By Ivor Wells

‘Australia and New Zealand to square off in death match!’

What comes to mind?

I’d tend to go with 90,000 people singing their hearts out to Jimmy Barnes at the MCG, or a sinking yacht, or underarm bowling, or tears of relief at Eden Park. I might think of the Bledisloe Cup with its distinctly Kiwi accent these days, or the Cricket World Cup grinning back at it from across the pond.

I’d tend not to think of answering questions about Nabakov and his butterflies, Mansfield’s cheeky tipples, Carey’s two-time Booker win or Joanna Lumley’s opinion of The Bone People.

But that’s how it rolls if the Oz-NZ showdown is a Literary Death Match: the wicket a microphone, the goal posts a 7-8 minute time slot, the muddy ball either slam poetry or polished prose.

Forget sucking on an orange peel at half time, mate. Tuck into a madeleine Prousty!

And so it came to pass that four writers from both sides of the Tasman did square off in the atmospheric chapel at King’s College:

Never before, and probably never again, will I laugh so hard at a literary character – Paul Ewan’s half-pissed alter-ego – making light chit chat with Margaret Atwood from inside a cage.

In a brilliant series of poems Selina Tusitala Marsh single handedly subverted the white colonial male gaze of Gaugin with such magnetic panache I eventually had to avert my own.

Duncan Sarkies’ short story about an attempted escape from an old person’s home during a performance of Annie was as surreal and unnerving as it was deeply moving.

And with eloquence and clarity, rapper and slam poet Omar Musa did to the cult of ANZAC Day what Public Enemy did to 911.

They were all presided over by MC and Literary Death Match founder, Adrian Todd Zuniga, an American dressed in a three piece suit that was so tweed T.S. Eliot would have been like, ‘Dude.’

Let’s not forget the judges too:

Novelist and theatremaker, Stella Duffy’s south London/south Waikato credentials were perfectly suited to defending both the fiction of Janet Frame and Brixton’s chicken shops.

Aussie comedian Sarah Kendall’s limitless knowledge of film allowed her to compare every performance to well-known Australian actors. In particular, her comments on Al Pacino in the Godfather I really should have written down.

And Tim Fitzhigham is just plain mad. This is a bloke who rowed a paper boat down the Thames, a bathtub across the English Channel and broke the world record for the longest washing line. Come to think of it, I couldn’t think of anyone more suited to the occasion. He performed admirably, even if he was speaking Klingon half the time.

I have no idea what happened next.

Something about judges conferring, people leaving the stage and volunteers being called up to form words using large cards with letters on them.

It was a game of several halves. We laughed. We had a good old laugh, we really did.

But basically Selina won and everyone was happy because everyone’s a winner, right?

No high tackles. No sin bins. Nice one, Down Under.

Yet the cherry was really placed atop the pavlova just after we’d all stopped clapping, when the house lights went up and the DJ put some music on. It was a tune I hadn’t heard in years, but it was so familiar we all seemed to do a double take.

I felt a nostalgic lump rising in my throat.

Oh look, this is awkward.

It’s not as if I like the song. I just, you know, wasn’t expecting to hear it.

And the death match was finally over, and we were all mates again, and it was kind of lovely.

Do I really have to name the song?

Look, let’s just say that wherever we are in the world, everyone needs good Neighbours.


Ivor Wells is a London-based Kiwi/Brit hybrid who grew up in NZ, Australia, USA and Germany. He writes a blog called ‘Pacific Londoner’ about his travels, reading and musings.

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