Tag Archives: Robyn Williams

SWF: Busy Friday

I had tickets for a 10 o’clock session yesterday morning. One of the participants was prevented from being there by the Chinese government, and I was kept away by an act of vandalism (see previous post). There’s a photo of Liao Yiwu on a chair in the Gleebooks shop, but I got my whole body to Walsh Bay in time to spend a little money and queue successfully for

11.30 am: The Fascinator
Delia Falconer, Ashley Hay and Gail Jones have all recently written books set in Sydney. With Jill Eddington in the chair, the three of them – one a lifelong Sydneysider, one here since she was about 20, one a very recent arrival – chatted interestingly. Jill Eddington recommended reading all three in succession because the effect was like three movements in a piece of music. She imagined a movie that might be made of the three of them wandering the Harbour foreshores, going in and out of the Mitchell Library, walking in each other’s footsteps, almost meeting. The conversation that followed was a nice contradiction to the myth that writers are essentially in vicious competition with each other: Ashley Hay, for example, said that when her book was finally with the printer, reading Delia’s, which covered so much of the same territory but from a very different perspective, was like a special reward.

I tore myself away early, just as they were playing with possible readings if the session’s title: were we meant to think of the Harbour as a hat or an evil enchanter from a Margo Lanagan short story, or – the preferred option – both? I left reluctantly so as not to risk missing out on the Francis Webb session at 1 pm. This turned out to be a wise move, and brought a sweet bonus: I was hailed by a friend I hadn’t seen for 40 years, and while I kept one eye on the Webb queue we snatched a quarter of an hour to get reacquainted. When the growing queue vanished into the dark, we promised to follow up on Facebook, and I skedaddled to:

1 pm: The Lost Poetry of Francis Webb
This was in a much bigger venue than other poetry events, and we were told that it could have filled a space twice the size. It was one of a series of events around Australia to celebrate the recent publication of the UWA Collected Poems. The book’s editor, Toby Davidson, has organised and chaired the events, in which local poets read poems by Webb and speak briefly of their connections to him.

Toby D is a young man whose enthusiasm for his subject wouldn’t have shamed a revivalist preacher. He wants us all to read Webb, in solitude and aloud to our friends. He recommends the practice of carrying a book of his poems everywhere with us (which Bob Adamson told us later he actually does). He kicked things off by reading ‘Ball’s Head Again’. He didn’t read badly by any means, but he did demonstrate the difficulty of Webb’s verse and gave us a yardstick by which to judge the other readers.

By any measure they were all brilliant.

Judith Beveridge spoke of the texture of Webb’s language, its compression and richness, and read ‘Images in Winter’ and ‘For My Grandfather’.

Brook Emery quoted a speaker from an earlier session who referred to ‘songs that please the ear and songs that please the heart’ and said he would add ‘songs that please the mind’ – Webb’s poems, he said, are always reaching for meaning. He read ‘Night Swimming’, the first poem by Webb I ever read, when I was 24 or so, and ‘Nessun Dorma’.

Johanna Featherstone, easily the youngest of the poets, struck a blow against the view that Webb is a poet’s poet, read only by scholars and fellow poets. She takes poetry into correctional centres, where prisoners, possibly influenced by knowledge of his time in institutions, believe him. She read ‘The Runner’ and ‘Harry’.

Craig Powell, a psychiatrist in his day job, told a little story of his acquaintance with Webb when in a psych hospital in Melbourne. He read ‘Five Days Old’, prefacing it with the story of its creation: a psychiatrist in England took Webb on an outing, and asked him to hold his little baby for a moment. Powell almost spoiled the moment by asking with a snigger, ‘Who would hand their baby over to a certified chronic schizophrenic?’ But he gave us the poem with sound and heart and head. He also read ‘Hospital Night’.

Robert Adamson talked about the stigma of ‘mental illness’, quoting an eminent poet-critic-media-personality’s description of Webb as ‘the maddy’. When they met, Webb asked Adamson, ‘Are you a Communist?’ ‘Why?’ ‘The long hair.’ He read ‘Bushfire’, ‘Black Cockatoos’ and ‘End of the Picnic’. As a final comment he said that whereas a lot of discussion of Webb’s poetry focuses on his ‘mental illness’, the poetry itself is full of hope and lucidity.

The young Bulgarian woman sitting next to me said she’d loved the poetry, though there were many words she didn’t understand. Me too.

As I was on my way to the next session, I accosted Bob Adamson and said how much I’d loved his reading. He reached into his briefcase and gave me a book! So, dear reader, when someone does something that delights you, make a point of thanking them.

2.30 pm: The Merchants of Doubt
Naomi Oreskes’s eponymous book (can you say that?) is an exploration of the doubt-mongering techniques developed by the Marshall Institute in the US to defend vested interests against the implications of scientific research. They began with the connection between tobacco smoking and cancer, and progressed to a range of environmental issues, reaching some kind of peak with climate change They don’t have to lie (though they do anyway), but they do systematically create disinformation. She was in conversation with Robyn Williams, and they are clearly kindred spirits, science journalists passionately concerned about the current attacks on science.

I won’t try to summarise. Robyn recommended a BBC doco, Science Under Attack. In a neat echo of Adamson’s anecdote, he told of meeting one of the doubt-mongerers at a conference, and being asked of his journalist colleagues, ‘Are they all Communists?’

My main take-home point was that scientists (and, I would add, others) have a deeply held belief that the facts will speak for themselves. But this is manifestly not so on matters with big emotional charges on them.

Zero Carbon by 2030 at Sydney Town Hall

Last night we went to hear Peter Harper, Coordinator of Zero Carbon Britain, speak at the Sydney Town Hall. The topic was ‘Zero Carbon by 2030 – Britain’s dream or reality?’ As the advance publicity put it, Zero Carbon Britain is

a plan offering a positive realistic, policy framework to eliminate emissions from fossil fuels within 20 years. Zero Carbon Britain(ZCB) brought together leading UK thinkers, including policy makers, scientists, academics, industry and NGOs to provide political, economic and technological solutions to the urgent challenges raised by climate science.

Governments and businesses seem paralysed and unable to plan for a rapid transition to a low-carbon economy. ZCB shows what can be done by harnessing the voluntary contribution from experts working outside their institutions. The ZCB report, released in June 2010, provides a fully integrated vision of how Britain can respond to the challenges of climate change, resource depletion and global inequity, with the potential for a low-carbon future to enrich society as a whole.

(Download the PDF here.)

The talk itself was a great mood lifter. First, the setting: it’s hard to be gloomy about the future in the elaborate colonial prettiness of the refurbished Town Hall Foyer. Then the introduction by Robyn Williams, icon of enthusiasm for scientific enquiry: after an obeisance to current ABC pusillanimity with the mantra ‘I’m from the ABC and I have no opinions of my own’, he told us that the Science Show had broadcast three programs on Peter Harper’s base, the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, over the years, and generated a lot of interest. The audience was great, producing a supremely lively, smart, on-topic Q & A: as one of my friends said, when an event receives this little much publicity in the mainstream media, the people who know about it are likely to know a lot about the subject.

Peter Harper is a scientist with style. He began and ended with photos of his granddaughter. ‘Why am I doing this?’ he asked at the start. ‘Because of her.’ He went on, ‘I often ask my great-great-great-granddaughter what to do next, and though she hasn’t been born yet, she’s a sharp tongued little hussy and says good things.’ He characterised the ‘leading thinkers’ who had prepared the framework as greenies and geeks, and put his argument for a strategic approach to climate change (as opposed to much frantic activity around short term projects that often turn out to be cul de sacs) with wit, warmth and a lucid slide show.

One of my take-homes is what he called the Canute Principle. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with British lore, he told the story of King Canute ordering the tide not to come in so as to demonstrate to his obsequious courtiers that there are limits to kingly power. The principle: ‘Physical reality trumps political reality.’ That is, there may be any number of political reasons not to act on climate change, or to take short term actions that lead nowhere, but any plan that aims to actually deal with the dangers needs to take account of the physical world. Let me say that again in bold: Physical reality trumps political reality. Isn’t that elegant?