SWF: History, Memoir, panels

The Sydney Writers Festival is now in full swing. I’ve managed to go to two events in the last two days, both of them excellent.

The first, cheerily titled ‘Swindlers, Doctors and Nationalists’, was held late yesterday afternoon in the Macleay Museum at Sydney University. Anyone who got bored could contemplate the huge object in the front corner of the room, probably the cast of a dinosaur’s skull. But it wasn’t the kind of event where  such distraction was needed. On the contrary, the three historians on the panel pretty much fitted Mark Twain’s famous remark about Australian history in Following the Equator:

It does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies; and all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones. It is full of surprises and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.

The panel was elegantly chaired by Jude Philp, senior curator of the Macleay Museum. She asked each of the panellists to introduce their books, then invited each of them to speak in turn to maybe three or four questions, a round on each question. I mention this format, because I’ve been to some deadly panels where the time is divided into blocks, one for each participant, and there’s very little opportunity for interaction. That wasn’t a problem here – possibly it helped that all three historians are in the same History Department. The first two were Penny Russell (Savagery and Civility: A History of Manners in Colonial Australia) and Kirsten McKenzie (A Swindler’s Progress: Nobles and Convicts in the Age of Liberty), both doing the kind of colonial history that an acute filmmaker could make brilliant use of: comedies of manners just waiting to be made (it was widely insisted that the colonies should cleave to English standards of behaviour, but ideas of what those standards were varied dramatically), tales of intrigue, fraud, and idealism.  The third was James Curran, whose book The Unknown Nation, co-written with Stuart Ward, deals with the period in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Australia’s British-based identity had been pulled out from under it and we were hunting around for a new sense of what it means to be Australian.

Then this morning, the fourth day of my festival, at last I reached the Harbour. Wharf 2/3 was humming, and I arrived just in time for a session on Creative Memoir featuring Ali Alizadeh (Iran: My Grandfather) and Rupert Thomson (This Party’s Got To Stop) talking to editor, novelist and blogger Sophie Cunningham. Again, it was excellently done. Sophie had obviously read and enjoyed both books, and other things written by both authors. They each read – well doing the voices – and then she asked a couple of questions that enabled them to talk interestingly about choices they’d made in writing the books, about how the people who feature in them feel about their family linen being aired in public. Did you know that in the UK you’re legally required to get written permission to publish a book in which you give information about someone’s private life, not because of possible libel suits, but as a result of privacy legislation?

I went to this session because I’ve enjoyed Ali Azadeh’s poetry. To judge from the passage he read to us, he is also a prose writer to be savoured.

I’m off to an excellent start. The plan is for tomorrow to be my first full day: at the Wharf by half past nine in the morning, and home from the Town Hall about half past seven at night.

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