Last year a woman premier presented the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards at the Art Gallery. Tonight a non-Labor premier, just as rare a beast in the 10 of these dinners I’ve been to, did it at the Opera Point Marquee, which makes up in spectacular views what it lacks in works of art. It also has seagull cries, the occasional rumble of a ferry and what someone said was the atmosphere of a country wedding reception.
Aunty Norma Ingram welcomed us to country eloquently and instructively. Among other things she spoke briefly about the Metropolitan Lands Council. She stumbled over the phrase ‘legislated responsibility’, and said to someone at the table right in front of her, ‘You say it, Malcolm!’ thereby ensuring that we all noticed the Grand Old Politician of the evening.
Jennifer Byrne was the MC, and did a beautifully bossy job, a welcome change from the public service mode of the last couple of years.
Anita Heiss gave the address. ‘I don’t write for the glamour,’ she said, and right on cue a photographer popped up in front of her. Without missing a beat, she said, ‘No, take me from the left, it’s my better side,’ then vamped a little when he scurried to do her bidding. She then delivered a passionate call for responsibility, respect, integrity and courage among writers. Incidentally, she foreshadowed two of the awards by mentioning her debt to Libby Gleeson for mentoring her at the beginning of her writing career, and her friendship with Alex Miller (whose Landscape of Farewell includes a character who is recognisably modelled on her).
The first lot of awards were presented by the Minister for the Arts, George Souris, the Premier himself being at a community forum in Western Sydney. We were to hear quite a bit about Western Sydney in the course of the evening. Almost immediately, in fact, the Minister announced the first Western Sydney Literary Fellowships, which will involve mentoring young people in the West. He also foreshadowed the appointment in July of a City Poet. If you’re reading this before the paper this morning, you’ll have read it here first.
The first actual physical presentation was the initial NSW Writer’s Fellowship, not properly speaking an Award as it’s for work that’s not yet done. It went to Emily Maguire. As we moved on to the awards proper, we were told that for the first time ever the winners hadn’t been notified in advance. Somehow the knowledge that every short-listee had had to decide whether to craft an acceptance speech that might remain forever unheard, or on the other hand run the risk of standing up inarticulate in front of this crowd, made the stakes seem higher. So:
The UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing: Stephen Daisley – Traitor
A win for the tieless! Stephen Daisley confined himself to thanking the right people, but his unassuming check shirt and comfortable trousers spoke eloquently of the non-glitzy nature of a writer’s life.
The Community Relations Commission Award: Ouyang Yu – The English Class
Though the night was young, Ouyang Yu apologised for being unsteady on his feet. What alcohol he’d drunk didn’t stop him from an elegant dig at the publishers – too many to count – who had rejected his manuscript.
The Play Award: Patricia Cornelius – Do Not Go Gentle…
As Jennifer Byrne read out the shortlist of this award, each name was cheered from one corner of the marquee. This set a precedent for the rest of the evening, but when Patricia Cornelius reminded us of last year’s ‘tragedy’, when no play award was given, we realised that those particular cheers weren’t so much partisan as the expression of an All For One And One All For All ethos among playwrights.
The Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry: Jennifer Maiden – Pirate Rain
I’d read and enjoyed three of the six contenders on this one. As a Jennifer Maiden fanboy, I couldn’t have been happier with the decision. JM’s back makes it agony for her to attend events like this so Ivor Indyk, publisher of Giramondo, accepted for her. She’d given him a speech to read out, which he said was almost impossible for him to do because it was so full of praise for her publisher. He managed to give us at least part of it all the same, in which she said that all poetry is political. It’s probably not insignificant that she lives and works in Western Sydney.
The Script Writing Award: Debra Oswald – Offspring
I’d seen four of the six shortlisted works for this (Hawke, Offspring, East–West 101, Cape Solitary), and didn’t envy the judges who had to choose among them. Debra Oswald told us that as she’d seen bodies on slabs on TV night after night, the thought had occurred that there was room for other primal forces such as birth, and corgis.
Jennifer Byrne allowed us to talk to each other at this point and the main course arrived. (I had the meat, served not on a trencher but on elegant china, but I’m not changing this entry’s clever title to suit such a trivial fact.) Then back to business.
The Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature: Cath Crowley – Graffiti Moon
Cath Crowley, who seemed nice, did the minimalist thing in accepting.
The Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature: Sophie Masson – My Australian Story: The Hunt for Ned Kelly
In my previous existence I published original work by three of the six shortlisted writers in The School Magazine, Sophie Masson among them, and I’ve loved books by two others. Any one of the five could have won and I would have been thrilled. Sophie told us that she arrived in Australia aged 5 without a word of English, read about Ned Kelly when she was 9, and now has written the first children’s novel about him.
The Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction:
Malcolm Fraser and Margaret Simons – Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs
‘There’s the headline in tomorrow’s Herald,’ said the chap on my left. Malcolm and Margaret made a nice double act. She assured us that she never threw darts at the picture of him pinned to the dartboard in her shared house in the 80s. He told a story of voting for the Labor candidate in a long ago Victorian election, thereby deftly undercutting two potential narratives – the longstanding one that he had departed from inflexible conservatism only after 1983, and the one that would link the award to the recent triumph of the Coalition on NSW.
The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction: Alex Miller – Lovesong
Wasn’t this the guy who complained last year that there were too many literary prizes? Tonight he was gracious.
The Translation Prize: Dr Ian Johnston.Dr Johnston (it’s a medical title) translates from Classical Chinese and Greek. If there was an award for best acceptance he would have won it. Referring to the eminent translator from Spanish who complained recently that the art of translation wasn’t sufficiently honoured, he proclaimed his preference for unobtrusiveness, even anonymity, and thanked the organisers, deadpan, for having included all the shortlists except the one for this prize in the little booklets given to guests. He pointed us to the video screen behind him: ‘I’m the one on the left. The other one is my lovely dog. He died a little while ago.’
The Premier had now returned from the West, and took the podium to present the remaining awards. But first he assured us that he valued the arts. In keeping with tradition, he let his guard down a little, saying that he found in books an escape from the tensions of his work – they helped him go to sleep at night. After this dubious tribute, he regained ground by saying that he found something a little erotic in sitting in an audience being read to. ‘There are many things I’ve regretted saying in my political life,’ he said, ‘and I know I’m going to regret that, but there’s something about the smell of the canvas at those Adelaide Festival Writers tents …’ He sang the praises of his two local bookshops and moved on to the business of giving away cash and kudos.
Book of the Year: Malcolm and Margaret returned to the podium for Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs
‘I should tell you,’ Margaret said, ‘ that when we read the judges’ notes describing the book as unexpectedly engaging, Malcolm laughed like a drain. He is completely engaging.’ Malcolm again paid tribute to Margaret’s contribution: ‘It couldn’t have been written without her. But then it wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t existed.’
The People’s Choice Award: The people agreed with the judges – Alex Miller got the gong for Lovesong. This time he used his moment at the podium to recommend that we read Ouyang Yu’s book.
The Special Award: Libby Gleeson
In a break from past practice, the recipient of this award had been kept as much in the dark as the other recipients. It couldn’t have gone to a better person than Libby, author of more than 20 children’s books, mentor of many, one-time president of the Australian Society of Authors, tireless meeting-attender, activist, lobbier for writers, literature, readers. But I don’t do all that stuff out of a sense of obligation,’ she said. ‘I enjoy it. You can’t spend all day every day sitting at a computer waiting for the next idea.’ And she too put in a word for Western Sydney, mentioning the Western Sydney Young People’s Literature Project, soon to be renamed Westwords.
Then we had tiny eccles cakes.