Tag Archives: Robin de Crespigny

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Weekend

The best laid plans etc. I was going to blog about the SWF daily, but it turned out that though I only got to one event on Saturday I still had no time to write about it then or on Monday or Tuesday, so here are my days 3 and 4 all mooshed up.

Saturday returned to the cloudless sky that’s traditional for the festival. The average age of the punters dropped by about 20 years, but the crowds at Walsh Bay didn’t seem to be any worse.

My day started with the half past two session, Shami Chakrabarti: WOW at Sydney Writers’ Festival Lecture. WOW, ‘Women of the World’, is a big feminist festival held annually at London’s Southbank Centre. There were a number of WOW events at this festival, a kind of taster-festival within the festival, and a friend I met at quarter past two or thereabouts had been wowed at one of them in which a number of women spoke for ten minutes each (there’s a nice blog post about that one on Guys Read Gals).

The 2.30 session was a tepid affair. Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre and founder of WOW, gave a long and  promising introduction – introducing herself as a very senior arts administrator, WOW as a feminist festival unlike any other in the world, and Shami Chakrabarti as her friend and a foremost human rights activist in the UK. ‘Why Women of the World rather than Feminists United?’ she asked, and I honestly thought she was going to say, ‘Because Wow! is so much more attractive than Eff you!’ Sadly no: she explained that it was because the word feminist had such a bad rep and they wanted to attract as many people as possible. This explanation enraged one of my companions, who also bridled at Jude’s admittedly eccentric suggestion that the men in the audience should consider themselves to be women for the occasion. Neither of those things particularly distressed me, but I could understand.

Then Shami Chakrabarti spoke. The same friend told me later that Ms Chakrabarti is a brilliant and heroic activist, who often appears on British TV and is completely formidable, someone you are very glad to have on your side. That wasn’t evident from this speech. She started off saying that in her view gender rights is the most important human rights issue in the world today – she hadn’t always thought so, but she now does. But instead of giving the reasons for her change of mind – arguing, for example, that no other human rights abuse can be adequately addressed unless women’s issues are also addressed – she just repeated the assertion, listed off a number of appalling statistics and atrocities, gave us a timeline of the gaining of important rights by women in Australia and the UK respectively (a part of her talk that someone said afterwards sounded like notes she had taken in preparation for visiting Australia, failing to realise that a Sydney audience might already know, for example, that women had the vote here 20 something years before Britain). Towards the end, she said, ‘It’s not my place to tell you what you should be doing in this country …’, and it struck me that that may have been the problem: as a citizen of London she was trying so hard not to be condescending to us ex-colonials that she ended up not saying anything much. Or maybe she was just jet-lagged.

Whatever, I think I picked the wrong WOW event. I do wonder if at I’m a Feminist – Can I Vajazzle? Jude Kelly invited the men in the audience to consider themselves as women.

I tried to get into the 4 o’clock Marathon Poetry Reading, but if the room holds 100 people, I was 102 in line. I tried to sit in the sun and listen: the ear was willing but the bum was sore and I got a cramp. So I went and sat and read until I could meet up with my companions who had gone to hear Bob Brown on the Future of Activism, where the reciprocal passion so absent from the WOW talk was by all accounts there in spades – even though he kept pointing an accusing finger at his audience and telling them that come September they were about to vote against their own interests and the interests of their children.

Sunday was another brilliant day – I speak mainly of the weather and the way it was possible to strike up an interesting conversation with compete strangers.

We started with Sylvia Nasar: Is the West Over and What Would Keynes say? at 10 o’clock, probably my most worthily motivated event of the festival. As is often the case, the conversation bore very little relation to the title of the session. It was mainly a promotion of Sylvia Nasar’s book, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius, which tells the history of economics through the lives of its key practitioners, and argues that economics is responsible for transforming the possibilities for human wellbeing. As one of my companions remarked afterwards, if the book is as facile as this session, it’s a good one to skip. Her responses to two questions at the end are indicative of that facileness.

A young woman, after a courteous squee about having a woman discuss economics, asked how Ms Nasar’s account of the vast benefits brought to humanity by economics related to the imminent threat from global warming. Ms Nasar said that many problems had been solved in the past and there was plenty of time so she was optimistic that economics would solve this one too. She probably didn’t mean that we should just place our faith in neoliberalism, but she could have meant that, and evidently didn’t see any need to dissociate herself from that view. Then someone asked what she saw as the importance of Amartya Sen. This question might well have been a chance to distance herself from the neoliberal world view, and perhaps come at last to the advertised theme of the session; instead she told us how she had followed ‘Amartya’ around in India for weeks when writing the book, and been struck by the way his photo appeared constantly on the front page of newspapers there – that in India economists could be treated as rockstars are in her native USA. End of reply.

Sylvia Nasar wrote A Beautiful Mind, the book about economist John Nash that was made into the excellent movie with Russell Crowe, so she’s clearly done better than this. Maybe she was jet-lagged too.

I dashed to the scene of my unsuccessful queuing on Saturday, and this time I was among the last five people admitted – to stand at the back of the room for Research and Writing. This session turned out to be a lot of fun. The panel was the winner and two shortlisted authors for the 2012 Nib Waverley Library Award for Literature: Jane Gleeson-White (Double Entry: How the merchants of Venice shaped the modern world – and how their invention could make or break the planet), Robin de Crespigny (The People Smuggler: The true story of Ali Al Jenabi, the ‘Oscar Schindler of Asia’) and Fiona Harari (A Tragedy in Two Acts: Marcus Einfeld & Teresa Brennan). They were billed as talking about their approaches to research, and that’s what they did.

If there was a common thread, it is that each of their books began with the discovery of an interesting person, and none of them knew when they started what the book was going to be about. Jane Gleeson-White (who incidentally had just done a fine job as Sylvia Nasar’s amiably sceptical interlocutor) started out writing about the Viennese Monk Luca Bartolomes Pacioli, intimate of Leonardo and teacher of Dürer, and had to be told by her editor that she had actually written a history of accountancy. Robin de Crespigny set out to make a film about people smuggling, but was so captivated by Ali Al Jenabi that it had to be a book and, evidently, an enduring friendship. Fiona Harari began with questions about Marcus Einfeld, the eminent former judge who perjured himself over a speeding offence and ended up disgraced and in gaol, intending to devote just one chapter to Teresa Brennan, the deceased person he had claimed was the speeding driver, but expecting hostility from Einfeld’s friends and family she decided to write the Brennan part first, only to discover a whole rich story there. The panellists enjoyed themselves and each other, and a good time was had by all.

Fiona Harari said that Teresa Brennan was famous for telling outrageous lies for the fun of it – she had convinced Sir Gustav Nossal that she was planning to become a nun. As I’d relayed on this blog something I was told by Teresa when I met her in 1976, I used question time to ask if I’d been sold a pup: but no, it’s on record that, among many other improbabilities, she had indeed been a publicist for Barry Humphries and it was quite plausible that she had written jokes for Edna.

My final event was Karl Ove Knausgaard in conversation with Sarah Kanowski. I’d nearly finished the first book in his six volume novel My Struggle, A Death in the Family, which we’ll be discussing at my Book Group, and which I’ll write about here after the meeting. So this session was like homework. All homework should be so mesmerisingly interesting.

Sarah Kanowski seemed to have read everything Karl Ove had written, some of it at least twice. She pronounced his name as if she had been speaking Norwegian all her life, and was right up there with Ramona Koval in establishing a warm rapport with her interviewee. Karl Ove said that shame is the dominant emotion in Norwegian culture and these books set out to name things that are simply not talked about: drunkenness and incontinence, but also mistreatment of children and sexual matters. When he was writing the novel he couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to read it, and now he is alarmed to think there are more than 500 thousand people who know all about his sexual inadequacies. He claimed that when he finished speaking to us he would go off by himself and vomit with shame. Was it just me, or would everyone in the room have been willing to hold him by the shoulders while he vomited?

I hadn’t been sure I would read on past the first book, even though I was exhilarated by it. Now it looks as if I won’t be able to resist reading the whole 2000+ pages. Evidently the final book is a 400-page essay about Adolf Hitler. Can you believe I’m looking forward to it?

So that was my festival. We didn’t get to the Big Read, a highlight of previous festivals, because its new time slot was in working hours. I’ve subscribed to the podcast of  ABC Radio National’s pale shadow of the Book Show so as to hear some of the sessions I missed. I’ll happily advise people devising sessions to think in terms of readings and conversations rather than delivery of papers or rambling discourse. I recommend anyone travelling to Sydney to time it so you can attend, especially if it continues to overlap in time and location with the Vivid Festival (about which I’ll blog a little tomorrow).

SWF 2012: The Weekend

First, a photo from Friday night. This is Tamar Chnorhokian, who read first in Moving People. That’s not a sponsor’s logo in the background, the story was set in a supermarket. You can see what I mean about the performers having nowhere to hide.

And now a sprint through my crowded weekend. My only serious queuing experience of the Festival was for the 11.30 session of What Would Edith Do? on Saturday – I got there before the previous session finished and so was comfortably towards the front of the queue. Edith Campbell Berry, the main character in Frank Moorhouse’s Dark PalaceGrand Days and Cold Light, may not have seized my imagination, perhaps because I haven’t read the first two books, but she has clearly been important to many people. I went to this hoping to find out what I’ve been missing and I got what I was after. Emily Maguire, novelist, discovered Edith in her late teenage years as a model of how it might be possible to live – rising to challenges and living nervously out of one’s depth rather than settling for the life mapped out by social expectations. She said there had been a number of times when she had actually asked herself the WWED question. Sadly, she deemed only one of them suitable for public exposure, but as it involved being invited to speak at a function in North Vietnam when she actually had no idea of the purpose of the function or who the Party functionaries thought she was, it was a perfectly satisfactory anecdote. The other panellists, journalists Annabel Crabb and Cynthia Banham, had come to the character later in life, but managed to convey the appeal. I realised that Cold Light is all aftermath: a woman who has lived daringly and intelligently, challenged convention in her private life and made a contribution on the world stage, returns to Australia in the 1950s where there is no place for such a woman and lives on scraps for the rest of her life. For those who have seen Edith riding around Geneva in a cowgirl suit or (is this really what they said?) stroking Anthony Eden’s head in her lap, the third trilogy is heartbreaking. Frank Moorhouse wasn’t there, but the best line of the session was his. He had told Annabel Crabb that one of the advantages of having spent 20 years with a single character was that she can now do her own PR and he doesn’t even have to turn up.

National Treasures was another poetry session that wasn’t quite what I had read the advertising to mean. I thought the participants – Mark Tredinnick, Vivian Smith and Judith Beveridge – were going to talk about Australian poetry they treasured, and read some to us, plus some of their own. What we got was excellent, but it wasn’t that: Judith Beveridge stayed firmly in the chair role, and the others talked of their own writing careers, and read from their work. When he was 15,  in the 1940s, Vivian S had sent off poems to The Bulletin, then pretty much the only place that published poetry in Australia. He received encouraging responses from the literary editor, Douglas Stewart, advising him to ditch the archaic poeticisms and recommending that he read contemporary poets such as T S Eliot. Decades later, Mark T was similarly advised by critic Jim Tulip, but the poets he recommended were William Carlos Williams, Robert Gray and Vivian Smith.

Tasmanian Aborigines was next, in which Lyndall Ryan talked to Ann Curthoys about her new book, a rewrite of her 1981 book on the same subject. Inevitably, the session involved a revisiting of the so-called History Wars: Keith Windschuttle had singled Professor Ryan’s 1981 book out for his accusation that lefty historians had fabricated evidence of massacre and his claim that in fact the original inhabitants of this country had just faded away when the Europeans arrived, possibly because of their inherent weaknesses. Windschuttle has been thoroughly discredited as a historian, of course, but it was interesting to hear Ryan’s take on the episode now. Asked what difference his intervention had made to our general understanding of Australian history, she said that paradoxically he had driven her and other back to interrogate their sources more thoroughly, and where in her first book she had focused on Aboriginal resistance, she had now looked at ‘settler activism’ and found that the evidence indicates that the violence of the frontier was much worse than historians had previously understood. Massacre, for instance, looms much larger in the new book than it did in the original.

Anne Curthoys was warm and personal as her interlocutor. She opened with a wonderful quote to the effect that in order to write history, one needs to have a deep commitment to the subject that relates to some great love or business in the present, and asked Lyndall Ryan what this love or business was in her case. But Professor Ryan was not to be seduced away from her calm, scholarly demeanour, and answered in terms of the breakthroughs in research since 1981. The question in my mind, which I didn’t get to ask, was along the same lines: as a white Australian, uncovering the evidence of terrible things done by your own forebears, how do you keep your composure, or if (as I think would be desirable) you lose your composure how do you keep your scholarly integrity? I guess I’ll just leave that one hanging.

Then I was back to the sun-filled Bangarra Mezzanine for Poetry Australia with Robert Gray, Rhyll McMaster, Tricia Dearborn, Geoffrey Lehmann – and the unfulfilled promise of Robert Adamson. It was a dazzling session – the sun was low over the Harbour and from where I was sitting it was impossible to look directly at whoever was at the lectern. Speaking less literally, it was okay. Each of the four poets read from their own work – some startling eroticism from Tricia Dearborn (I mean that in a good way), two poems from Rhyll McMaster that had me reaching for my pen to write down brilliant lines I knew I’d forget, in a scribble I now can’t read – her new book, Late Night Shopping, is now on my To Buy list. Geoffrey Lehmann read ‘Parenthood’, which begins ‘I have held what I hoped would become the best minds of a generation /  Over the gutter outside an Italian coffee shop watching the small / Warm urine splatter on the asphalt’, and lives up to the promise of it opening. Almost as if in direct reference to Ali Alizadeh’s scathing Overland review of the Lehmann–Gray anthology, Robert Gray read a number of John Shaw Neilson’s limericks.
In the short Q&A, someone did tactfully name the elephant in the room. A bookseller from Perth, she said that the anthology Australian Poetry Since 1788 was selling brilliantly. But, she said, she didn’t understand how a fine poet such as Fay Zwicky hadn’t made the cut. Ali Alizadeh, John Tranter, Peter Minter and other fierce critics of the anthology might have asked the same question but added a hundred names and whole classes of poetry, and gone on to challenge the inclusion of limericks. Here it was a genuine question rather than an attack. It seems to me that what was missing in the selection process was the intervention of someone who knew the field  and could veto the editors’ eccentricities. I can see why it would be hard to resist modifying the general perception of John Shaw Neilson by including a swag of limericks, or to include 14 poems by ‘Bellerive’, whose poems never even made it to the literary pages of the Bulletin of his time. But that’s when an authority figure needs to step in and rap someone over the knuckles.

Oh my paws and whiskers, across the road again to see Hilary Mantel on a huge screen in the Sydney Theatre talking about Bring Up the Bodies. What can I say? She was magnificent, and I’ve now got the book on my iPad. A friend of mine couldn’t read Wolf Hall, because he couldn’t tell who was being talked about a lot of the time – the book would say ‘he’ and expect you to know it was Thomas Cromwell. Evidently a lot of people had the same difficulty, because this new book says ‘he (Cromwell)’. As Michael Cathcart, interviewing Ms Mantell from our stage, said, you can almost hear the author saying, ‘Is that clear enough for you?’

[Added on Wednesday: The Literary Dilettante has an excellent account of this conversation here.]

Gluttons for punishment, we rushed from the theatre and drove to Marrickville for an evening of youthful cabaret/burlesque, which might have been on a different planet, but that’s another story altogether.

On Sunday, I only managed one event, The Oskar Schindler of Asia? in which Robin de Crespigny (pronounced Crepny) and former people-smuggler Ali al Jenabi conversed with ABC’s Heather Ewart (who is much smaller in person than she seems on the TV screen). This was 2012’s equivalent of last year’s conversation with David Hicks. Like Hicks, Ali al Jenabi is being treated unjustly by the Australian government. Although the title of the session is a quote from the judge who tried him for the crime of people smuggling, the government is so committed to the demonising term ‘people smuggler’ or at least so terrified of being attacked by the snarling Tony Abbott  if they are seen to be soft on such people, that al Jenabi, who seems to be a perfectly decent man who has endured terrible things, remains on a bridging visa pending deportation, even while all his family are now Australian residents.

It was a great Festival. Now I have to get back to work.