Salmon on pikelets, and $60,000 in loot: the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards

Three writers pocketed $60,000 last night at the Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement. Spinoff Review of Books literary editor Steve Braunias was there, apparently.

O 60 large! O three prizes of 60 large, handed out last night to the three esteemed winners of the 2018 Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement, at the prime minister’s own home in Wellington, Premier House – guests were stopped at the front gates, two were frisked. Twilight fell like a plate from a shelf and smashed into little pieces.

Inside, there were chandeliers but also cheap Lighting Direct halogen lights in the high ceilings. There were lush carpets. There were drapes as heavy as a sack of potatoes. The place was packed. The wine was flowing. It didn’t go off: no one was stoned, no one was pinging, the average age was 83 and in any case the only wine that flowed was sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. Not a drop of red! What year was it? 1987? Still, needs must, and a number of guests knocked back two or three glasses of white on an empty stomach. The food was slow in coming out. When it did, guests swooped and cawed like vultures.

“Oh look,” cawed a novelist, who last had a book published 30 years ago. “Little pikelets with salmon. The usual.” But that didn’t stop her from swooping.

A very fat retired civil servant who is always at these things filled his boots with scallops in bacon. He asked, “Is there more?”

“Not of those,” said a waitperson, “but would you like to try these?”

He carried a plate of chicken on bamboo. Another waitperson sailed past with a plate of round indefinable crumbed balls. No one wanted a bar of that, but the pig belly was thoroughly and greedily troughed.

Fiction winner Renée and “Jacinda Arhern”. Image: Creative NZ.

Everyone wore black. There was a pink couch behind the stage. A folded napkin had been placed beneath a chair leg to balance it. From down the hall, a man was shouting; if you strained, you could pick out the words “nappy” and “Jesus Christ”.

Fergus Barrowman was there, Dame Fiona Kidman was there, Linda Burgess was there. Tayi Tibble was there, and wore houndstooth; arts administrator Kathryn Carmody was there, and wore tartan. Ultimate arts luvvie Peter Biggs was there, flashing his cufflinks – they have JFK’s face on them. God almighty! Wellington mayor Justin Lester was there and he had his little girl with him. Adorable! Renée, one of the winners, came with her grand-daughter, Naomi Taylor. “Fox!,” said a graduate from the International Institute of Modern Letters, licking her lips.

An orderly queue formed of guests waiting to apologise to Louise O’Brien, co-editor of New Zealand Books, for being late with their promised reviews. “You’d be surprised at how often that happens!”, said Louise, but no one was surprised in the least.

And then, a commotion: the elderly struggled to their feet: eyes that were dimmed with years of solitude and disappointment began to brighten: a whisper flew around the room like a fast, colourful bird: “Jacinda!” The Prime Minister had arrived. Her face shone like a lantern, and her teeth were white as snow – but her body was surrounded by a baggy black blazer.

“Not as well turned out as she often is,” said a senior official from Creative New Zealand. “No feather cloak.”

“It’s not really the occasion, though,” said his companion, a librarian. “And that’s actually a designer baggy black blazer.”

“Are we here to talk about how she’s dressed, or are we here to honour what is essentially a lifetime award for three of our most distinguished authors,” said a bore from the culture and heritage ministry. He didn’t wait for an answer; he went looking for the scallops in bacon.

MC Kathryn Ryan from Radio New Zealand called for silence. She wore dark blue. She introduced Arts Council oompah-loompah Michael Moynahan. He wore dark blue. He thanked someone called “Jacinda Ahern”. Good old Jacinda Ahern! Nice of her to make it. The PM took the stage and made a speech. She said, reading from her notes: “If music is the soundtrack of our lives, then literature is our collective biography.” The guests nodded, sighed with pleasure. And then she strayed from her notes, and inprovised: “It acknowledges our failings. It beautifully acknowledges our failings.”

Bloody old Jacinda Ahern! Banging on about failure at a time like this – who wanted to hear that kind of talk? Everyone was in the room to celebrate success. Finally, the PM shut it, and Kathryn Ryan invited the three winners onto the stage.

Poetry winner Michael Harlow and “Jacinda Arhern”.

First, art writer Wystan Curnow, who ummed and ahhed for 15 minutes. Then playwright Renée, who spoke wonderfully well for eight minutes; she thanked many people, including the women “who got us all here in this Suffrage anniversary year – the women who cleaned Kate Sheppard’s house and did her ironing.” And then poet Michael Harlow spoke for five minutes, including the reading of one of his poems; afterwards, many guests declared that they were so very, very pleased Harlow would be featured in the year’s most eagerly anticipated poetry book, The Friday Poem: An anthology of 100 New Zealand poems, due soon from Luncheon Sausage Books.

The last person to leave was the bore from the culture and heritage ministry who had gone looking for more trays of scallops in bacon. He was frisked at the door. “Put them back,” said the man from the diplomatic protection squad.

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.

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