I love the Premier’s Literary Awards dinner. It’s a night when writers who aren’t Neil Gaiman get to be stars: all these people who spend much of their lives tapping away in the quiet of their rooms emerge into the limelight and a chosen ten or so get to stand up at the podium and say something witty or profound or incoherent and shake a politician’s hand to great applause. I was going to say it was like a literary Oscars, but it’s more of an anti-Oscars: a celebration of the inward, the thoughtful, the critical, the gentle, the impassioned and the incisive.
Tonight was the fourth time I’ve been to the dinner. This year it moved down the road from the Strangers Room in Parliament House to ‘The Grand Court’ at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. It’s a pleasant space, and there wasn’t the hurry to get us out by 10 pm that marked the event at its old venue.
The address was given by Neil Armfield, not himself known as a writer, but a director in the theatre and now in film. I subscribe to the Belvoir Street Theatre, his home, and love his work in spite of being goaded to sarcasm by his penchant for having at least one male actor take off all his clothes, or at least urinate on stage, in every play – though come to think of it, no one disrobed in Waiting for Godot or anything I’ve seen since, so perhaps that signature motif is in the past, at least on stage (Heath Ledger drops his daks in Candy). Anyhow, tonight he spoke with tremendous passion and humour, starting with the moment on an Aer Lingus flight when he realised the plane seats were covered with elegantly written quotes from Irish writers: ‘Oh to live in a country …’ he started before being interrupted by applause.
Last year I had the unexpected and scary honour of being seated next to Ruby Langford Ginibi, ‘a national treasure and an icon of the survival and power of Aboriginal people’, who won the Special Award. This year I was flanked by people I know.
My predictions, unsurprisingly, were largely incorrect: I picked only two of the winners, though one of them won two prizes. I haven’t read any of the winning books, and very very little of the poetry of the Special Award recipient, of whom more later.
- Tim Flannery won the Gleebooks Prize and the Book of the Year Award for The Weather Makers, which I had tipped to win a different prize. Tim moved straight to the microphone and delivered an urgent reminder of the importance of climate change. Since the book was published, he said, new research has indicated that things are even worse: a study soon to be published calculates that the northern polar ice cap will melt in the summer by the year 2016. We are blighting our children’s future for our own comfort, and there are alternatives to hand. Called back to the podium without warning to receive his second prize at the end of the evening, and clearly unprepared, he leaned into the mike and said – no time wasted in thank-yous or by-your-leaves – ‘Go out and buy a solar panel.’
- Kate Grenville’s The Secret River won the Community Relations Commission Award and the Christina Stead Prize for fiction. She said in her second speech that she had expected to be attacked because of the book, which explores some uncomfortable Australian history, based on her own forebears’ story. She was so frightened, she said, that she took her name out of the phone book. But instead of attack she finds that people are hungry for what the book has to offer.
- The UTS award for New Writing – Fiction was won by Stephen Lang, An Accidental Terrorist.
- Script Writing Award was won by Chris Lilley, We Can Be Heroes, who gets the prize for shortest acceptance speech ever. He didn’t say much more than ‘Thank you’. Bob Debus, Minister for the Arts, who was handing out the prizes, bemusedly muttered, ‘Terrific,’ and moved on to the next winner.
- Play Award was won by Tommy Murphy, Strangers In Between. ‘We’d love to do your play,’ the director of the Griffin Theatre had said to him, ‘if only it was better.’ They worked on it and it obviously got better.
- Prize for Literary Scholarship was won by Terry Collits, Postcolonial Conrad: Paradoxes of Empire (as tipped by me). He gave a very funny speech, in which he spoke about ‘pollies’ and ended by suggesting that John Howard might consider ‘The Life of Mr Polly’ as a possible title for an autobiography.
- Patricia Wrightson Prize won by Kieren Meehan, In the Monkey Forest.
- Ethel Turner Prize for young people’s literature won by Ursula Dubosarsky, Theodora’s Gift. She thanked the Premier, the Minister and the government for the award, for the words about the importance of children’s literature with which the Premier had opened the evening, and then went on to thank the government and all the governments of New South Wales for the last 90 years for creating and sustaining The School Magazine, an institution readers of this blog will know is dear to my heart. This was my Stendhalismo moment.
- Kenneth Slessor Prize was won by Jaya Savige, a young man from Brisbane with his hair tied back in a rough bun, for Latecomers. He thanked his mother – ‘Writing this book was one of the things I promised her I’d do’ – and ‘Ken’, who turned out to be Kenneth Slessor. He then did a lovely recitation of Slessor’s ‘South Country‘.
- Douglas Stewart Prize for non-fiction was won by Jacob G. Rosenberg for East of Time, a memoir which he described as a festival of ideas and people.
The Special Award went to Rosemary Dobson, who had to be helped up onto the podium, and looked terribly frail. She too read us a poem, ‘Museum’, which ends:
What then to do?
Learn still; take, reject,
Choose, use, create,
Put past to present purpose. Make.
No fewer than seven people thanked their editors by name. You find this ordinary, I find it lovely. (Slessor is obviously on my mind.) Tim Flannery also thanked his two principal researchers, his poorly paid children.
All the usual suspects were there, by which I mean most of the shortlisted writers, a number of publishers and agents, eminent politicians who know how to read (not a huge number of those), previous judges (of which I am one), booksellers, bloggers (though I only know of three counting me), shadows and perhaps a stalker or two. As usual I left soon after the speeches were over, but I did have fun doing a bit of catching up, garnering gossip, chatting, congratulating, commiserating. I bought two books, sadly not including the Terry Collits book, a fairly slender hardback priced at $170 odd: academic publishing ain’t cheap.