The Going West archive - Out of the box

In looking back over 22 years at the creation of the Going West Books & Writers Festival archive, it would be great to be able to say that it was a well-planned exercise, deliberately designed to create a record of the best, and sometimes eccentric, voices of our writers and thinkers. This is unfortunately not the case. The very existence of the archive was more, in the first year, a matter of serendipity and happenstance.

The very notion of a New Zealand writers festival out west, referencing Maurice Gee's novel Going West, was the brainchild of book seller and history lover, Murray Gray – with some substantial support from Mayor Bob Harvey. For 10 years it included a steam train adventure replicating the voyage captured by Maurice in his book and starring luminaries of the literary world. Just once we enticed Maurice up to the west and he read from Going West on the Henderson Rail Platform. What a moment that was!

Image: Maurice Gee reads at the Henderson Railway Station 1997. Photographer Gil Hanley, Going West Festival Collection, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, GOW-003.

The archive also includes audio, so you can listen to a short extract from Maurice’s speech.

But in 1996 when Going West staggered into life with a one-day writers festival in a freezing Corban Estate concrete warehouse and a trip by railcar, called prophetically 'Raising Steam', from Auckland to Helensville, with stop-offs for writers' readings and performance, there was not a skerrick of mental or emotional energy left for any thought of recording the voices for posterity. However, we did need good amplification and fell into the hands of one Dave Hodge who was a professional in sound production, mostly in the world of music concerts. At some point on that hectic first day he said to me in passing, 'Oh, by the way, I'm recording this on broadcast quality tape' – to which I replied, 'OK, that sounds good'.

Image: Sound engineer Dave Hodge (centre) with his sound crew 1996, Going West Festival Collection, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, GOW-003.

And so the archive was born to include a full audio record. Even in that first year, some iconic words were spoken; not the least being the opening words in Te Reo from Ngahuia Te Awekotuku. Later, Maurice Shadbolt, Dick Scott and Kevin Ireland on stage together doing a very good 'grumpy old men' act - each within grasp of a glass of whisky. And, by contrast, a trio of new women writers, at that point largely unknown; Stephanie Johnson, Deborah Daley and Emily Perkins. The contrast was delightful.

Image: The Literary Process - Debra Daley, Emily Perkins, Stephanie Johnson, 1996. Going West Festival Collection. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, GOW-003.

Image: Writing About Our Town, Kevin Ireland, Maurice Shadbolt, Dick Scott, 1996. Going West Festival Collection. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, GOW-003.

For the second year of the festival it was a no-brainer that we wanted the redoubtable Dave Hodge back, and so began a partnership that has lasted 21 years. Each year he recorded every word on broadcast quality tape; then CDs and latterly a whole festival on a memory stick! Each year he painstakingly cleaned and edited and gave me a perfect record of Going West.

So what was I to do with them? In a frantic work life as the Arts Manager for Waitakere City, I did the obvious; kept them in a cardboard box under my desk! Enter Robyn Mason. Someone tipped her off that I had a box of stuff that she would be interested in. I still recall the look of surprise and shock on her face when she saw my treasure trove and the casual conditions in which it was being kept. The relief for me of finding a home for what by then I realised was a national treasure, was enormous. The collection was originally gifted to Waitakere Library and Information Heritage services, known to many now as The West Auckland Research Centre in the super citified  Auckland Libraries - and the rest is – well, history.

Subsequent years of recording have been made possible by the generous support of Auckland Libraries who effectively have enabled Dave Hodge to keep recording at broadcast preservation standards. Auckland Libraries now hold 21 consecutive years of recordings and archives which are described through the Heritage Collections Online database.

The contents of the Going West archive are beyond description here. Just one aspect of it is that it holds the voices of some of our most honoured and prolific writers, now dead.

Maurice Shadbolt reading from One of Ben's; probably his last public appearance. Allen Curnow reading The Bells of St Babel just six days before he died. Michael King, rewriting and presenting  his keynote address four days after 9/11 – a stunning exposition on tolerance and forgiveness. Nigel Cox, entrancing us with his response to New Zealand on returning from Berlin. The marvellous Margaret Mahy tickling the audience with her delightful reading from The Illustrated Travellers Tale in 2000. This is but a fraction of what is there.

Auckland Libraries has done an enormous amount of work to make the archive accessible and available. There is, of course, always more to do. There are conversations underway as to how that might happen. In the fast speeding world of online and digital technology, the possibilities are mind-bending. But with all this, what remains at the heart of the matter is a collection of precious words that express the best of us as human beings.

In 2017 the Going West Books & Writers Festival takes place between 8 and 10 September. Go to to see the programme and book tickets.

Author: Going West Festival Trustee Naomi McCleary, with support from Auckland Libraries Principal Oral History and Sound Sue Berman.