Tag Archives: Ursula Dubosarsky

Dubosarsky & Chapman’s Leaf Stone Beetle

Ursula Dubosarsky & Gaye Chapman, Leaf Stone Beetle (Dirt Lane Press 2018)

Just under a year ago I became a grandfather. My granddaughter isn’t up to Sendak or Roald Dahl yet, of course. She’s barely up to Eric Hill’s Where’s Spot, Ted Prior’s Grug or Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, though she listens attentively to readings from them, as well as Judy Horacek and Mem Fox’s Where Is the Green Sheep? and any number of excellent board books supplied by her excellent parents.

My own interest in children’s literature has been undergoing a revival independent of the granddaughter’s needs or interests. When I saw Leaf Stone Beetle on the shelf at Gleebooks, I couldn’t resist: Ursula Dubosarsky has written a number of brilliant novels for children, and Gaye Chapman is a formidable, adventurous illustrator. The book will probably belong to a grandniece in less than three weeks, but I have enjoyed it first.

It’s a beautifully produced little book, just 36 pages, that tells a little story about three things – vegetable, mineral, animal, leaf, stone, beetle – each of which/whom is affected by a storm, which brings them together for a moment. That’s it. That’s the whole story. Small illustrations of the leaf, stone and beetle are scattered through the pages, and there are three spreads showing the storm, one for each of the ‘characters’.

My grandniece will no doubt have a different take, but I responded to it as a lyrical embrace of a world where anything can happen, where life is precarious and finite, where there is profound comfort to be found in the sense that one’s small existence is part of the great processes of nature. The text is exquisite, and the drawings burst with energy. 

Leaf Stone Beetle is the eighteenth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Lesley Lebkowicz’s Petrov Poems

Lesley Lebkowicz, The Petrov Poems (2013)

1pp I was seven years old in 1954, and have dim memories of what Wikipedia bills as the Petrov Affair. Vladimir Petrov, third secretary of the Russian Embassy in Canberra, defected, and some days later his wife Evdokia followed suit, generating a dramatic front page photograph showing two burly Russians manhandling a distraught woman across the tarmac of Sydney aerodrome – tellingly, the woman has lost one of her shoes. It’s not clear that the Petrovs had anything substantial to reveal about Russian espionage, but their defection was a boon to the Menzies government’s anti-Communist machinations and has fired the national imagination, or sections of it, for decades.

The affair was the subject of Ralph Peterson’s 1959 play The Third Secretary, which was part of The Currency Press’s first Playtexts Series in 1971, in teh august company of Dorothy Hewett’s The Chapel Perilous and Louis Esson’s The Time is Not Yet Ripe.  Robert Manne’s exhaustive account, The Petrov Affair, was published in 1980, and again in a revised edition in 2004. The Petrovs feature offstage in Ursula Dubosarsky’s magnificent 2006 children’s book The Red Shoe. So far I was keeping up. Then Noelle Janaczewska’s Mrs Petrov’s Shoe won a Queensland Premiers Literary Award in 2006 (back in the days when the Queensland government gave money to the arts), and Andrew Croome’s Document Z got a gong in the NSW equivalent in 2010. How many books could one minor incident sustain?

I tried to read Andrew Croome’s book. It’s probably very good. But I couldn’t get past the first line of the first page, so strong was my reluctance to read one more word about the Petrovs. They may be our only spy scandal, I thought, but they’re just not that interesting. Yet when someone at our book club (the one where we swap books, not the one where we discuss them) offered Lesley Lebkowicz’ book of poems, I surprised myself by taking it home.

I don’t think any book could have completely dispelled my pre-emptive ennui, but this book came pretty close. It’s pretty much a verse novel, keeping a fairly tight focus on the two main characters, known mostly by their pet names Volodya and Dusya. It begins as they arrive in Sydney, seen from Dusya’s point of view:

Volodya is solid – more than a husband – an ally.
She touches his arm, feels its warmth, the play
of slack flesh over bone. Softness had long fled
his mind. He had seen hundreds shovelled
into their graves, thousands destroyed like ants
swept away by hot water.

The narrative takes us through the process of disaffection to their defections, their interrogations and then their dislocated new life. It ends, after Volodya’s death, with Dusya living with her sister Tamara in suburban Melbourne:

Dusya and her sister walk along the flat paths of Bentleigh

like any two women from Europe.
They’re on their way to drink coffee in the suburb’s first café.
They talk about whether to buy veal
for diner and watch The Bill on TV. Whatever

Tamara says makes Dusya happy – it’s hearing
her voice. Occasionally Dusya mentions Volodya

and Tamara looks at her
but says nothing. His name falls out of their lives.

So it’s as much the story of a relationship that plays out in extraordinary circumstances, a migrant story with higher stakes and the glare of publicity. The part of the story that struck home most forcefully for me is in the last two sections, ‘The Petrovs at Palm Beach’ and ‘The Petrovs in Melbourne’, where they continue with their lives after the drama, neither celebrated nor left alone. From ‘Sentences’:

‘I am Petrov,’ he tells a fellow in Manly,
expecting some sign.
‘Congratulations,’ the man says and walks off.

His photograph regards him every day from The Herald.
What he’s done must mean something –

From ‘They know we are Petrovs’:

The whole street knows they are Petrovs –
too many photos, too much publicity.
One journalist never leaves them alone.
He lurks in his car outside their house.

A kind neighbour builds a gate in their fence
so when the journalist comes, they slip out
through his garden.
In Russia it would have been different –

no one would have known who they were.

The verse is always clear and sharp as this. A lot of it is in unrhymed sonnets, but there’s much variety in form. If you haven’t read much about the Petrov Affair, and OK even if you have, this is a good story well told. If you want to read more about it, I recommend the excellent review by Sue at Whispering Gums.

awwbadge_2013This is the last title in my Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2013. I seem to have read 15, and it’s been fun. I’ve signed up for the 2014 challenge.

A launch

Ursula Dubosarsky’s new book, The Golden Day, was launched yesterday with a suitable sense of occasion. I’d spent the morning as an extra in a rap video clip (about which I may blog some other time), but no one at the launch seemed to notice that my usually shiny forehead was sporting a light dusting of make-up.

We were at Nutcote Cottage, home of May Gibbs, a lovely site for a launch. The golden light of a fine Sydney autumn afternoon, tiny muffins, cupcakes and Lamington slices would have made the mood celebratory even without a subject. As you see from the pic a new Dubosarsky book draws quite a crowd: from the publishing world, family, writers (not just for children), artists and illustrators, colleagues, Marrickville dwellers, the wife of a former Federal Minister, former students of SCEGGS Darlinghurst and even some of the book’s target audience, that is to say, children.

The Nutcote lawn

Julie McCrossin presided. Drawing on her experience as radio interviewer and stand-up comedian, she put Ursula through her paces, quizzing her about her inspiration for the book. It’s set in a genteel girls church school in the inner eastern suburbs of Sydney, a school that evidently bears an uncanny resemblance to SCEGGS Darlinghurst, of which both Julie and Ursula are alumnae. Calling on contributions from other Old Girls, they evoked a startling picture of uniformed schoolgirls making their way from the bus stop to the school gates though filthy streets where junkies and prostitutes hung out. One member of the class of ’78 was coaxed by Julie into saying that she didn’t remember much out of the ordinary, apart from an occasional flasher and the naked woman who appeared in a doorway one morning asking her to get help.

‘There are myriad kinds of writers,’ Ursula said, responding to Julie’s pressing her for the meaning of some of the incidents in the book. ‘I’m the kind of writer who lets herself go to the dream.’ I quote this because it rings so very true of Ursula’s work, but also because just a few moments later Julie referred to the ‘ ‘myriad of influences’ she detected in the book (Picnic at Hanging Rock, classical myth, etc), thereby adding a little fuel to the fire of a conversation I’ve been having recently about usage: Ursula the classicist uses ‘myriad’ as I do; Julie the journalist agrees with my journalist friend. (Are you reading this, L–?)

Julie: Might I suggest that there's an underlying theme of sexual awakening? Ursula: Oh, that's what my book's about!

Prime Minister’s Literary Awards short lists

The shortlist for the fourth Prime Minister’s Literary Awards has just been published.

On the Book Show on 12 July, Hilary McPhee said, ‘Once you’ve published someone and like their work, you stick with them and read them and see what they’re doing with themselves.’ That’s true of me in my own small way. So I’m thrilled to see on the children’s and young adults’ lists a number of people whose work graced the pages of The School Magazine during my stewardship.

On the Young Adult Fiction shortlist:
Confessions of a Liar, Thief and Failed Sex God, Bill Condon (32 items in SM, between 1992 and 2005, including poems, stories and plays)
The Museum of Mary Child, Cassandra Golds (incalculable contributions to the magazine as member of editorial staff)

On the Children’s Fiction shortlist:
The Terrible Plop, Ursula Dubosarsky and illustrated by Andrew Joyner (mainly excerpts from Ursula’s books in my time, but after I left she joined editorial staff and Andrew became a regular illustrator)
Star Jumps, Lorraine Marwood (42 poems between 1998 and 2005)
Harry and Hopper, Margaret Wild and illustrated by Freya Blackwood

Thinking about it, I can’t claim to have published Margaret Wild, but she’s an Annandalean, so I’m thrilled to see her there too.

I hope they all win.

There are also awards for general fiction (with names like Malouf and Coetzee shortlisted) and non-fiction (with contenders ranging from the extreme lyricism of Mark Tredinnick to what the judges describe unpromisingly as ‘monumental history’ and ‘prescient analysis’ by John Keane).

Previous decisions on these awards have been eccentric, so the winners are anyone’s bet. I won’t even hazard a guess. Unlike, say, the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, they’re not arms-length decisions: the judging panels recommend but the Prime Minister decides, and in the first year of the awards, John w Howard did in fact overrule the judges to make sure the Anzac myth got a boost. Let’s see if whoever is Prime Minister when these winners are announced (I can’t find a date on the site) has enough grace to refrain from bending the prize to her (please!) or his ideological agenda.

NSWPLA Dinner [2009]

[Retrieved from 18 May 2009]

Tonight writers, translators, illustrators, publishers, agents and fans put on their glad rags and turned up for a glittering evening in the Art Gallery. The occasion was the annual NSW Premier’s Literary Awards dinner. This year’s dinner cost $15 more than last year’s.

In previous years the dinner has been organised by staff of the Ministry of Arts. This year it was in the hands of the Department of Arts, Sport and Recreation. The transition was seamless, though there was a slightly awkward moment when the Department’s Director General, who was our MC, said we were doing very well for an arts event and only running half an hour late. There was no hiss of indrawn breath, but I did think it indicated she was much more familiar with sporting events than with arty ones, where my experience has been there is an obsession with punctuality. And at times, as she urged us to resume our seats after a break, her tone was reminiscent of what one would hear over the loudspeaker at, say, a netball tournament. But these were amusing foibles that in no way took away from the pleasure of the evening.

Nathan Rees, more famous for his stint as a garbo and for having inherited a train wreck of a government than for his Eng Lit Hons degree and likeability, gave the impression that he was much happier here than in the bearpit of politics. In his welcome (which followed Aunty Sylvia Scott’s Welcome to Country, in which she said, ‘Your books let me travel’), he spoke of his own passion for books, and told us that some left him cold, surely a mark of a genuine book lover. And he said, interestingly, ‘The examined life is only ever the turn of a page away.’

This was the thirtieth year of the awards, and there was slightly more reminiscence than usual. Neville Wran, the first Premier of the Literary Awards, was there and gave a brief talk on their genesis. Success has many parents, he reminded us, but failure is always an orphan. Of the many people who have claimed m/paternity of these awards, he assured us in his ruined voice, the one who could truly claim parenthood was his wife Jill, who insisted that Sydney should have a writers’ festival distinguished by literary awards. He mentioned the legendary Night of the Bread Rolls in 1985 when the guest speaker Morris West was pelted with bakery products. I’d heard that it was because he droned on. One of my dinner companions was there on that night, and he assured us that it was because the literary types were envious of Morris West’s best-seller status.

Marieke Hardy, of Reasons You Will Hate Me, gave the Address, with a tattoo on each shoulder and a large red flower behind one ear. She spoke of Twitter and quoted Stephen Fry to good effect. In the past, I’ve referred to these dinners as the Oscars of the introverted. Marieke went several steps better and, referring to booklovers out and proud, called it ‘our Mardi Gras’.

As in past years, it’s my pleasure to list the winners with random observations:

The UTS Prize for new writing: Nam Le, The Boat
There’s no short list for this prize, so the announcement was a bit of a surprise. It’s a wonderful book. The award was accepted by Nam Le’s publisher, who read out a short speech Nam had sent him from Italy.

The Gleebooks Prize for an outstanding book of critical writing: David Love, Unfinished Business: Paul Keating’s interrupted revolution
Nathan ‘s script described this as an accessible account of important economic matters. I’m afraid I didn’t understand a word of the brief acceptance speech after the initial ‘This is one for the true believers!’

The Community Relations Commission Award : Eric Richards, Destination Australia: migration to Australia since 1901
Eric Richards spoke of how Australia’s immigration program has been an outstanding success, yet has been and is still a cause of widespread anxiety. He was expecting the book to provoke ‘historical warfare’, but so far there has been none.

The Translation Prize and PEN Trophy: David Colmer
He seems to be a nice man – he translates from Dutch.

The Play Award: Daniel Keene, The Serpent’s Teeth
I saw the STC production of these plays, and was less than impressed by the production, though the plays as written seemed to be marvellous. I approve.

The Script Writing Award: Louis Nowra and Rachel Perkins and Beck Cole, First Australians
In announcing this prize the Premier said, quite rightly, that it was hard to go past this show, but then he went and spoiled the moment by feminising Mr Nowra’s first name. When Rachel Perkins took the mike she pointed out the error. Our Nathan looked suitably abashed, and Louis clearly couldn’t help himself: ‘How long do you plan to stay in government?’ he asked, trying to make it sound good-natured. Ow!

The Kenneth Slessor Prize for a book of poems or for a single poem of substantial length published in book form: LK Holt, Man Wolf Man
Possibly intimidated by the compere’s reminders of the importance of being brief, LK Holt simply thanked her publisher and took her prize. She did stand at the microphone long enough to enable those of us close enough to read the enigmatic tattoo on her left shoulder: ‘MCMLXN’.

The Ethel Turner Prize for a work written for young people of secondary school level: Michelle Cooper, A Brief History of Montmaray
At this stage I began to feel very under-read.

The Patricia Wrightson Prize for a work for children up to secondary school level: Ursula Dubosarsky & Tohby Riddle, The Word Spy
And then I started to feel like an insider again. Tohby and Ursula have both worked at The School Magazine. I read this book in its first incarnations as a series of columns in the magazine, and I was sitting at the same table as both of them – along with two other generations of Ursula’s family and Tohby’s wife Sally. This is the fifth gong Ursula has collected from NSW Premiers. Though it’s no longer a gong.: to mark the 30th anniversary, a new trophy has been created, by Dinosaur Designs: a hefty, transparent, book-shaped objet.

The Douglas Stewart Prize for a prose work other than a work of fiction: Chloe Hooper, The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island
I’ve read this too, and think it deserves any prize anyone chooses to give it.

The Christina Stead Prize for a book of fiction: Joan London,The Good Parents
I haven’t read this, but it’s been very well reviewed in my house. Joan London gave a sweet speech, acknowledging , among other things, her debt to her children.

The People’s Choice Award: Steve Toltz, A Fraction of the Whole
I hadn’t voted, because I’d only read two of the books, and this wasn’t one of the ones I’d read. The same man who had accepted Nam Le’s award accepted this one, but Steve Toltz, who couldn’t be there, hadn’t tweeted him anything to say, so he just looked pleased.

Book of the Year: Nam Le, The Boat
Then the poor guy had to get up for the third time, and gave us the second half of Nam Le’s emailed acceptance speech, in which he thanked his readers, ‘both professional and normal’. As one who used to be a professional reader who is striving for normality, I loved this.

The Special Award: Katharine Brisbane
Katharine was my first employer, when she was Managing Editor at Currency Press, and I couldn’t be more pleased at her receiving this recognition. She adlibbed an elegant speech about the importance of recognising achievement in the arts. She has received a number of awards in her time, she said, but this is the first one to come with money attached. She closed by saying that she too had been there in 1985. ‘We pelted Morris West with bread rolls because he warned us that we had to be prepared for bad things. The Baader Meinhofs were in the news, and he was warning us against terrorism. We thought he was ridiculous, but he was right.’

And then it was all over bar the networking …

… and the journey home. As I was walking back towards the city from the Art Gallery, I drew alongside a rough looking man going in the same direction. He said hello and asked how the evening had gone. ‘We’re homeless, you see, we sleep just beside the porch there.’ We chatted for a couple of minutes. He told me who had won the People’s Choice at the Archibald. I tried to tell him about the Literary Awards, but I think he still thought I’d been at something to do with paintings. As we parted, he said, in an eerie echo of Nathan Rees’s comment about the examined life: ‘People don’t realise it, but you’re always just one step away from the gutter,’ and we wished each other good night and good luck.

Bookblog #59: March is the launchiest month

Paula Shaw, Seven Seasons in Aurukun (Allen & Unwin 2009)
Cassandra Golds, The Museum of Mary Child (Penguin Australia 2009)
Ursula Dubosarsky, The Terrible Plop (Penguin Australia 2009)
Stephen Whiteside, Poems of 2008 (self published 2009)
Noelene Martin, Freda (self published 2009)

Here’s a clutch of books I have more than a casual interest in.

aurukunI’ve told you about Paula’s Seven Seasons more than once, and may well do so again. Now I’ve actually read it. While it’s missing some of the juicier and possibly libellous moments of the early draft I read, it still offers plenty to chew on, and is also — Richard Aedy was right — a bit of a girl’s own adventure. More than 30 years ago I spent six weeks in a remote Aboriginal community with the Fred Hollows Trachoma Prevention Program. Just those few weeks were enough to unsettle my sense of what it means to be Australian. One of the other Trachoma-ites put it well, if slightly hyperbolically: I used to think Australia was a European country, he said, but now I realise it’s an Aboriginal country with a huge number of Europeans living around the edges. Paula spent a lot more than six weeks in Aurukun, and engaged in a way that shows up my stay at Willowra for the tourism it was. What’s more, she took on the challenge of wrangling the experience into words. I hope the book provokes a productive conversation. I expect it will give pleasure to most readers. But don’t take my word for it.

plopmarychildEarly in the month, the publication of these books by former editorial staff members on The School Magazine was celebrated — nothing so grand as a launch — by a small lunch in town. I had the best gnocchi ever, the authors paid, and we enjoyed each other and the occasion in a way that might have been described as riotous if there had been more than a handful of us. But the pleasures of the lunch were pallid compared to those of the books. I hadn’t seen The Terrible Plop before, but I hope to see much more of it as a result of giving it to very young acquaintances: it’s a rhyming story of ridiculous terror in the forest that begs to be read repeatedly until it’s known by heart. The Museum of Mary Child is another book I read in earlier incarnations, as a beta reader. As a rule I’m not drawn to horror as a genre, and this is at least marginally a horror book – marginal because there are no vampires, ghouls or zombies. But I just loved it. I haven’t read the published version yet, but it’s been highly praised in the Aust Child Lit Crit journal Magpies as a ‘disturbing and quite terrifying’ book that ‘demands a special reader’. 

whiteside08This book slipped quietly into my mail box with a friendly note from the author. It turned out he’d used a quote from this blog as a back cover blurb, and I wasn’t embarrassed to see myself thus quoted. Stephen evidently plans to produce two very slim vols a year to sell at his performances, and his brief introduction to this one implies that he produced a number of poems in 2008 that didn’t make the cut. He’s a member or ARVOs (Australian Rhyming Verse Orators), a group who meet of a Sunday, presumably in the afternoon, to celebrate their shared passion for bush poetry. Poems of 2008 begins with ‘Triangular Cantaloupe’ a smooth parody of/tribute to C J Denis’s ‘Triantiwontigongolope‘ and proceeds on its cheerful way for 40 pages. There’s a touch of controversy in ‘A Puzzle’, which raises questions about euthanasia in a poem that an introductory note suggests might be for children. There’s political comment, in ‘Australia Spurns a Hero’, about Peter Norman, the white Australian athlete who stood on the podium with the two African Americans who gave the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics:

Norman is a hero, now, throughout the USA.
October 9 has peen proclaimed as Peter Norman Day,
And in Australia’s hist’ry a most sorry day is burned,
For Norman is the hero that his native country spurned.

You can get copies from the BookPod online bookstore or, while stocks last, wherever Stephen Whiteside is performing.

fredaFreda is a self published book of a very different stripe, a biography of Freda Whitlam, launched this morning appropriately enough at the Whitlam Institute in the University of Western Sydney. Noelene Martin, the author, is a friend and neighbour of her subject, and I suspect she chose the self-publishing route to improve her chances of getting the book into print while Freda, now nearing 90, and her elder brother Gough were still around to enjoy it. Noelene is a veteran writer of non-fiction for children (much of it published in The School Magazine during my editorship, hence my interest in the project), and it shows here: while the meat of the story is in Freda’s career as Principal of the prestigious Croydon Presbyterian Ladies College in Sydney, Moderator of the Uniting Church, force behind the establishment of the University of the Third Age in Sydney, and so on, it’s the first hundred pages that really shine.

You can tell that, as well as sifting through piles of youthful correspondence, the author spent hours with her subject, listening to reminiscences. As she said today at the launch, the down side of seeing the book finally published is that all the secrets about Freda that she has held close to her heart are now general property. The little girl who knew the Greek alphabet, but not the English, before she started school; the teenager who walked seven miles from her tutor’s place back to school and couldn’t understand why the Principal made a fuss; the young woman at Yale on a Fulbright Scholarship who slept through a sermon by Eric Fromm; the beginning teacher on an excursion to Alice Springs who couldn’t stand to see a tourist haggling with Albert Namatjira and interrupted to buy a painting at exactly the price the artist was asking: the book recounts these and a myriad other minutely recorded incidents that are steps on a journey to a significant contribution to public life. (As a bonus, we get to see Gough as a shadowy but brilliant big brother.)

The launch was an imposing affair. A handful of distinguished Whitlams, including Gough in a wheelchair, and a hundred or so other people, mostly a good bit older than me, gathered in a spacious hall with modern stained glass windows and were addresses by the Vice Chancellor, Barry Jones (the launcher, who proclaimed with reasonable confidence that he and Freda were the only two people in the room who had corresponded with Ezra Pound, and conceded that she won the competition by having actually met him in the asylum in Washington DC), Noelene and finally Freda herself. Much had been said about Freda’s modesty (her entry in Who’s Who is apparently terse to an extreme and she doesn’t have a Wikipedia page at this moment). Her speech exemplified the trait: she hardly mentioned herself at all, but urged us to be glad at the publication of a book by someone from Western Sydney, about someone in western Sydney, when so many people think that ‘out here we don’t read’. Everyone has a story worth telling, she said, and it was good that one person’s story was being told in this book. In other words, she found any number of ways of praising the book while directing attention away from herself.

You would probably have trouble finding this book, but if you’re interested in Whitlamiana, in the history of the Uniting Church in New South Wales, the University of the Third Age, or the past as a fascinating other country, I recommend you contact the author-publisher at mrsmarty(at)aapt(dot)net(dot)au.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Dinner [2007]

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.

Dinner at the Art Gallery

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.