Tag Archives: Alan Ramsey

My second full day at the SWF

I was off to Walsh Bay again for the day today.

10 : 00 Marie Munkara in conversation with Irina Dunn
I first heard of Marie Munkara’s Every Secret Thing on Will Owen’s blog last December, and it’s been on my To Be read list since then. If it hadn’t been, this session would have put it there, especially when she read the opening pages, beginning most memorably, ‘It had been a shit of a day for Sister Annunciata and Sister Clavier.’ Irina (full disclosure: she’s an old and dear friend) did a lovely job of drawing out Marie’s biography in relation to the book, giving her scope to be – miraculously –  funny about her experience as a member of the stolen generations meeting up at last with her Aboriginal family:

My mother was black. I was thinking, ‘That can’t be my mother. And you know how they say all black people look the same … I’d say, ‘Hello, Auntie,’ and my mother would say, ‘Don’t talk to her, she’s rubbish.’ I’d say, ‘But isn’t that Auntie …’ ‘No!’

When she was little her class at school had to draw a picture of what they wanted to be when they grew up. She drew a figure with a red cloak and a crown. Sister Damien said, ‘Marie, you can’t be a king.’ But young Marie insisted that that’s what she wanted to be, because a king has lots of money and can do what he wants. ‘Now,’ said Marie today, ‘I haven’t got much money but I do what I want.’

11 : 30  Terrorism: How to Win a Cosmic War – Reza Aslan talking to Tony Jones about the futility of the War on Terror
I am not a Tony Jones fan. Ever since his extraordinary performance interviewing Nicole Cornes on election night 2007, I have had trouble watching him interview anyone. But Reza Aslan’s articulate confidence was a match for his combative style, and their sparring was actually enjoyable. Reza Aslan distinguished between Islamism and Jihadism. Islamism, he says, is a form of nationalism seeking to establish an Islamic state in principle no more diabolical than a Christian state like Greece or a Jewish state such as Israel. Jihadism is anti-nationalist, seeking to establish planet-wide Islamic theocracy. He went on to say that Islamism is the answer to Jihadism: that if Islamists are able to participate in normal political processes, Jihadism will lose its recruiting grounds. It was a riveting presentation, and we bought his book.

13:00 to 14:00 Three Australias: Les Murray, Ali Cobby Eckermann and Kim Cheng Boey reading their poems, chaired by Rhyll McMaster
This was the only event I attended where I had to stand in one of the monster queues and for some reason receive a “Good work” stamp on my wrist. The readings were interesting. I was especially glad to hear more of Ali Cobby Eckermann’s work, having read only her long piece on the Intervention in the Best of 2009 collection. Kim Cheng read one of the poems he read on Friday morning, and it was a pleasure to hear it again. Les Murray, who was probably the reason this event was held in one of the bigger spaces, was as always Les Murray, and a good thing too.

Ali Cobby Eckermann acknowledged the Gadigal people, as Anita Heiss and Boori Prior did yesterday. I wonder if it was by formal decision that such acknowledgements were not made at any other events, at least none of those I attended. Whether deliberate or not, I think the festival was the poorer for the absence of such acknowledgements. I also missed the PEN chairs at paid events, and the brief explanation of the imprisoned writer each chair represented. There is a roped off area in the vast Heritage Pier populated by a dozen beautifully painted chairs and a soundscape. The chairs are to be auctioned to raise money for PEN, but that’s not the same as explicit acknowledgement of named individuals.

2: 30  Who’s Interviewing Who? Alan Ramsey and John Faulkner
These two – a retired journalist famous for his take-no-prisoners opinion pieces and the Federal Minister for Defence famous for his ineluctable pursuit of corruption – have been friends for 20 years or so. They told us in all seriousness that the reason the friendship has thrived for so long is that they never discuss politics. They then moved on to discuss politics, with some tense moments. They were very funny together. At one stage Ramsey left the stage to get the quotes he’d left somewhere. Faulkner continued in the role of interviewee.

17 : 30 The Big Reading: Hanan al-Shaykh, Willy Vlautin, Dubravka Ugresic, Natasha Solomons and Rupert Thomson
This was my last event for the festival. It was, as it always is, pleasant to be read to. In particular I loved being read to again by Rupert Thomson – and the tone of the extract he read from This Party’s Got to Stop couldn’t have been further from that of the one he read on Thursday morning. It must be an intriguingly complex book.

I had been planning to stay in the general area to hear Jennifer Maiden, David Brooks and Adam Aitken read. But the reading didn’t start until 9.30, and it was in a wine bar. As a non-drinker who is very often in bed by 10 o’clock, I found the deterrents outweighed the attractions. I had heard a little of Aitken and Brooks this week (though the latter hadn’t been reading his own work), and I decided with regret that I would have to forgo the great pleasure of hearing Jennifer Maiden.

The Festival’s slogan this year was Read, Rethink, Respond. There wasn’t a lot of space at the festival itself for responding (question times just don’t do it!), and for that matter not a lot of reading got done, at least by the punters. But I’ve come away with plenty to think about, and the world is full of opportunities to respond, and far too much waiting to be read.

Alan Ramsey at Gleebooks

When Alan Ramsey retired in December last year he left a gap in the Saturday morning ritual at our house. Reading his Sydney Morning Herald ‘column’ (usually a whole page) aloud, with all its grumpy vehemence, its aggrieved sense of history (he’d been writing from Canberra for more than 20 years), its long screeds quoted from other people, its telling glimpses behind the scenes at Parliament House, had become as habitual as poached eggs on Vegemite toast. To judge from the mood of the crowd last night at Gleebooks we weren’t unusual.

The occasion was the recent publication  by Allen & Unwin of A Matter of Opinion, a collection of 150 of his columns. If journalism is the first rough draft of history, I imagine this book will be an invaluable resource to historians of Australian politics, because Ramsey wrote without fear or favour, and did it with formidable intelligence and intelligence-gathering savvy. Last night he was ‘in conversation with’ Monica Attard. I suppose I had been hoping for some behind-the-scenes stuff, the goss as one woman put it – not who-did-what-with-whom-and-in-what-bedroom goss, but how-it-all-works-in-Parliament goss. Instead we got an hour or so of largely misanthropic and eminently crowd pleasing opinion (I count myself one of the pleased). Monica Attard started off setting up a game: ‘I’ll give you a name, and you give me one word in response.’ But Ramsey is probably physically incapable of a one-word response, and the ‘conversation’ consisted for the most part of Monica Attard and then audience members throwing him a name or a phrase and him ripping into it until he was thrown the next one: Bob Hawke (‘I couldn’t stand him, he was a narcissist, but he was the best Prime Minister of post-war Australia’), Kevin Rudd (‘a prim, prissy prick’), John Howard (‘Let’s move on’), Peter Garrett (‘Whatever you think of his performance, you have to realise that no one in his position would do any better, and he fights for what small victories he manages’), Peter Reith (‘one of Howard’s thugs’), the best politician he observed in his time in the press gallery (John Button, an excellent politician and an attractive human being), and so on.

It was all good fun, with frequent flashes of insight, but if you didn’t already know the broad story, there wasn’t a lot of information to help you orient yourself. And much of the game could easily have been renamed, ‘Say something definite to confirm my dislike of/contempt for X.’ I It was a relief when towards the end someone asked why he referred to asylum seekers as ‘queue jumpers’. ‘Because that’s what they are,’ he snarled, and just like that we’d moved beyond show-pony opinion to what could have become a heated debate if there’d been time. My impression was that Alan Ramsey welcomed that prospect.