If you volunteer at the Festival and you’re also a student, you’ve made a mistake. You will think: Three shifts. I can do three shifts. After your first shift, you will visit the bookshop. You will spend money you had planned to save on books by people you have heard of (but only just). Then you will look at the programme, for the fifteenth time but properly for the first. You will decide that despite what you thought last month, you actually do have time for the session of author readings. You have time for Chris Riddell’s simultaneous chatting and doodling. You have time for the music critic, the #MeToo debate. On Sunday night you take off your enthusiastic orange volunteer t-shirt, worn three times and not washed, and you sit down and cry. You write your presentation for your Monday 9AM class. You regret sending that email asking for volunteer shifts. You wonder why you were ever so keen.
I recommend it.
On Tuesday morning I eat my breakfast on the bus. Today is the first day of the Festival, which means that the Aotea Centre will open its many, confusing doors to children aged 9-12. It also means that the volunteers’ most important task will be to make sure that these children do not climb all over the Hyundai parked thoughtfully in the foyer and stuffed with books.
The children are great. They are excited, they queue properly, and if they are disappointed they do not stay so for long. I stand behind the information desk from nine in the morning till three in the afternoon, and my biggest challenge is the thirty seconds I spend consoling a child whose sparkly silver phone has gone missing. In the time it takes me to record the details of said sparkly phone, it has been found.
Tuesday is a good day. It is a warm and lovely thing when children realise that their favourite artists and authors live in the same world they live in – that they are allowed to grow up and do the same thing. Even though at least three of the boys in the signing queue nicked books out of that Hyundai.
I don’t have another shift until Friday but this evening I use my volunteer tag to get into the Chris Riddell session for free. He is a good talker. He tells us that he went to school with Fatboy Slim, when Fatboy Slim called himself Quentin. He draws a lion.
Thursday is one of the days on which I am required to attend class, a rare moment in my sparse postgrad schedule. On Friday, though, I return to the Aotea Centre. Today I am rostered to assist backstage at the Herald Theatre. To get to my post I walk past every dressing room, through three sets of heavy doors, and into a purple-lit apocalypse bunker. It is nice here; there’s a couch. All I really have to do, for my whole shift, is pour water for the performers, smile at them as they wait, and mop the floor of chalk after they have done their thing. After a few hours of such hard work, I climb out of my dark cave and descend the linoleum stairs for a pastry. The green room food is mostly sugar-based and it pleases me.
With an apricot custard something in my fist, I walk through the backstage doors into the foyer, lanyard swinging, as if I am important. This is the only way I can get through the crowd, because I am five feet tall. I am walking quickly because I really, really want a seat at ‘Mining a Life’, a reading session with Karl Ove Knausgaard, Catherine Chidgey, Anna Livesey, and Durga Chew-Bose. I have heard greatnesses about all these writers, and of course they deliver on my expectations. Chidgey is funny; Chew-Bose is gentle, her images clear and strange; Livesey is as brave as any of the best poets, her lines shining; and Knausgaard, though stern, is as perfect as any of his sentences.
I am tired of wearing my volunteer t-shirt and pretending to know the answers to strangers’ questions, but this session fills my writing brain right up to the top. I buy books, I get them signed. I go to Jenny Zhang’s session and do the same – and in her signing queue she talks to us all, individually, for an unreasonable length of time. ‘I love meeting poets’, she says to me, when I have been silly enough to tell her that that is what I call myself. I doubt her. Who really likes a poet? It’s still nice to hear.
From two until seven, I stand outside various doors to the ASB theatre, checking tickets, giving directions, disappointing fussy attendees who refuse to sit in their allocated seats because ‘the stalls are too low to the ground and I don’t like to sit there.’ I smile, far too much. But I suppose it is not the worst job: I get into sessions for free, and I take advantage of this perk to listen to Shashi Tharoor for an hour. I do not know who he is, but I learn, and he is wise and generous and funny. I’ve realised that the best authors make you want to read more, give you more questions. They don’t presume to be the final full-stop in a genre, on an issue, of a historical era.
This has been my final shift, and I am tired. I am tired of books and I don’t want to talk about them anymore. This feeling lasts for half an hour and then it leaves me, replaced by the excitement that comes with newly bought books and newly met authors and the freedom, at last, from having to direct Festival attendees to the Lower NZI Room.
Volunteering is exhausting, but I’ll do it again. I’ll keep the t-shirt. Nothing much compares to running into Karl Ove Knausgaard backstage and realising, truly, how short you are when you stand next to him.