The Sydney Writers Festival is under way. I kicked off my personal festival yesterday with a workshop led by Patti Miller. The workshop was billed as ‘Memoir – Random Provocations’, which anyone who had read Patti’s book would have recognised as incorporating the title of her chapter on the personal essay. The rest of us signed on for what we thought was three hours looking at approaches to memoir. Heigh ho! It was an excellent three hours regardless, and probably useful. Then last night I went to a screening of Ten Canoes preceded by a conversation between Julianne Schultz and Rolf de Heer, for which the microphones were turned up far too loud for my comfort (I really must post about my tinnitus and booming ears some time). The conversation was interesting, if a little gossipy, and the film was even more wonderful the second time around.
This evening, though, was the real start of my festival. The great court of the Art Gallery of New South Wales was overrun once more by literary types, some who’ve had their likenesses on the walls, but mostly humble key-tappers and pen-wielders. I was at a table with, among others, my friend Madam Misrule, children’s literature activist Bernard Cohen, academic John Stephens, editor-writer-politician-parent Peter Coleman and a charming woman who lives in my street and is often walking her dog when I am walking mine – this was the first time we’ve exchanged names and discovered we have friends and interests in common. The meal was excellent, though I didn’t see anything that would have thrilled a vegetarian. There’s something wonderful about a conga line of waiters weaving between sculptures and tables with plates of beautifully arranged meat and what looked like a dainty caponata.
But on to the business of the evening. Geoffrey Atherden’s address and the award citations are, or soon will be, up on the Ministry for the Arts web site [links all dead in 2020]. I recently bought a microphone for my iPod, and took it for a trial run tonight, so I can give you verbatim bits of the acceptance speeches. But first, I can tell you, nerdishly perhaps, some of the differences between Geoffrey Atherden’s excellent speech as written and as spoken. He cut out about a third of it. In fact he cut out the parts where he argued his case against User Generated Content: someone, talking to me recently about the User Generated Content business model, said that mindless consumerism is being replaced by mindless producerism, and Geoffrey makes a similar argument. He also left out interesting reflections on the Free Trade Agreement, and on the argument that ‘the exciting new multi media, multi platform, new age of digital technology’ will increase the demand for good writing. Presumably these omissions were in order to save time. More interesting than the omissions was an insertion right at the end. Where the written speech, having lamented the current lack of opportunity for young writers in Australia, ends by inviting us to imagine ‘if we had an environment of artistic and cultural activity here that was so stimulating that all those talented young Australians would want to come back,’ and says, with something approaching a non sequitur:
You see, I’m only pretending to be gloomy. Deep down, I’m still hanging on to a last, thin shred of optimism.
The address as spoken ended like this:
… all those young Australians would come flooding back. I seem to remember it happened once before. I seem to remember it happened just after a federal election. Indeed, I’m only pretending to be gloomy.
Gough Whitlam, to whose election in 1972 he was of course referring, was in the room. On the tape I hear myself saying, ‘Stay gloomy, Geoffrey, stay gloomy. It’s not going to happen.’ I hope he’s a better prophet than I am. Given the company I was keeping, I was a little embarrassed when the premier later seized on Geoffrey’s remarks to be fairly crudely party political.
One other nice moment to do with the opening address. As a warm-up remark, Geoffrey said that Maggie Beare in Mother and Son was not based on his mother, and Geoff Morel’s political wheeler-dealer in Grass Roots was not based on Frank Sartor, Minister for the Arts and presenter of all but the final award. In thanking Geoffrey for his address, Frank said, in a welcome departure from his generally ill-at-ease manner, ‘You may not have known this, but Geoff Morel followed me around for two days before he started filming Grass Roots.’
I can’t offer an opinion on any of the awards, because I’ve read so few of the works on the shortlist, but I can tell you a little of what happened.
The first award, the NSW Premier’s Translation Prize and PEN Medallion, went to John Nieuwenhuizen, who has translated from Dutch and Flemish. ‘I’m actually invisible,’ he said. ‘At least that’s what a review of one of my books said, and the judges for this prize agreed. This is of course a huge compliment for a translator. But here I am.’ He also accepted the award as a validation of writing for children – many of the books he has translated have been for children, and this award counterbalances the times he has been asked when he was going to move on to ‘real’ books.
The UTS Award for New Writing was won by Tara June Winch for Swallow the Air. With lovely self deprecation, she said that she’d spent the week practising walking up and down in high heels instead of writing a speech. She made it to the dais and back without stumbling.
Gideon Haigh won the Gleebooks Prize for Critical writing for Asbestos House: the secret history of James Hardie Industries (Scribe). ‘Some books you want to write. Some books just have to be written. This was one of the latter. I couldn’t have turned it down and still considered myself a proper journalist.’
Community Relations Commission Award was won by Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (Hachette Livre Australia), a wordless graphic novel. A friend told me later that she’d nearly hit someone in the ladies’ who was mouthing off about how wrong it was to give a literary award to something that didn’t use words. Well, it’s a paradox I suppose, but it’s a marvellous book, and as Shaun said in his acceptance speech, it’s being read by people who don’t normally read graphic novels, or anything at all – older migrants, for whom the book was really written. I’d cheerfully predicted that this book would win three awards. It won two: it also won the Book of the Year Award. Ms Misrule leapt to her feet and cheered. ‘I love it when one of ours wins,’ she said, encapsulating the esprit de corps that prevails in the children’s literature mob at events like this.
The Scriptwriting Award went to Tony Ayres for the script of The Home Song Stories, a movie we haven’t seen yet. He explained that the story had started out as a memoir but turned into a film script because that’s what he knew how to do.
The Play Award was won by Tommy Murphy for Holding the Man. Impeccably dressed in suit and tie, he told of nervously reading his initial list of ideas for the play to his director: ‘This play might open on the moon. Perhaps the Grim Reaper will appear at some point. And when the character John gets sick he will become a puppet.’ He talked of the importance of collaboration. And he did a gracious thing, which you’ll understand better if you bear in mind that in the play the family of the dying John treat his lover Tim, devastatingly, as having no valid place at his bedside. Tommy, in contrast, thanked his family for teaching the seventh of eight children to embrace sharing, and said his family were represented in the hall by his boyfriend Dane. He went on with some high romance: ‘You can’t win a prize for a love story unless you love someone as deeply as I love Dane.’ He also paid tribute to Tim Conigrave, author of the memoir the play was based on: ‘Tim has taught me that writing is sharing too much. There’s no avoiding that, and I embrace it.’
The Patricia Wrightson Prize went to Narelle Oliver, a Queenslander, for Home (Omnibus), a picture book about peregrine falcons who built a nest high up in a building in Brisbane. She thanked, among many others, the falcons Freda and Frodo: ‘They are probably bedding down right now on their nest of stones upon which I did lie with my camera to capture their home a couple of years ago. I saw my city afresh, in a new and exciting way, through the eyes of falcons, and I hope to share that with children and adults in the book.’
The Ethel Turner Prize for young people’s literature was won by Ursula Dubosarsky’s The Red Shoe (Allen & Unwin). Ursula had had a dog accident in the morning, resulting in a broken wrist and her absence from the dinner. Her father, Peter Colemen, read her acceptance speech. ‘You may well ask what on earth does a six year old girl [the book’s heroine Matilda] make of something as weighty as the Petrov affair [A Soviet defection that made headlines in the 1950s]. What indeed do six year old children make of the current images of public fear – the Twin Towers, Saddam Hussein, global warming? Well, in reply, as the late Ted Hughes has observed, just remember, your first six years shape everything.’
John Tranter won the Kenneth Slessor Prize for poetry with Urban Myths: 210 Poems (UQP). He read a poem (which someone objected to as inappropriate, but I appreciated: it was ‘After Holderlin’, and John’s brief explanatory notes were illuminating). He then contributed to the political theme of the evening by thanking ‘the working men and women of New South Wales who elected this generous government and whose tax dollars went to make up this wonderful cheque’.
The Douglas Stewart Prize for non-fiction was won by Robert Hughes’s Things I Didn’t Know: a Memoir (Random House Australia). Bob wasn’t there but his acceptance speech was read by his publisher. His first remark – ‘The last time I won any sort of prize in Australia was a dismaying number of years ago: I won it for building a control line model aeroplane and flying it in Centennial Park’ – enraged one of my dinner companions: ‘That man is incapable of telling the truth. Everything he says is a lie.’ Be that as it may, the acceptance speech went on to a gracious tribute to Douglas Stewart, his nature poetry and his verse drama, in particular The Fire on the Snow, ‘much of which I still find I know by heart’.
Probably the most prestigious prize apart from book of the year, the Christina Stead Prize for fiction, went to Peter Carey for Theft: A Love Story (Random House Australia), another New Yorker, whose speech was read by the same publisher. After some nicely-turned complaints about a back injury and dental problems, this speech too paid tribute to the person who gave the prize its name. Christina Stead spent 46 years away from Australia; Peter Carey has been away for 16:
I can now understand Christina Stead as one part of that endless stream of Australian travellers most of whom come back in a year or two – most, but not all. Hundreds and thousands of us have become waylaid, up some foreign creek, some foreign road among people who cannot imagine who we are, or that our dreams each night are of Australian landscapes with those smooth, lovely trunks and the vast khaki canopy tossing in the wind showing the silver undersides of its fragrant leaves. I probably don’t need to say this to anyone who has read my work … but I am not only pleased that Theft has been read with pleasure and intelligence by its first true readers, people who do not need a footnote to know what a Blue Heeler is; but also deeply moved that it is the Christina Stead award I am receiving. The award this year is for Theft, but every year it makes us honour a brave artist who swam against the current, worked away from home for 46 years, and bequeathed us novels that are among the greatest works of Australian literature.
Special Award winner was Gerald Murnane. On the tape, when Frank Sartor mispronounces the name of the journal and enduring feature of Australia’s literary landscape Meanjin as ‘Minnajin’, it sounds as if the whole assembly murmurs in amazed disapproval. Frank hesitates, then realises that whatever he’s done wrong can’t be mended and ploughs on. Mr Murnane gave a curmudgeonly speech about receiving the award late in his career.
Shaun Tan was called back to the podium, this time to shake hands with the Premier, Morris Iemma (who seems to be winning people over, to the extent that I heard him referred to as Morris Yummy). One of the great things about the Book of the Year prize is that the recipient doesn’t necessarily know about it in advance, so we get some unprepared remarks. After muttering that there must have been a mistake and thanking the people he’d forgotten in his first trip up front, Shaun talked about his long campaign to have picture books recognised as being for adults as well as children: ‘Part of my success with this book may have been children getting their parents to read it. I’ve got this huge support base among children.’ He thanked independent booksellers for supporting the book, ‘and seeing its inability to be categorised as a blessing rather than a curse’.
And it was all over bar the tart, the chocolates and the schmoozing.
Crotchety note added later: The Sydney Morning Herald‘s report, headlined ‘Big Names Take Book Awards’, doesn’t even mention the Book of the Year or the Special Award, possibly because the sub-editor didn’t deem Shaun Tan or Gerard Murnane to be Big Enough Names, or because the money is the story, and the combined monetary value of Shaun’s two prizes amounts to $17 000 and Gerard raked in a measly $5000, whereas the Big Names each won $20 000. But then John Tranter and Ursula Dubosarsky each got a guernsey – perhaps as token poet and children’s writer, or to flesh out the subtext of resentment of expatriates by indicating that, unlike the judges, the Herald knows about non-expatriate talent. It’s a mystery.