[Retrieved from 18 May 2009]
Tonight writers, translators, illustrators, publishers, agents and fans put on their glad rags and turned up for a glittering evening in the Art Gallery. The occasion was the annual NSW Premier’s Literary Awards dinner. This year’s dinner cost $15 more than last year’s.
In previous years the dinner has been organised by staff of the Ministry of Arts. This year it was in the hands of the Department of Arts, Sport and Recreation. The transition was seamless, though there was a slightly awkward moment when the Department’s Director General, who was our MC, said we were doing very well for an arts event and only running half an hour late. There was no hiss of indrawn breath, but I did think it indicated she was much more familiar with sporting events than with arty ones, where my experience has been there is an obsession with punctuality. And at times, as she urged us to resume our seats after a break, her tone was reminiscent of what one would hear over the loudspeaker at, say, a netball tournament. But these were amusing foibles that in no way took away from the pleasure of the evening.
Nathan Rees, more famous for his stint as a garbo and for having inherited a train wreck of a government than for his Eng Lit Hons degree and likeability, gave the impression that he was much happier here than in the bearpit of politics. In his welcome (which followed Aunty Sylvia Scott’s Welcome to Country, in which she said, ‘Your books let me travel’), he spoke of his own passion for books, and told us that some left him cold, surely a mark of a genuine book lover. And he said, interestingly, ‘The examined life is only ever the turn of a page away.’
This was the thirtieth year of the awards, and there was slightly more reminiscence than usual. Neville Wran, the first Premier of the Literary Awards, was there and gave a brief talk on their genesis. Success has many parents, he reminded us, but failure is always an orphan. Of the many people who have claimed m/paternity of these awards, he assured us in his ruined voice, the one who could truly claim parenthood was his wife Jill, who insisted that Sydney should have a writers’ festival distinguished by literary awards. He mentioned the legendary Night of the Bread Rolls in 1985 when the guest speaker Morris West was pelted with bakery products. I’d heard that it was because he droned on. One of my dinner companions was there on that night, and he assured us that it was because the literary types were envious of Morris West’s best-seller status.
Marieke Hardy, of Reasons You Will Hate Me, gave the Address, with a tattoo on each shoulder and a large red flower behind one ear. She spoke of Twitter and quoted Stephen Fry to good effect. In the past, I’ve referred to these dinners as the Oscars of the introverted. Marieke went several steps better and, referring to booklovers out and proud, called it ‘our Mardi Gras’.
As in past years, it’s my pleasure to list the winners with random observations:
The UTS Prize for new writing: Nam Le, The Boat
There’s no short list for this prize, so the announcement was a bit of a surprise. It’s a wonderful book. The award was accepted by Nam Le’s publisher, who read out a short speech Nam had sent him from Italy.
The Gleebooks Prize for an outstanding book of critical writing: David Love, Unfinished Business: Paul Keating’s interrupted revolution
Nathan ‘s script described this as an accessible account of important economic matters. I’m afraid I didn’t understand a word of the brief acceptance speech after the initial ‘This is one for the true believers!’
The Community Relations Commission Award : Eric Richards, Destination Australia: migration to Australia since 1901
Eric Richards spoke of how Australia’s immigration program has been an outstanding success, yet has been and is still a cause of widespread anxiety. He was expecting the book to provoke ‘historical warfare’, but so far there has been none.
The Translation Prize and PEN Trophy: David Colmer
He seems to be a nice man – he translates from Dutch.
The Play Award: Daniel Keene, The Serpent’s Teeth
I saw the STC production of these plays, and was less than impressed by the production, though the plays as written seemed to be marvellous. I approve.
The Script Writing Award: Louis Nowra and Rachel Perkins and Beck Cole, First Australians
In announcing this prize the Premier said, quite rightly, that it was hard to go past this show, but then he went and spoiled the moment by feminising Mr Nowra’s first name. When Rachel Perkins took the mike she pointed out the error. Our Nathan looked suitably abashed, and Louis clearly couldn’t help himself: ‘How long do you plan to stay in government?’ he asked, trying to make it sound good-natured. Ow!
The Kenneth Slessor Prize for a book of poems or for a single poem of substantial length published in book form: LK Holt, Man Wolf Man
Possibly intimidated by the compere’s reminders of the importance of being brief, LK Holt simply thanked her publisher and took her prize. She did stand at the microphone long enough to enable those of us close enough to read the enigmatic tattoo on her left shoulder: ‘MCMLXN’.
The Ethel Turner Prize for a work written for young people of secondary school level: Michelle Cooper, A Brief History of Montmaray
At this stage I began to feel very under-read.
The Patricia Wrightson Prize for a work for children up to secondary school level: Ursula Dubosarsky & Tohby Riddle, The Word Spy
And then I started to feel like an insider again. Tohby and Ursula have both worked at The School Magazine. I read this book in its first incarnations as a series of columns in the magazine, and I was sitting at the same table as both of them – along with two other generations of Ursula’s family and Tohby’s wife Sally. This is the fifth gong Ursula has collected from NSW Premiers. Though it’s no longer a gong.: to mark the 30th anniversary, a new trophy has been created, by Dinosaur Designs: a hefty, transparent, book-shaped objet.
The Douglas Stewart Prize for a prose work other than a work of fiction: Chloe Hooper, The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island
I’ve read this too, and think it deserves any prize anyone chooses to give it.
The Christina Stead Prize for a book of fiction: Joan London,The Good Parents
I haven’t read this, but it’s been very well reviewed in my house. Joan London gave a sweet speech, acknowledging , among other things, her debt to her children.
The People’s Choice Award: Steve Toltz, A Fraction of the Whole
I hadn’t voted, because I’d only read two of the books, and this wasn’t one of the ones I’d read. The same man who had accepted Nam Le’s award accepted this one, but Steve Toltz, who couldn’t be there, hadn’t tweeted him anything to say, so he just looked pleased.
Book of the Year: Nam Le, The Boat
Then the poor guy had to get up for the third time, and gave us the second half of Nam Le’s emailed acceptance speech, in which he thanked his readers, ‘both professional and normal’. As one who used to be a professional reader who is striving for normality, I loved this.
The Special Award: Katharine Brisbane
Katharine was my first employer, when she was Managing Editor at Currency Press, and I couldn’t be more pleased at her receiving this recognition. She adlibbed an elegant speech about the importance of recognising achievement in the arts. She has received a number of awards in her time, she said, but this is the first one to come with money attached. She closed by saying that she too had been there in 1985. ‘We pelted Morris West with bread rolls because he warned us that we had to be prepared for bad things. The Baader Meinhofs were in the news, and he was warning us against terrorism. We thought he was ridiculous, but he was right.’
And then it was all over bar the networking …
… and the journey home. As I was walking back towards the city from the Art Gallery, I drew alongside a rough looking man going in the same direction. He said hello and asked how the evening had gone. ‘We’re homeless, you see, we sleep just beside the porch there.’ We chatted for a couple of minutes. He told me who had won the People’s Choice at the Archibald. I tried to tell him about the Literary Awards, but I think he still thought I’d been at something to do with paintings. As we parted, he said, in an eerie echo of Nathan Rees’s comment about the examined life: ‘People don’t realise it, but you’re always just one step away from the gutter,’ and we wished each other good night and good luck.