[I originally put up this post in my old blog on 23 May 2005, but didn’t retrieve it when I moved to the WordPress platform. I’m republishing it now mainly because I’m about to write something about Ruby Langford Ginibi’s Haunted by the Past. The post also has a sadly ironic note from John Hughes, and a reminder that the late George Pell was on the nose in some quarters well before the child sexual abuse revelations. It’s also a reminder that the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards used to be presented at a slap-up dinner.]
Tonight the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards were announced at the traditional dinner in the Strangers’ Dining Room in Parliament House. I had been planning to go with my friend Moira, but she was ill, so after some phoning around I found a most satisfactory replacement in my young neighbour and budding writer Jack.
It was a fabulous evening, full of talk – speeches, conversation, argument – and celebrity spotting. Premier Bob Carr sang the praises of his Premier’s Reading Challenge, then undercut this necessary self-promotion by remarking that it was nice to be able to impose one’s values ‘in the nicest Stalinist way’ and going on to riff on the idea of flying banners all over Sydney’s bearing the Stalinist slogan: ‘Life has become better, comrades. Life has become merrier.’
The address for the evening was to be given by Amanda Lohrey, but she had been incapacitated by a fall, and her speech was read to us (with passion) by Susan Ryan. It was an apologia for secular liberal democracy, framed as a response to some remarks by Sydney’s Catholic cardinal George Pell. Where he had said that secular liberal democracy was empty of values, she argued that on the contrary it thrives on diversity and so is full. The speech did have the feel of an essay looking for a place to be aired rather than an address tailor-made for the occasion. But it was excellent to be reminded that the frisson of irritation that remarks like the Cardinal’s inspire in me can be the occasion for careful thought. (The phrase ‘to we liberal democrats’ did occur in the speech as given. I didn’t get hold of a written copy, so I won’t hold that syntactical atrocity against Ms Lohrey: it may have been Ms Ryan hyper-correcting her. I’m sorry to report, though, that I did not detect a shocked collective intake of breath from the audience.)
I was sitting at an awe-inspiring table. Apart from Jack and me and two other ancillary men, there were Nette Hilton, Wendy Michaels, Julie Janson and Ruby Langford Ginibi. Nette, Wendy and Julie were judges. Ruby, it turned out, received the special award, given each year as a kind of lifetime achievement award. I was sitting next to Ruby, and can report that she stays on message: she takes very seriously her calling to educate whitefellas about Aboriginal history, and she was full of information (about the two Aboriginal bowlers who dismissed Don Bradman for a duck; about the rolling back of Aboriginal education under the Howard government; about John Howard’s motives for refusing to apologise for the stolen generations; about the devastating and ongoing consequences of Aboriginal dispossession). She was also very funny, and I got to feel a little special because it fell to me to help her get various things – the envelope containing her speech, her glasses, a little photo album – out of the bag on the back of her wheelchair.
And as for the prizes, I was struck by the humility of most of the recipients. By that I mean that they gave the impression that their subject was more important than they were.
Gillian Cowlishaw, wispy grey-haired author of Blackfellas White fellas and the hidden injuries of race told of a conversation with two Aboriginal women in Burke:
Gillian’s friend: She wants to tape us for her book.
Sister of Gillian’s friend: If she want to tape me she’ll have to f***in’ pay me.
Gillian: If you want me to tape you, you’ll have to f***in’ pay me.
Gillian’s friend: Well, at least she’s learned the language.
Tony Kevin, awarded for A Certain Maritime Incident: the sinking of SIEV X, referred us to the web site on the subject and predicted that one day someone from Australia’s security institutions would break ranks and tell the truth about what happened: and only then would we know if what he has written is true or false. How’s that for humble?
Katherine Thomson, given a prize for her play Harbour, spoke about the waterfront skulduggery of not so long ago, and reminded us, as we hardly need reminding, that our industrial relations troubles are far from over. (I’m remembering the last moments of Bertolt Brecht’s play, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui: ‘Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.’) She told a funny story: when she first approached the Maritime Union of Australia to research the play, she went with an open mind and told them so. She was introduced to one group of wharfies like this:
This is Katherine. She’s writing a play about Patrick’s. It’s not necessarily going to be on our side, but that’s OK, because if it isn’t we know where she lives.
John Hughes, gonged for The Idea of Home: autobiographical essays, placed his book in relation to the Demidenko fake, and the way it did the dirty on, among other things, real stories of migration. He attributed his ability to complete it (at the rate of 20 pages a year) to the persistent encouragement he received from other people, especially Ivor Indyk.
Sherryl Clark, recognised for her verse novel for young readers, Farm Kid, used her moment at the mike to remind us of the tragedy unwinding in the country as the current drought continues.
Samuel Wagan Watson, who won the poetry award and the Book of the Year award for Smoke Encrypted Whispers, was modest in a different way. He said among other things that knowing he’s won the award but not being able to tell anyone made him look constipated to his friends; that writing poetry is a tough game – ‘Before I got published, you know, I used to be white.’
Steven Herrick (please note the spelling – we got it wrong in the magazine recently), receiving his second award, this time for By the River, showed us the medal and said that when he shows his other one to school students, there’s always someone who points out that it’s silver. In trying to convince them that he’s not a loser, he tells them that the premier gave him $15 000 as well as the medal. So, he said, when he leaves, his audience is probably left with the impression that he is a loser and Bob Carr is very rich.
Tim Winton, whose excellent The Turning was the only prize-winning book I’ve read, was brief, said with obviously genuine discomfort that he felt he had robbed the other writers on the shortlist of something, and then thanked many people, including, with a nod towards Amanda Lohrey’s speech, ‘the loyal, dogged, civilian reader’.
And on top of all that, I caught up ever so briefly with a number of friends, and did a little professional fence-mending, possibly some bridge-building. It was a terrific night. Jack said he had a good time too.
Posted: Mon – May 23, 2005 at 05:57 PM