life' he had usually worked collaboratively as an historian and especially on the Dictionary of NZ Biography.
A delighted Elizabeth Smither (declared an 'all-rounder' by the PM) was quirky and humorous about the win, talking about how NZ writers aren't used to such large sums of money and how they don't always know how to dress. She said Clark's support for the arts in this country had led to something that was no less than a revolution.
The Man in Black, Lloyd Jones, was typically modest. He said Kate de Goldi (MC) had once commented that she wanted him 'to stop winning things', and he was worried what she was thinking now (in fact she looked pretty chuffed about it.) He liked the way the awards were given for a writer's body of work - rather than a single book - and although (and I'm paraphrasing here) he felt his individual books had flaws, together they added up to something.
After another glass or two of wine and some sweet somethings (oh how those dental nurses would have frowned), the gathered glitterati tip-toed out of the murder house and down the steep drive. Penguin's Geoff Walker was last seen climbing over the fence to escape because the policeman who opened and closed the gate had disappeared. And there on the other side trying to get back in was his internationally-famous author, and the brand-new recipient of a PM Award, muttering about having left something behind.
I left them there, dear reader, clicked my teeth together and headed home.