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Writers’ festivity

June 2012

  • Dave Graney

At the airport in Melbourne on a Thursday morning, flying to Perth for a writers’ festival. It’s not my first but it feels like it. Going out West as part of a posse and staying in the festival hotel etc.

This morning is a bit special as Kevin Rudd has just resigned and Prime Minister Julia Gillard has ordered a leadership spill for the Labor Party. In the Qantas gate area, George Megalogenis from The Australian strains to catch the audio from the TV screen suspended high on the wall, the sound all but inaudible against the ambient noise of the departure area. He, and many other political commentators, are going to be on the other side of the country during a tumultuous weekend of politicking. Marieke Hardy politely kisses Robert Manne. George waves at him, Robert doesn’t see. This pretty much sets the bar for the intense, wordy awkwardness which will ensue over the next few days.

On the plane I watch a sci-fi movie starring Justin Timberlake on a large screen. It looks foggy and pixelated and with no sound in my ears, seems kind of interesting in a 70s Euro psychologically taut kind of way. I try to listen to some music on an antique Discman but the all-enveloping low hum of the jet only lets puny, treble notes through. I read an old British music magazine, stories about old musicians and records that were rightly ignored the first time around. Back in the old days – those days – my own low hum and powerful forward thrust had revealed only the puny trebly nature of these acts. Now, with vintage experience and the general middle-aged phoniness of the current scene I am too slow and actually hear someone suggest there may have been more to these clowns. I doubt it!

Once landed and reunited with our luggage we all pile into a school bus. This is cute! I engage with a likely fellow who is a fourth time novelist. “Does it get any easier?” I ask. “No!” he says and we both laugh. He has never been out of Melbourne, let alone here to the West Coast. I give him the benefit of all my prejudices, explaining how, like Brisbane, they have excellent arts festivals because they throw so much moolah at it. The Art. “They worship us as GODS!” I inform him, shouting above the din of the diesel powered but largely empty bus. We laugh. Five minutes later he catches a glimpse of the WACA and shouts in extraordinary joy! As if he has been impressed.

“Hush now!” I say. “Don’t fuck it up for the rest of us!”

We arrive at the hotel where we are told our rooms won’t be ready for another two hours. “Look, I’m from Melbourne!” I say with a smile. This usually opens any door around but alas, WA hotels operate to a strict turnover timetable and will not budge the clock for an Eastern whim, no way.

A festival worker arrives to work out a script with me for our informal chat, which will occur two days into the future. I have time to kill so I swing along with her European efficiency. We shoot the shit over a coffee in the intense Perth heat and I dazzle her with preposterous ambit claims to entertainment authenticity. She humours me. We tear down a world and build a teepee wherein people might feel it nice to be invited. Different.

Back at the hotel lobby, tempers are fraying. Robert and Anne Manne nod at the festival worker (Anne is to be next in line to trade some clues with). They are more concerned with winning entry to their room though. Stuart Littlemore walks past and the festival worker follows in his silken wake. I am forgotten. Peter Fitzsimons sits about in a loud bandana. I think to myself that it is no wonder that Andrew Bolt cuts through this mob like a hot knife through butter. We need new smartarses – fresh wits!

The Festival opening night was a speech given by Germaine Greer. The bus was chock full of literary freaks. I sat in front of others, straining to hear their measured, even tones tease out the guts and the tail of the ongoing drama of Rudd and Gillard. “Well Crean reacted like a normal person to a defeat and just found his way through his career”… “It’s interesting – leaders both going for a presidential pitch…” Fascinating, and rude, to eavesdrop on such high-toned, private talk about public matters. But I’m well into my life and still playing the outsider in so many situations. It’s my attitude, my tone – I can’t fight City Hall.

The talk was also mostly inaudible due to the air being choked up with zombie talk from the Brisbane trio to the fore of me. The bus stopped and I saw Robert Manne greet right-wing humourist Imre Saluzinsky with, “It’s fated we should meet – this is Anne…” This was delivered in grey, robotic tones and very little eye contact made. 

Germaine had filled the large hall at the UWA. A giant organ flanked a large glass structure seemingly ripped straight from an Aztec temple. Germaine would after refer directly to the room, “I love this mad Italian fantasy in which I am speaking….” The talk had begun with us being welcomed by local indigenous people. A fellow called Derek blew most impressively on a didgeridoo and, using circular breathing, kept a note going without a break for a good five minutes. He toyed with the sound billowing through the room. He could have stopped anywhere into his “song” and we would have been amazed, so exotic and alien was the sound and its very shape and sense to us. Germaine spoke of “eco feminism”, touching on slime moulds and nasal microbes and winding up with an 18th century poem by a woman about a hare being hunted. She was talking about man’s place in his own hierarchy with women and animals being below him. She was questioning it, of course. She also advised everybody against cleaning too much or sterilising their homes.

Back at the hotel I had quickly settled into a kind of routine. It was like I’d been sent back to school and was on a trip with a class. The august Frank Moorhouse, standing at the lift with his white linen suit jacket over his shoulder was asked by a younger colleague as to how he was travelling. Frank stopped, paused within that stop as if to consider the question more thoughtfully and answered that he was indeed very well and that may have been to do with the “gastronomic tour of the south west” he had indulged in for a couple of days. Later, in the lobby, I said hello and asked what he was up to for the rest of the day. “Another panel – and more talk of sex,” he replied. I surmised that it went with the abundant folding stuff that this part of the country was awash with.

I went for a walk into the shopping area of Perth. The West End? The sun was fierce. A crusty, scabbed gent fell onto the bench beside me. “Mate! Where the fuck am I?” “Hay Street Mall, Perth,” I told him. “Mate! I don’t know! I come from Rockingham! I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout this!” I repeated my opinion of our co-ordinates and pointed in the direction of the station but also informed him that I wasn’t a local. “I dunno nothin’ about this!” he cried and stumbled off into the bright afternoon.

I went down to the Festival area three hours early, as I was bored of the hotel. I sat in the green room and checked out the race. Soon I was very pleased to renew my acquaintance with Ramona Koval. Until recently she had run the best book show in Australia but the ABC, in its wisdom and new drive to completely dunce down the corp, had lost her in order to get more direct feedback from the listeners as to arts and literature. We accompanied a friend of hers, who wanted to smoke, outside and continued an arch but icily witty skewering of the various talents that Radio National has put in place in their mania for hearing the opinions of the audience, that is to say, the ignorant. “Where are the experts?” we cried. And laughed. Robert and Anne Manne joined us. They all spoke warmly of the UWA grounds, where we were standing. Robert mentioned that Mick Malthouse had been given a doctorate at Latrobe. Ramona and I were disgusted, though her opinion was formed completely without the distortion of knowing how dull Mick Malthouses’s pronouncements can be. She is not sporty. Stuart Littlemore hovered around our tight circle but we held to our structures and he had to go and play with Peter Fitzsimons, a fellow Sydney-sider. It was only right. We Melbournians enjoy stirring the denizens of Sin City. Cashed up, but lacking our quality tones, all vintage EQ and valve compression.

I then sat around with Marieke Hardy and John Birmingham. These felt to be more peers and contemporaries. I missed the old school manners and exotic personal tics of the elders I had been hanging with, however briefly. I felt the ambience turn to matters of pop culture. It just happened. No one was taking care of things.

I then sat through an hour of the comedian Fiona O’Loughlin being interviewed by a younger comic. Like all the panellists and talkers – thrown together by an arts administrator after a bottle of scotch and a round of darts on the deck one warm night. Comedians are neurotic at best. Fiona had some badness, an interesting mix of Australian slackness and show business remove. Totally unresolved tensions. The interviewer was parochial and banal. (Older people should interview younger people – it’d be more fun). It helped that the audience was swinging around the same pole and things went very smoothly. My session was next. In my mind I imagined the audience changing completely, which they hadn’t really. A lovely sunken garden in mock ancient, overgrown ruin design. I was interviewed by Simon Collins for an hour, sang a song called “Life’s a dream”, signed some books, walked back to the green room and took a bus with George Megalogenis and Andrew Robb to the hotel. George likes Wilco.

The next day I met a new friend on the bus. Selena Hastings, an English woman with a delightful London accent who was to do a panel on biographical writing. “Who have you written of?” I asked. “Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh and Unity Mitford,” she replied. Bang! Bang! Bang! Top shelf life material there.

I saw the last part of her talk. She was on a panel with Fiona O’Loughlin and Andrew Robb who had a book out about his battle with depression. A very disparate bunch. The grounds of the UWA are lovely. The venues are called “The great hall”, “The secret garden”, “the tropical grove”, “the Romeo tent” and several others. I did a panel with Fiona O’Loughlin and Anne Manne on writing memoirs, moderated by the poet I had met days before, Tinecke, who had put in a lot of research into everybody.

Back at the green room I was yacking again with Ramona Koval and Patricia O’Donnell. There were a couple of young authors into “Young Adult” fiction there but I like to parlez with the pros. Going at the same speed, with sure knowledge of the limits of our worlds. 

Later, back at the hotel, I went for a swim in the pool which was outside, on the fifth floor, in the warm night and looked straight into a reception room where a rich young West Australian wedding was in full flight. 





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