I had tickets for a 10 o’clock session yesterday morning. One of the participants was prevented from being there by the Chinese government, and I was kept away by an act of vandalism (see previous post). There’s a photo of Liao Yiwu on a chair in the Gleebooks shop, but I got my whole body to Walsh Bay in time to spend a little money and queue successfully for
11.30 am: The Fascinator
Delia Falconer, Ashley Hay and Gail Jones have all recently written books set in Sydney. With Jill Eddington in the chair, the three of them – one a lifelong Sydneysider, one here since she was about 20, one a very recent arrival – chatted interestingly. Jill Eddington recommended reading all three in succession because the effect was like three movements in a piece of music. She imagined a movie that might be made of the three of them wandering the Harbour foreshores, going in and out of the Mitchell Library, walking in each other’s footsteps, almost meeting. The conversation that followed was a nice contradiction to the myth that writers are essentially in vicious competition with each other: Ashley Hay, for example, said that when her book was finally with the printer, reading Delia’s, which covered so much of the same territory but from a very different perspective, was like a special reward.
I tore myself away early, just as they were playing with possible readings if the session’s title: were we meant to think of the Harbour as a hat or an evil enchanter from a Margo Lanagan short story, or – the preferred option – both? I left reluctantly so as not to risk missing out on the Francis Webb session at 1 pm. This turned out to be a wise move, and brought a sweet bonus: I was hailed by a friend I hadn’t seen for 40 years, and while I kept one eye on the Webb queue we snatched a quarter of an hour to get reacquainted. When the growing queue vanished into the dark, we promised to follow up on Facebook, and I skedaddled to:
1 pm: The Lost Poetry of Francis Webb
This was in a much bigger venue than other poetry events, and we were told that it could have filled a space twice the size. It was one of a series of events around Australia to celebrate the recent publication of the UWA Collected Poems. The book’s editor, Toby Davidson, has organised and chaired the events, in which local poets read poems by Webb and speak briefly of their connections to him.
Toby D is a young man whose enthusiasm for his subject wouldn’t have shamed a revivalist preacher. He wants us all to read Webb, in solitude and aloud to our friends. He recommends the practice of carrying a book of his poems everywhere with us (which Bob Adamson told us later he actually does). He kicked things off by reading ‘Ball’s Head Again’. He didn’t read badly by any means, but he did demonstrate the difficulty of Webb’s verse and gave us a yardstick by which to judge the other readers.
By any measure they were all brilliant.
Judith Beveridge spoke of the texture of Webb’s language, its compression and richness, and read ‘Images in Winter’ and ‘For My Grandfather’.
Brook Emery quoted a speaker from an earlier session who referred to ‘songs that please the ear and songs that please the heart’ and said he would add ‘songs that please the mind’ – Webb’s poems, he said, are always reaching for meaning. He read ‘Night Swimming’, the first poem by Webb I ever read, when I was 24 or so, and ‘Nessun Dorma’.
Johanna Featherstone, easily the youngest of the poets, struck a blow against the view that Webb is a poet’s poet, read only by scholars and fellow poets. She takes poetry into correctional centres, where prisoners, possibly influenced by knowledge of his time in institutions, believe him. She read ‘The Runner’ and ‘Harry’.
Craig Powell, a psychiatrist in his day job, told a little story of his acquaintance with Webb when in a psych hospital in Melbourne. He read ‘Five Days Old’, prefacing it with the story of its creation: a psychiatrist in England took Webb on an outing, and asked him to hold his little baby for a moment. Powell almost spoiled the moment by asking with a snigger, ‘Who would hand their baby over to a certified chronic schizophrenic?’ But he gave us the poem with sound and heart and head. He also read ‘Hospital Night’.
Robert Adamson talked about the stigma of ‘mental illness’, quoting an eminent poet-critic-media-personality’s description of Webb as ‘the maddy’. When they met, Webb asked Adamson, ‘Are you a Communist?’ ‘Why?’ ‘The long hair.’ He read ‘Bushfire’, ‘Black Cockatoos’ and ‘End of the Picnic’. As a final comment he said that whereas a lot of discussion of Webb’s poetry focuses on his ‘mental illness’, the poetry itself is full of hope and lucidity.
The young Bulgarian woman sitting next to me said she’d loved the poetry, though there were many words she didn’t understand. Me too.
As I was on my way to the next session, I accosted Bob Adamson and said how much I’d loved his reading. He reached into his briefcase and gave me a book! So, dear reader, when someone does something that delights you, make a point of thanking them.
2.30 pm: The Merchants of Doubt
Naomi Oreskes’s eponymous book (can you say that?) is an exploration of the doubt-mongering techniques developed by the Marshall Institute in the US to defend vested interests against the implications of scientific research. They began with the connection between tobacco smoking and cancer, and progressed to a range of environmental issues, reaching some kind of peak with climate change They don’t have to lie (though they do anyway), but they do systematically create disinformation. She was in conversation with Robyn Williams, and they are clearly kindred spirits, science journalists passionately concerned about the current attacks on science.
I won’t try to summarise. Robyn recommended a BBC doco, Science Under Attack. In a neat echo of Adamson’s anecdote, he told of meeting one of the doubt-mongerers at a conference, and being asked of his journalist colleagues, ‘Are they all Communists?’
My main take-home point was that scientists (and, I would add, others) have a deeply held belief that the facts will speak for themselves. But this is manifestly not so on matters with big emotional charges on them.