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.




2 Responses to “Bendigo Writers Festival 2017”

  1. Marjorie Theobald Says:

    Hi Cheryl – I really must get off my backside next year and come with you. I need to be dragged kicking and screaming away from my history of Castlemaine (which, incidentally, is quite an intellectual workout too – must start bombarding you with chapters). Thank you for such perceptive and though-provoking reviews of the Bendigo Writers Festival.

  2. cheryl Says:

    Thank you for your comments, Marjorie. Yes, you must come to the BWF next year.

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