Tag Archives: Richard Glover

SWF: My Day 4

Saturday at the Sydney Writers’ Festival the weather held, brilliantly.

My first session was at 11 o’clock: Paul Muldoon: On Seamus Heaney. Advertised as Muldoon discussing Heaney’s poetry, this turned out to be Muldoon reading Heaney. Did I mention earlier that David Malouf described Paul Muldoon’s reading as ‘at the right speed’? It’s such a spot-on observation: he makes every word count, the way Mandela did in his oratory. He read ‘Follower‘, ‘Digging‘, ‘Tollund Man‘, ‘Keeping Going‘, and stopped for questions. A woman in the front row – it may have been Kate Tempest – asked him to read more poems. He read ‘When all the others were away at Mass‘. It was an absolute treat.

Meanwhile, the Emerging Artist went to see First Dog On The Moon Live, which she said was wonderful: from the symptoms of windfarm pathology (all taken from real if somewhat delusional sources) to the grief caused by the death of a pet dog, the Dog is as captivating in person as his cartoons are compulsory reading.

We both went to see Kate Tempest: The Bricks that Built the Houses after lunch. Wow! Michael Williams, her interlocutor, set the ball rolling by reading the first couple of paragraphs of the novel that this session was named for. As he said, he’s not a bad reader. Then he asked Kate to read the same bit. She stood up with the closed book in her hands and gave us the first several pages as a passionate spoken word performance. It was a whole other thing!

For the whole hour, she was not just passionate about her world and about the world, but constantly self-questioning, challenging herself not to fall back on setpieces when talking about her work. Responding to one question she rhapsodised about the joys of freeform rapping; to another who asked what William Blake said to her she quoted half a dozen bits from (I think ) ‘The Proverbs of Hell’. As the session drew to a close and Michael Williams made the standard announcement that her books were on sale at Gleebooks, she interjected, ‘Nothing you can buy will make you whole,’ then explained that she would have to be snappy with any signing because she wanted to get to the session on the Stolen Generations with Ali Cobby Eckermann in half an hour.

We had some quiet time, then queued for The Big Read at half past 4. This lovely event has been downgraded from the main Sydney Theatre stage to the cavernous space known to the Festival as The Loft, with just enough room on the  tiny stage for MC Annette Shun Wah and the five writers. All the same, it was  a great pleasure to be read to by

  • Carmen Aguirre (Chile and Canada), from her memoir Mexican Hooker #1: And My Other Roles Since the Revolution
  • Paul Murray (Ireland), from his novel The Mark and the Void
  • Petina Gappah (Zimbabwe), from her novel The Book of Memory, a reading that included some very sweet singing
  • Marlon James (Jamaica), from A Brief History of Seven Killings and
  • William Boyd (England and France), from Sweet Caress.

I dashed straight from there to Avant Gaga, to be read to again, this time by poets in the Sydney Dance Lounge. One end of the space was occupied by people eating their dinner, and not doing so in monastic silence. Our crowded end was full of people straining to listen. There weren’t enough chairs for the audience – some sat on the floor, some on the spiral stairs in the middle of the room, one (me) sat on a low table under the stairs and managed to draw blood by bumping into the sprinkler there. Avant Gaga is a monthly event in the back courtyard of Sappho’s bookshop in Glebe, which it goes without saying is a lot more comfortable (unless it’s raining).

I can’t say it was an unadulterated pleasure to be read to in those circumstances, but there was a lot of pleasure. Our MC was Toby Fitch. He kicked things off with a seemingly endless list of entities and activities, real and then increasingly fanciful, that might be represented by the initials SWF. ‘Sesquipedalian’ featured and so did ‘fellatio’. Then, in order, a.j. carruthers, Amanda Stewart, Astrid Lorange, Elena Gomez, joanne burns, Kate Fagan, Kent MacCarter, Lionel Fogarty, Pam Brown and Peter Minter read. Toby Fitch asked our indulgence an read a poem called something like ‘A hundred fully-formed words’, in honour of his infant daughter. Here’s what Astrid Lorange looked like from my vantage point:

avant gaga.jpg

While I was there, the EA went to My Family and Other Obstacles in which Richard Glover hosted three much younger people talk about books about growing up with seriously dysfunctional parents. One of my siblings once said that our birth family was dysfunctional, and I’ve no doubt that my sons at various times would say the same of theirs. After hearing the stories from this session, I’m confident that its participants would be entitled to sneer.

And though the festival continues today, that was it for me. I didn’t mention arriving one day to pass a senior poet wheeling a baby in a stroller, or pretty much looking up from the book I was reading to see someone whose name had been mentioned just a page earlier, or hearing a well respected political essayist exclaiming a common obscenity, or discovering that the Children’s Book Council had scheduled a conference to coincide with the Festival, or the pleasure of having my name spelled correctly on three hot chocolate lids in as many days, or the books I bought. But I don’t have to blog everything.

Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015: My Weekend

The weather turned on its traditional gorgeousness for the Festival’s weekend. A number of speakers drew attention to the way the sun made itself known – submitting audiences to a third degree, or blinding panellists to the obvious. There’s something exhilarating about being part of a sunlit crowd of book-lovers.

I spent Saturday with the Art Student. We did non-literary things in the morning – walked the dog, bought food, hung out the washing, then caught the train to town in time for:

1.30–2.30: Zia Haider Rahman: In the Light of What We Know
Zia Haider Rahman is a youngish Englishman of south-Asian heritage who has written what sounds like a brilliant first novel. He spoke with an Oxford drawl, which sat oddly with his account of growing up in poverty. He explained: ‘This accent is completely phony, but it’s the only one I’ve got. I spent hours listening to tapes of BBC announcers and imitating the accents because I understood very young that if you want to make your way in England, trivial things like accents matter hugely.’

Louise Adler was an excellent interlocutor, mainly because of her unabashed enthusiasm for Zia’s novel, In the Light of What We Know. There was a lot of tiptoeing around certain plot points, so I may not know what was being said in a good deal of the conversation until I’ve read the book. There was also a lot of tiptoeing around things Zia wanted to say about the British literary scene – Louise encouraged him to be explicit (‘This is Australia. We can deal with bluntness.’), but he remained vaguely and tactfully disparaging.

I said this was his first novel. But maybe not. He said that he’s been writing all his life, but not with any intention of being published. Partly this is because his ideal readers were his parents, neither of whom would ever read his books, published or not. When his father was dying he had a copy of In the Light of What We Know on his bedside table, and would touch it proudly, but he was past being able to read it. And he has written a short comic novel in the last couple of months, which can’t be published because it would bring on at least five law suits.

3–4 pm: Back to the Wild
This session had an extraordinary collection of writers: lugubrious, droll Don Watson, whose The Bush sounds like compulsory reading; measured, scholarly British falconer Helen Macdonald, whose H is for Hawk has won all sorts of awards; and Leigh Ann Henion from the USA, travel writer turned nature-evangelist whose manner ranged from rhapsodic to over the top. Richard Glover in the chair made it look easy to keep the conversation on even keel – helped by the fact that the three panellists were manifestly interested in each other. While Henion whooped it up for a sense of wonder at the awesomeness of the natural world, Macdonald spoke of her connection to a particular bird and how a scientific understanding deepened her connection to nature more broadly, and Watson was full of rich anecdotes of things he had seen in the bush.

One fabulous fact has stayed with me: according to recent research, some parrots are given names when they are chicks – that is, they are known by a distinctive pattern of clicks – and this ‘name’ stays with them all their life.

In question time, an audience member observed that we are currently approaching a possible environmental disaster, and asked if these writers’ books included calls to action. Henion said her call was to rekindle our sense of wonder. The questioner, in a slightly driven manner, said, ‘But unless we take action there won’t be any nature for us to wonder at.’ Richard Glover, bless him, pointed out that Henion was actually answering the question, and Henion made the point that to reclaim a respectful connection with the natural environment is a significant action in a time when many children in the West have never seen a horizon line, and many adults haven’t seen one for a long time: if we could ensure that our political leaders each had such a connection, things would change.

4.30–5.30: The Secret State
This was another disparate panel that worked remarkably well. Nick Davies, Guardian journalist who played a central role in bringing the Murdoch press’s crimes to light in Britain and worked with Ed Snowden’s disclosures, Michael Mori, who was David Hicks’s legal representative and whom the other speakers addressed as ‘Dan’, and George Williams, a constitutional lawyer from UNSW, were wrangled by Monica Attard, distinguished ABC journalist, in a discussion of surveillance and state secrecy.

These guys all know their onions. Surprisingly, the star of the event was George Williams. Balding, bespectacled and with a slightly pedantic manner, sitting between Mr Cool from the Guardian and Mr Fight-the-Power from the US Marines, he was the one who gave us hard facts about legislation that has been passing almost unnoticed through the Australian Parliament over the last few years, using the threat of terrorism as a pretext to extend government power and curtail people’s rights. It’s not that there’s a conspiracy, he explained: politicians on both sides dread being held accountable for some future atrocity, and so they wave through any measure that is put up by the security forces. Because the measures become law without debate, the press pays little or no attention, and so we now have laws on the books that could send someone to gaol for two years for praising Nelson Mandela in his freedom-fighting days.

Sixty percent of Australians, George told us, believe that we have a Bill of Rights (we don’t). A similar percentage said they were confident that they couldn’t be wrongfully found guilty of an offence, because they could always take the fifth: that is, most Australians form their mental models of how the law works from US TV shows.

It was a chilling panel, that came interestingly alive in a different way right at the end. Nick Davies mentioned that David Kilkullen, author of the current Quarterly Essay, was at the Festival, and said he was hoping to talk to him about ISIS. Mori’s affable poise fell away for a moment and he said, ‘He wants us to do more bombing.’  Someone from the audience shouted, ‘That’s not fair!’  And we were suddenly in a spontaneous, heated argument about whether it was arrogant for the US and its allies to move in on Iraq and Syria believing we could resolve the situation (Mori) or whether failure to intervene was immoral, and based on a mindless assumption that because it was a mistake to invade Iraq once it would be a mistake now (Davies). We were out of time, and Monica Attard, who had done a brilliant job up to that point, continued her brilliance, saying something like, ‘And that’s all we have time for.’ Applause. Animated conversations about ASIO files overheard on the exit stairs.

We went to the bookshop, to a tapas bar where we celebrated a friend’s birthday, and then home through Vivid once more.

I only went to one thing on Sunday:

10–11 am: Her Body, Her Choice?
This was my first all-woman panel – most of the panels I attended had three men and one woman, the woman being in the chair for two of them.

Once again, the title didn’t reflect the content of the panel with any precision. It was a discussion about the situation of women, mostly in the non-Western world, between Ayu Utami (from Indonesia), Leila Yusaf Chung (a Sydney woman who was born in Lebanon and is still deeply engaged with the plight of Palestinian refugees), and Xinran (a Chinese journalist who has been living in England for 18 years and writes over her personal name only, because non–Chinese speakers reliably mispronounce it).

(Digression: Jane Park from Sydney University, who chaired the event with charm and intelligence, said something at the start about all the women speaking several languages. Ayu Utami said, ‘I only speak Indonesian.’  No one commented on the fact that she said that, and went on to say a lot more, in perfect English: it’s as if, from one perspective, English is no longer a language like other languages.)

Jane Park asked if they thought of themselves as feminists – because, as she said, feminism has been critiqued as a western phenomenon. Ayu said she was a feminist before she encountered the theory: as a young girl she observed that the ‘killer teachers’ (that is, teachers who were particularly harsh) were all ‘old virgins’ – that is, unmarried women as distinct from nuns, who were in a different social category. Her realisation then that unmarried women were treated badly by the society and took it out on their students was the beginning of her lifelong commitment to women. Leila said she had been a feminist all her life. History, she said, was not only written by the victors, but almost entirely without acknowledging the central, vital contribution that women have made to every society in every era (she said this much more beautifully than I can reproduce). Xinran brought a whole different perspective: as a child of Mao’s China from an urban location she grew up with the knowledge that women hold up half the sky (rural China, she said, lags hundreds of years behind the cities in many respects, and women there are lucky to hold up any sky at all); it took her years in England to respond to small courtesies from a man to a woman as anything other than arrogant tokens of superiorities. Her feminism, she realised, had a harshness to it, that cut her off from being a woman.

There was a lot more to the panel – I hope a podcast turns up.

And that was it for me.

The Art Student went with a friend to a session in the afternoon: The Cold War on Sex. She came home enraged. Evidently a mutually respectful difference of opinion between Kooshyar Karimi, who has written about his mother’s oppressive experience of the veil in Iran, and Sahar Amer, who was defending Muslim women’s choice to wear the veil, was in effect shouted down by Dennis Altman, the participant chair, who declared that he was completely intolerant of an argument that Sahar Amer was putting. Young women from the audience called on him to let her speak. The Art Student said she would never go to another event that Altman was chairing.

My mind is still buzzing from those few days, and even though we were very restrained in Gleebooks I’ve got some tempting new books beside the bed. And sessions I missed are already turning up on the ABC Books and Arts podcast. I’m looking forward to more from the Writers Festival’s own podcast. But for now, it’s back to life as she is lived.

[Added later: Helen Macdonald gave the  Festival’s closing address. It’s available on podcast.]

SWF: A C Grayling, curtain raiser

‘The Private, the Public and the Line Between’, a lecture by A C Grayling

This was the start of my 2012 Sydney Writers’ Festival. I’ve become accustomed to starting the Festival with the Premier’s Literary Awards dinner, which is always a good night out, though the last two had become a bit corporate. This year the awards evening has been moved to later in the year (not, as feared by some, cancelled altogether), so my Festival begins with this 90 minute event at the Angel Place Recital Centre a month or so ahead of the Opening Address. I’m calling it a curtain-raiser because that ‘s how Peter Shergold (from the SWF Board) described it when introducing the talk, but really it was more of an advance scatterling.

A C Grayling is the very picture of an urbane philosopher. He spoke lucidly for an hour without notes, and fielded questions deftly and courteously. Sadly I slept for maybe as much as half the talk, so I’m not a reliable reporter. But I quizzed my four companions over dinner at the nearby Wagamama and my impression is that I didn’t miss a lot by dozing off. Basically, Professor Grayling told us, we are being watched by Internet corporations who track our online activities for commercial purposes, by government for security purposes, and by journalists for partly public interest and partly commercial interests, and that this isn’t a good thing. I have listened to his interview with Richard Glover on the ABC, which is an excellent 18 minutes of radio and includes everything that the $25 lecture had to offer, including the teasing references to the Professor’s impressive hair. What we got for our money was the sense of occasion, a chance to play Spot the Famous Person (both the Art Student and I saw David Marr and Annette Shun Wah, but some of our other companions hadn’t heard of either of them, which rather spoiled the thrill).

If the purpose of a talk by a philosopher is to prompt one to think, then this one was a big success for me. During the question time, Professor Grayling talked about a village in southern Italy where, when a husband and wife have a quarrel the woman runs out into the street and the couple proceed to shout at each other, while all the neighbours come to their doors and windows to listen. These people, he said, live with a strong sense of community but at the cost of losing their privacy. That raises a much more interesting question about ‘The Private, the Public and the Line Between’ than the question of intrusion by the state, corporations and the press. I would have thought that that kind of intrusion is obviously a bad and dangerous thing – and of course that it’;s a good thing to have the dangers pointed out. But don’t we then need to think carefully and precisely about what it is that we’re protecting. Are we protecting our right to be isolated individuals, to have secrets and present a conforming face to the world? Sure, those young people who give out far too much information on facebook or twitter may be laying themselves open to attack, but isn’t also worth asking if there’s not something utopian about that rather than simply foolish? That’s what I’d have liked to hear him talk about.