Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Weekend

The best laid plans etc. I was going to blog about the SWF daily, but it turned out that though I only got to one event on Saturday I still had no time to write about it then or on Monday or Tuesday, so here are my days 3 and 4 all mooshed up.

Saturday returned to the cloudless sky that’s traditional for the festival. The average age of the punters dropped by about 20 years, but the crowds at Walsh Bay didn’t seem to be any worse.

My day started with the half past two session, Shami Chakrabarti: WOW at Sydney Writers’ Festival Lecture. WOW, ‘Women of the World’, is a big feminist festival held annually at London’s Southbank Centre. There were a number of WOW events at this festival, a kind of taster-festival within the festival, and a friend I met at quarter past two or thereabouts had been wowed at one of them in which a number of women spoke for ten minutes each (there’s a nice blog post about that one on Guys Read Gals).

The 2.30 session was a tepid affair. Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre and founder of WOW, gave a long and  promising introduction – introducing herself as a very senior arts administrator, WOW as a feminist festival unlike any other in the world, and Shami Chakrabarti as her friend and a foremost human rights activist in the UK. ‘Why Women of the World rather than Feminists United?’ she asked, and I honestly thought she was going to say, ‘Because Wow! is so much more attractive than Eff you!’ Sadly no: she explained that it was because the word feminist had such a bad rep and they wanted to attract as many people as possible. This explanation enraged one of my companions, who also bridled at Jude’s admittedly eccentric suggestion that the men in the audience should consider themselves to be women for the occasion. Neither of those things particularly distressed me, but I could understand.

Then Shami Chakrabarti spoke. The same friend told me later that Ms Chakrabarti is a brilliant and heroic activist, who often appears on British TV and is completely formidable, someone you are very glad to have on your side. That wasn’t evident from this speech. She started off saying that in her view gender rights is the most important human rights issue in the world today – she hadn’t always thought so, but she now does. But instead of giving the reasons for her change of mind – arguing, for example, that no other human rights abuse can be adequately addressed unless women’s issues are also addressed – she just repeated the assertion, listed off a number of appalling statistics and atrocities, gave us a timeline of the gaining of important rights by women in Australia and the UK respectively (a part of her talk that someone said afterwards sounded like notes she had taken in preparation for visiting Australia, failing to realise that a Sydney audience might already know, for example, that women had the vote here 20 something years before Britain). Towards the end, she said, ‘It’s not my place to tell you what you should be doing in this country …’, and it struck me that that may have been the problem: as a citizen of London she was trying so hard not to be condescending to us ex-colonials that she ended up not saying anything much. Or maybe she was just jet-lagged.

Whatever, I think I picked the wrong WOW event. I do wonder if at I’m a Feminist – Can I Vajazzle? Jude Kelly invited the men in the audience to consider themselves as women.

I tried to get into the 4 o’clock Marathon Poetry Reading, but if the room holds 100 people, I was 102 in line. I tried to sit in the sun and listen: the ear was willing but the bum was sore and I got a cramp. So I went and sat and read until I could meet up with my companions who had gone to hear Bob Brown on the Future of Activism, where the reciprocal passion so absent from the WOW talk was by all accounts there in spades – even though he kept pointing an accusing finger at his audience and telling them that come September they were about to vote against their own interests and the interests of their children.

Sunday was another brilliant day – I speak mainly of the weather and the way it was possible to strike up an interesting conversation with compete strangers.

We started with Sylvia Nasar: Is the West Over and What Would Keynes say? at 10 o’clock, probably my most worthily motivated event of the festival. As is often the case, the conversation bore very little relation to the title of the session. It was mainly a promotion of Sylvia Nasar’s book, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius, which tells the history of economics through the lives of its key practitioners, and argues that economics is responsible for transforming the possibilities for human wellbeing. As one of my companions remarked afterwards, if the book is as facile as this session, it’s a good one to skip. Her responses to two questions at the end are indicative of that facileness.

A young woman, after a courteous squee about having a woman discuss economics, asked how Ms Nasar’s account of the vast benefits brought to humanity by economics related to the imminent threat from global warming. Ms Nasar said that many problems had been solved in the past and there was plenty of time so she was optimistic that economics would solve this one too. She probably didn’t mean that we should just place our faith in neoliberalism, but she could have meant that, and evidently didn’t see any need to dissociate herself from that view. Then someone asked what she saw as the importance of Amartya Sen. This question might well have been a chance to distance herself from the neoliberal world view, and perhaps come at last to the advertised theme of the session; instead she told us how she had followed ‘Amartya’ around in India for weeks when writing the book, and been struck by the way his photo appeared constantly on the front page of newspapers there – that in India economists could be treated as rockstars are in her native USA. End of reply.

Sylvia Nasar wrote A Beautiful Mind, the book about economist John Nash that was made into the excellent movie with Russell Crowe, so she’s clearly done better than this. Maybe she was jet-lagged too.

I dashed to the scene of my unsuccessful queuing on Saturday, and this time I was among the last five people admitted – to stand at the back of the room for Research and Writing. This session turned out to be a lot of fun. The panel was the winner and two shortlisted authors for the 2012 Nib Waverley Library Award for Literature: Jane Gleeson-White (Double Entry: How the merchants of Venice shaped the modern world – and how their invention could make or break the planet), Robin de Crespigny (The People Smuggler: The true story of Ali Al Jenabi, the ‘Oscar Schindler of Asia’) and Fiona Harari (A Tragedy in Two Acts: Marcus Einfeld & Teresa Brennan). They were billed as talking about their approaches to research, and that’s what they did.

If there was a common thread, it is that each of their books began with the discovery of an interesting person, and none of them knew when they started what the book was going to be about. Jane Gleeson-White (who incidentally had just done a fine job as Sylvia Nasar’s amiably sceptical interlocutor) started out writing about the Viennese Monk Luca Bartolomes Pacioli, intimate of Leonardo and teacher of Dürer, and had to be told by her editor that she had actually written a history of accountancy. Robin de Crespigny set out to make a film about people smuggling, but was so captivated by Ali Al Jenabi that it had to be a book and, evidently, an enduring friendship. Fiona Harari began with questions about Marcus Einfeld, the eminent former judge who perjured himself over a speeding offence and ended up disgraced and in gaol, intending to devote just one chapter to Teresa Brennan, the deceased person he had claimed was the speeding driver, but expecting hostility from Einfeld’s friends and family she decided to write the Brennan part first, only to discover a whole rich story there. The panellists enjoyed themselves and each other, and a good time was had by all.

Fiona Harari said that Teresa Brennan was famous for telling outrageous lies for the fun of it – she had convinced Sir Gustav Nossal that she was planning to become a nun. As I’d relayed on this blog something I was told by Teresa when I met her in 1976, I used question time to ask if I’d been sold a pup: but no, it’s on record that, among many other improbabilities, she had indeed been a publicist for Barry Humphries and it was quite plausible that she had written jokes for Edna.

My final event was Karl Ove Knausgaard in conversation with Sarah Kanowski. I’d nearly finished the first book in his six volume novel My Struggle, A Death in the Family, which we’ll be discussing at my Book Group, and which I’ll write about here after the meeting. So this session was like homework. All homework should be so mesmerisingly interesting.

Sarah Kanowski seemed to have read everything Karl Ove had written, some of it at least twice. She pronounced his name as if she had been speaking Norwegian all her life, and was right up there with Ramona Koval in establishing a warm rapport with her interviewee. Karl Ove said that shame is the dominant emotion in Norwegian culture and these books set out to name things that are simply not talked about: drunkenness and incontinence, but also mistreatment of children and sexual matters. When he was writing the novel he couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to read it, and now he is alarmed to think there are more than 500 thousand people who know all about his sexual inadequacies. He claimed that when he finished speaking to us he would go off by himself and vomit with shame. Was it just me, or would everyone in the room have been willing to hold him by the shoulders while he vomited?

I hadn’t been sure I would read on past the first book, even though I was exhilarated by it. Now it looks as if I won’t be able to resist reading the whole 2000+ pages. Evidently the final book is a 400-page essay about Adolf Hitler. Can you believe I’m looking forward to it?

So that was my festival. We didn’t get to the Big Read, a highlight of previous festivals, because its new time slot was in working hours. I’ve subscribed to the podcast of  ABC Radio National’s pale shadow of the Book Show so as to hear some of the sessions I missed. I’ll happily advise people devising sessions to think in terms of readings and conversations rather than delivery of papers or rambling discourse. I recommend anyone travelling to Sydney to time it so you can attend, especially if it continues to overlap in time and location with the Vivid Festival (about which I’ll blog a little tomorrow).

2 responses to “Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Weekend

  1. I was speaking to an old, old friend (Fernbank St) last night about your beautifully written blog entries – the words, the descriptions, the poetry – all flowing so amazingly and enlighteningly – this entry to-day again so personal and warm and expressive! Two comments: (a) 30 years ago in a Gender-awareness seminar for secondary teachers (almost all women) led by Dale SPENDER. Half-a-dozen men. I’d been invited by one of the women. To demonstrate the way in which language placed people/gender – Dale addressed the women – and the “boys”! Nice one, I remember thinking! (b) I watched “Q and A” with Tony JONES last week. William DALRYMPLE with his passion and insights on the British invasion/war with Afghanistan of 1839-1842 – and Mike CARLTON (his three years as a Viet-nam war correspondent important to his presence – and sitting alongside him – Sylvia NASAR – whose inarticulate stutterings about the Viet-nam War and the US withdrawal unleashing a genocide, she said – had most viewers – certainly Mike CARLTON and me at home – with jaws dropping to the floor. Well, said Mike – no, no genocide! Oh, well, returned Sylvia, Cambodia! But spluttered Mike – that was the consequence of US bombing of that poor benighted land… Who is this woman? I wanted to know. Glad I had not set aside time at the festival for her on the basis of “A Beautiful Mind” (the movie, really)! I googled her and read the Wikipaedia entry – all economics, apparently. I remain unimpressed. Thank-you.

  2. Thanks for the publicity, Jim. Dale Spender was at the Festival too, at of all things the Vajazzle event,. That’s interesting about Sylvia Nasar on Q&A.

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