Auckland Writers Festival: Lloyd Davis, Greg O’Brien and Helen Macdonald

It’s 4pm and I’ve begun to feel the insistent pressure of the festival’s hand on my arm, asking me if I’m ready for the next event; if I’ve thanked the right people in introductions; written up posts for the blog. It’s not a harrowing or unbearable pressure, but it is firm, rather like, I imagine, Helen MacDonald’s hawk, Mabel, landing on a leather-clad wrist.

Today’s events have been strangely, inevitably linked. And that link is nature. Penguins, whales and hawks. As if the air’s molecules are bristling with an importance aching to be decoded.


The author and Professor Penguin, Lloyd Spencer Davis. Image copyright Caroline Barron 2015

I introduced penguin expert, Lloyd Davis, to a packed theatre at Auckland Art Gallery this morning. In the hands of a standard scientist, a life impacted at every turn by penguins may have had me stifling a yawn. But in the very non-standard hands of charismatic Lloyd Davis, the room is riveted.


Here’s the thing. Davis speaks of penguins as being caught “between worlds”. They mate and nest on land, but find their food in the ocean; all this without wings. Lloyd is also caught between two worlds: that of creative non-fiction writing, and science. He makes science interesting, and best of all, human. His voice cracks, as he draws to a close, speaking of the meaning of it all—the last pictures on the screen are of his three little chicks, two of whom are old enough to have flown (or waddled) the coop and one who’s still learning to (waddle).

Gregory O'Brien

Gregory O’Brien

My next introduction was poet Greg O’Brien, self-composed and jittery, who exploded the audience’s minds with a collage of rhythmic words and art; the product of his 2011 journey to the Kermadecs; on a ship sponsored by an environmental group, whose passengers included, amongst others, artists John Pule, Fiona Hall, Robin White and John Reynolds.

The author and poet Greg O'Brien. Image copyright Caroline Barron 2015

The author and poet Greg O’Brien. Image copyright Caroline Barron 2015

To have been on that ship was a life-changer, a spring from which creativity flowed. Astonishingly, these artists continue to create work inspired by this voyage. It is as if a tiny part of them is still out there on the HMNZS Otago, stripped down to their underwear and leaping into the ocean as they cross the Tropic of Capricorn.

“I realised you can’t tame grief. But I could tame a hawk” – Helen Macdonald.

From penguins to whales and finally, to a goshawk called Mabel. A few feet away at the signing desk Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawke, shakes her wrist and hugs the last of many fans. She wears slim-fitting black brocade pants I’ve seen in a publicity shot. Valleys of experience are etched on her pale face and on-stage she has a delightful way of peering at Noelle McCarthy from underneath her eyebrows that tells me she is absolutely heartfelt.


“Mabel is the superhero, I’m just the sidekick” – Helen Macdonald

I was fascinated by the religiosity of Macdonald’s connection with Mabel; particularly the quiet state she has learned to enter around Mabel, a state which renders her invisible to birds to the point she has had pigeons fly right into her face.

“Every time a hawk flies back to you it’s like the world is made anew” – Helen Macdonald

Road markings, white and yellow, guide me the few dark blocks home. I breathe the air’s molecules and think about penguins, whales and hawks, and the writers that stood beside them today. I’m not sure I’ve decoded anything but I will continue to breathe in the delicious scent of inevitability and coincidence that ripples through the Auckland Writers Festival.

Tomorrow: Tim Winton. Coffee with Anthea. And my my five-year-daughter’s school get-together at the local RSA.

Goodnight x

3 thoughts on “Auckland Writers Festival: Lloyd Davis, Greg O’Brien and Helen Macdonald

  1. So wanted to get to Sydney’s Writers Festival to hear/see Macdonald but couldn’t justify the trip. Loved her memoir so much, and bought the TH White book (haven’t read it though). I will read everything she publishes from now.


    • Macdonald was inspiring and so real. I am yet to read H is for Hawk but it is beside my bed (enormous stack) and I have given it as gifts. Can’t wait to get to Melbs next month!!


  2. Pingback: Arriving at the Mid-Point (and Other Tales from a Masters in Creative Writing Class) |

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