Archive for August, 2017

Day 3 BWF 2017

August 15, 2017 - 10:30 am 4 Comments

She Followed Her Heart was the title of the session featuring Marie Munkara, a survivor of the Stolen Generation.  Since it was staged in the lecture room of the La Trobe Art Institute—another excellent venue—this much more intimate atmosphere allowed the audience to interact with the author and her story. Karin Altmann struck just the right note as the convenor of the session, enabling a fascinating story to unfold and the audience members to feel they were part of the unfolding.

In 1963, the author was taken from her full-blood Aboriginal mother. She was three years old. The rationale for this bureaucratic act was  that  having a Chinese father, Marie was considered to be too white to be brought up by her natural mum. She was adopted by a white couple who were strict Catholics—though apparently not so when it came to their own behaviour, for, from a very early age, Marie was sexually abused by her white father. His wife, knowing that this was happening, merely averted her gaze. When she was 28, Munkara discovered her Aboriginal origins and set out to find her birth family. This is where the humour of the book, Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea, is generated: a rebellious young First World woman is suddenly thrust into the Third World, and she’s not going quietly. Shamefully, third world conditions still exist in Aboriginal communities today, a point which Marie Munkara makes very clear in this book. It is part of its humour, which is  irreverent and subversive enough to compel the reader to  follow Marie’s search for her Aboriginal identity. However any fair-minded reader would understand the anger that it thinly veils.  Without the humour this story could be very hard going, for this is a subject which many white readers would find too confrontational to be starkly enunciated.


Poetic State was the last session for me at this year’s BWF. There were others that I would like to have attended, but couldn’t do so since they were held at the same time as those I did attend. The Moral Tightrope was another I would like to have caught, but it was rather late in the day for my friend and I, who had to return home. So I am reiterating my hope that the organisers of the BWF recorded the sessions. Many would make excellent radio programs—for the community FM or RPH stations if not the ABC. Just a thought.

Three of the four editors of the new Contemporary Australian Poetry anthology were the speakers at Poetic State. They were David Musgrave, Judy Johnson and Martin Langford. The fourth, absent member of the editorial committee, was Judith Beveridge. Simon Patton competently convened the session.

Poetry is the poor relation of the other writing forms. The economy doesn’t like it much, therefore there are relatively few publications around. Schools—unless individual teachers are passionate about it—don’t seem to bother teaching it much any more and it has  disappeared as a subject of serious study from many universities. However, if you were to ask some elders in our community if they liked poetry, they would probably give you a verse or two of  “I Love a Sunburnt Country” or “The Man From Snowy River,” for example, poems they learned at school, even though they may have completely forgotten what they did last Friday.

Contemporary poetry is harder to negotiate for readers than the traditional, narrative forms, however, and as the poetry in the anthology comes from the last 25 years of Australian writing, it is contemporary. Judy Johnson said that each poem in the anthology has a cultural voice, which defines it as Australian, as well as the poet’s personal voice. Martin Langford said that there is a “sense of space” in Australian poetry, and that it has a “groundedness”  to it. Scientific observations, for instance, are  reflected in colloquial language.  Simon Patton believes that Australian poets project a sense of estrangement from the environment. (Is this a clue as to why we allow so many abuses to our environment?)

The introduction to Contemporary Australian Poetry points out that publishers such as A&R, OUP, Penguin and Heinemann, have stopped publishing individual collections, yet small, independent publications have been proliferating. It also says “there are more people writing poetry of publishable standard than ever in this country” so clearly, many Australians love their poetry.

For me this was an interesting session, giving me much to ponder. In fact, the  BWF  as a whole was a very valuable three and a half days.

Though this may seem a statement of the obvious, the best Writing Festivals are not just Wordfests, they are also Thinkfests. Ultimately they become Talkfests. Of course, they are equally an opportunity for writers to be introduced to their reading public and to sell their books. Bendigo, once again you’ve created a splendid environment to facilitate such activities and you’ve got a lot of tongues wagging about important issues. Well done! Now, dear readers, you can see why I so love the month of August.



Day 2 BWF 2017.

August 14, 2017 - 7:59 pm No Comments

Having missed The Pleasures of Leisure with Robert Dessaix and Caroline Baum—which I heard was wonderful—I’m wondering if the Bendigo Writers Festival is recording any of the sessions. If so, I would like to acquire a copy of this one.

In the slot at the Capital Theatre after Caroline and Robert, David Marr was predictably sublime. His subject was The White Queen aka Pauline Hanson. His Quarterly Essay on the same subject is as much about her followers as it is about herself:  not the poor and disenfranchised as they are often represented to be, but members of the Middle Class who have jobs and, quite possibly, Subarus. They are secular, not at all religious, they do not attend churches—a glaring difference from the followers of Donald Trump, who have also been characterised as “fundamentalists” and “knuckle-dragging rednecks.” Yet it’s possible Hanson sees herself as the Antipodean component of the Donald Trump entourage. Marr describes Hanson’s maiden speech and those that followed, as “evangelical meanness.” Yet these were the very speeches that John Howard himself dipped into, though presented in another guise.

Pauline Hanson, says David Marr, is the “classic Liberal.” She was endorsed by the Liberal Party for an unwinnable seat (Ipswich, Queensland,  historically held by the Labor party) made a thriving business from her fish and chip shop in Ipswich, and then expelled from the Party for embarrassing comments  about Aboriginal people—which John Howard (remember the Intervention?) and the mining companies used to their own advantage. Howard actively courted the 25% of the electorate that voted for her, using such Hansonisms as “I can choose who comes into my house” regarding Australia’s Refugee Policy.

When Hanson was convicted and jailed for electoral fraud, One Nation toppled. But she’s back, and David Marr cautions us against underestimating her. She is a brilliant communicator, he says, despite her grammatical glitches, and she  hates progressive elites with moral views as much as she hates to see money spent on people who are out of work. Rather like John Howard. In fact, when an audience member asked facetiously if Pauline Hansen is the love child of John Howard, Marr said, “No, they are twins, separated at birth.”


The next session at the Capital was scheduled as Uncomfortable Truths, and was supposed to be about The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse and George Pell. However, since the Cardinal has been charged by the Victorian Police with multiple historical sex abuse offences himself, the program was changed to The Long Goodbye, about the slow death of The Great Barrier Reef.

This session emerged from yet another Quarterly Essay, this time by Anne Krien, using the title originally used by Raymond Chandler for one of his crime fictions. Though to any fair-minded person, the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef falls into the category of serious crime, it is sadly, no fiction.

A passionate voice for it, Anna Krien gave us some sobering facts and figures about our Reef. Coral bleaching is a sign of  stress. Eighty to ninety precent of the far north of the Reef has bleached and most of it died instantly. At the moment the southern part of the Reef is okay, but with pressures from Adani, the mega coal mine, how long will this last? Thousands of kilometres of mangroves have turned white and the Murray has had massive algae bloom because of the increase in the temperature of the water. If you’re wondering why the Queensland government is flirting with Adani, it is because so far it has spent 10 billion dollars on coal-related infrastructure, and wants to get that money back.

The NSW Anti-Corruption Commission should be rolled out across the country, says Anne Krien, requiring transparency about everything from what land is dug up to where the minerals are sold. The revolving door between lobbyists and their staff and the politicians must be shut.


The Art of Debate, something I had eagerly anticipated, was for me, the low point of the Festival. Perhaps if it had been run as a debate, or if the rules of debate were adhered to, a more coherent discussion would have emerged. As convenor, Annika Smethurst seemed to have no control over the journalists—one representing a Murdoch newspaper and the other the Guardian—so that the most interesting speaker, Kon Karapanagiotidis, seemed hardly to get a word in. Though I was more inclined to agree with the sort of things the Guardian journalist was initially saying, she basically hogged the discussion, speaking far too long (though the Murdoch journalist did start the proceedings with a very long spiel) that she quickly became very irritating. She did not project or vary her voice effectively, so that much of what she said became towards the end of the hour just a blur of undifferentiated sound. Or rather, noise. I would have liked to have asked a question about the way the journalists were batting around the terms “Left” and “Right” regarding the major political parties, and to Kon, about why there was no public debate re the plight of our asylum-seekers. But of course there was no question time, the Guardian journalist was hanging on to the bitter end, so no one else could get a look-in. Ironic when you consider the title of this session was “The Art of Debate.” Quite a few people walked out. I wish in retrospect, that I had.


Music for Meditation in the Engine Room at the Old Fire Station, brought back our sanity. There were two musicians, Michael Johnson on harp and Evripides Evripidou on guitar. . . Or were they really two angels in the guise of mere men? My friend and I were feeling rather bludgeoned by the last session and the meditation with beautiful music was sweetest balm.


Bendigo Writers Festival 2017

August 11, 2017 - 10:58 pm 2 Comments

August  is a great time of year for me. Not only is Old Man Winter losing his teeth and voluptuous Spring just around the corner, but it is also the time for the Bendigo Writers Festival.

Now if you read this blog last year you would have seen what I thought were the highlights of the BWF 2016: Julian Assange via video link-up appearing at the gorgeous Ulumbarra theatre, the always charming Anne Summers, Kerry O’Brien talking about his biography of Paul Keating, a blogging workshop, local poets’ and artists’ collaborations, and much, much more.

Today was the stunning start of the BWF 2017— though there was an excellent writers’ workshop delivered by Cate Kennedy in the Trades Hall yesterday, called Into the Vortex, which seemed to get a lot of creative juices flowing.

Bendigo has many stately, elegant, and rather beautiful buildings of huge historical significance which often become venues for festivals, yet today the BWF excelled itself even further by locating a session at the Dunolly Courthouse and yet another at the Maryborough Railway Station. Driving 55 or so ks from Castlemaine to Dunolly was a joy. Glorious countryside, not a lot of traffic, and the subject of the talk we were to hear was pure seduction: The Songs of Trees presented by the American-based British biologist, David George Haskell.

This gentleman’s premise is that all of nature—and this of course includes us, humanity—is intertwined. And that if we take the time to really connect with the other parts of nature, listening to trees, for instance, we will gain some rather extraordinary insights into the world, and yes, even into ourselves. Perhaps we have to re-learn to listen. He pointed out that all trees have their own wind sounds and rain sounds and they are a veritable nexus of interconnections. Quoting Iris Murdoch, who referred to “unselfing” as a way of our becoming part of the whole of nature, he spoke of the sounds trees make as they grow and then  produced the “sonnification”  of a twig which expanded as it absorbed water and shrank as its fluid evaporated. A computer program converted the sounds picked up by stethoscopes listening to the tree songs into electronic piano music. Which we heard today at the Dunolly Courthouse! Mind-boggling stuff. Gloriously mind-boggling stuff.  You can read David George Haskell’s book  The Songs of Trees (Black Inc 2017) to learn more about this intriguing subject.

After some probing questions from an intelligent and articulate audience, we had another treat in store. The local CWA provided us with a delicious morning tea. Actually it was such sumptuous fare that the friend I had driven to this event and I, couldn’t even look at the possibility of lunch. Such gracious country hospitality!

More delights followed in the drive back to Bendigo for the rest of the festival. (Sadly, we wouldn’t have made it to Maryborough in time for Bryan Dawe’s session). We just had to stop at Dunolly and Tarnagulla and have a look around, because they are such beautiful little towns. We were in thrall to the landscape.

And now I am about to backtrack. . .

One of the things I always notice about a successful Writers festival is that complete strangers will come up and talk to you about what they’ve been hearing. There is a such a frisson of excitement in the air it’s like the electric charge before a storm, and yet it is generated by the flow of new ideas.  People want to share their thoughts with others. . . or perhaps by saying them aloud they are explaining them to themselves.  This happened in the Dunolly courthouse around lunchtime. People were excited.

David George Haskell, a scientist who invites us to experience nature through our senses, can also write. This is the very first paragraph in The Songs of Trees:

“For the Homeric Greeks, kleos, fame, was made of song. Vibrations in air contained the measure and memory of a person’s life. To listen was therefore to learn what endures.”

This is both poetry and prophecy, and I love it.


Arrived in View Street, Bendigo, the arts precinct of this fine city, my friend and I located the Capital Theatre (next to the Bendigo Art Gallery) to catch some more sessions before returning home. We were spoiled for choice, but were particularly impressed by one which introduced us to two women who have written books about the attractions and traps of excess. Jenny Valentish focuses on addiction in her book, Woman of Substances, and Brigid Delaney takes on the so-called “wellness” industry in Wellmania.

Jenny Valentish gave us a personal eye-view of drug and alcohol abuse which was heart-breaking in its  candour. Since  addiction to alcohol and illegal substances  is much more widespread in our communities than most Australians will readily admit, this is not only a timely book, but one which we should all make a point of reading. No doubt someone quite close to every one of us could benefit from the courage of Ms Valentish.

Brigid Delaney spoke of  con-men (and women), the snake-oil salesmen who claim to have alternative cures for incurable diseases or maybe just recipes for turning us  into the shapes and demeanours that are the wet-dreams of  admen . . . all at very substantial costs to ourselves, of course. Posing as good business practice and therefore sanctified by the market economy, the extremely lucrative wellness industry may even be killing some of us.

Interestingly, during the interactive part of this session, when the authors were asked about strategies to prevent both individuals’ abuses of substances and corporations’ abuses of individuals, they came up with a similar answer. Clearly since governments are not interested in protecting their citizenry—especially when there is money to be made pushing the poisons and potions—we should look to smaller community gatherings  such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Or  from groups who organise retreats to focus on more spiritual solutions. The answer, they suggested, will probably only be found in our own grass-roots communities.

The Lure of Crime was another session I had been eagerly anticipating, yet I was disappointed that there were only two writers of the crime genre (Ray Mooney and Robert Gott), for the third (Claire Corbett), appeared to be a speculative fiction author. Since crime and speculative fiction are two distinctly different genres, and both have legions of fans who are not necessarily interested in the other, I felt there was a mismatch here. I would like to have heard more from Ray Mooney, whose personal experiences may well have informed his writing, but found the interviewer did not really pick up cues from this author to probe more deeply into his work.

But tomorrow is Day 2 of the Bendigo Writers Festival, promising a wonderful array of high-protein brain-food. See you there.