I’m just back from my first Byron Bay writers’ fest, still a little dazed by its wondrousness, which I suspect is impossible to convey in words. Mostly because so much of its attraction is in the atmosphere: its green pastures and blue skies, the fuzzy warmth of being beachside under the sun, the babble of book talk everywhere you go. And of course it attracts some wonderful writers – well over 100 of them, including Bob Brown, Katherine Boo, Thomas Keneally and Gail Jones – and enthusiastic audiences.
It’s a much bigger festival than Reality Bites – five sessions are run in five marquees over three days – and I was only there for two days and didn’t have much free time, but here’s some news from the Byron Bay Writers’ Fest 2012.
1. My first panel ‘Breakthroughs: How new words and languages fuel innovation’ was absolutely fascinating, thanks to the excellent chair, writer Ashley Hay, and my illustrious fellow panelists, Nobel Prize winning immunologist Peter Doherty and mathematician and writer Robyn Arianrhod.
Peter Doherty’s latest book is Sentinel Chickens: What birds tell us about our health and the world, a wide-ranging look at the way birds help us to interpret the changes in our increasingly challenged and unpredictable world. Robyn Arianrhod’s latest book is Seduced by Logic: Emilie Chatelet, Mary Somerville and the Newtonian revolution, about two brilliant women and mathematicians who worked with Newton’s equations in the centuries following the publication of his controversial Principia.
Somehow Hay wove together the disparate subjects of our three books to guide a compelling discussion of the subtle links between new words and languages and our ability to conceive of new ideas. This connection seemed especially obvious in the realm of mathematical physics, for example with Newton’s conception of gravity. As Arianrhod says, mathematical language is ‘the closest we can ever come to perceiving the more subtle kinds of physical “reality”‘.
Doherty introduced us to a new word, phenology, which led us to talk about climate change, capitalism and economic growth. In Sentinel Chickens, Doherty opens his chapter ‘Hot birds’ with these words:
‘PHENOLOGY: that’s where we need to go next. You don’t know what that is? Well, neither did I before I started to read up on this fascinating area of environmental science – a topic that is so different from my research field of immunology and infectious disease.’ The word is not in his 1996 dictionary, but it’s defined by Google as ‘the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by seasonal and inter-annual variations in climate’.
Doherty discusses climate change in the same chapter: ‘Though it may not be possible to attribute any single, isolated climate event to anthropogenic warming, the increased prevalence of extreme occurrences is exactly what climate scientists have been predicting for more than a decade. If you think that this is just academic hot air, watch what happens to insurance premiums for beachfront or ‘tree-change’ properties over the next few years – that is if it’s possible to get any insurance coverage. Money talks.’
I find it intriguing that the accomplished scientists I’ve met in the last couple of weeks – Ian Lowe, Peter Doherty, Robyn Arianrhod – all feel the urgency of climate change and its direct connection to unfettered economic growth. On the other hand, most economists do not – especially those steeped in the economic orthodoxy of the postwar years.
2. This contrast was made clear at Byron Bay in the first session I was able to watch – or, should I say, in the snatches of conversation I was able to hear from outside the back of the packed main tent, the ‘SCU Marquee’. Inside enthralling the crowd were George Megalogenis and Ian Lowe in a panel chaired by Richard Fidler called ‘Is the big country big enough?’ Among other things, Ian Lowe was presenting his views on the dangers of unchecked economic growth for the environment and the future of the planet – and George Megalogenis was singing the praises of economic growth, its power to provide employment and the material fruits of life.
Economic growth versus climate change and environmental destruction is shaping up to be one of the biggest debates of our times.
3. The only full session I was able to get to was ‘Female desire’, with writer Susan Johnson and sexual anthropologist Bella Ellwood-Clayton in a conversation chaired by Caroline Baum. The tent was overflowing. Johnson talked mostly about her latest novel My Hundred Lovers: the autobiography of a body, and Ellwood-Clayton about her book Sex Drive: In Pursuit of Female Desire.
The highlights for me were Johnson reading from her novel an erotic passage about a croissant (who knew that there was a croissant season?) – I LOVE croissants – and Ellwood-Clayton talking about limerence (Baum’s new favourite word). I also enjoyed hearing Johnson’s stories of growing up with Our Bodies, Ourselves and inspecting her friends’ vaginas as part of their getting to know their bodies, as well as a conversation about the wall of vaginas at MONA.
4. Despite not including croissants or vaginas, my other two panels were very entertaining. The first, on the role of the classics in our culture, prompted some intriguing discussion thanks to my fellow panelists’ quirky views on the subject.
First up was poet John Tranter, who’s more interested in contemporary writers than the classics, but he told a wonderful story of the life-changing powers the classics are capable of (in this case Dostoyevsky). And he said that for him, Beowulf, Biggles and Ion Idriess’s Nemarluk have much in common.
Sydney Morning Herald literary editor Susan Wyndham said the classics provide cultural bonds and opportunities to share stories, and spoke about reading Anna Karenina and the pleasures of reading aloud from Ulysses at Bloomsday at Bondi Beach this year.
Writer Wayne Macauley told us he’d educated himself (in lieu of going to university) by methodically reading all the second hand books with black spines – the mark of a Penguin classic. That the black spine denoted the best of literature he took as an article of faith and believes the idea of a classic is a valuable marker of books that are worth reading. He also talked about the first Australian classic to really inspire him, Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, for which he’s written a moving introduction in the new edition published by Text.
Shane Maloney, the only panelist who’d written a certified classic – his first Murray Whelan novel Stiff has just been published in the Text Classics series – spoke scathingly of the (idea of) classics. He associates classics with pain and obligation, and made us laugh with his memories of being given Henry Handel Richardson’s massive 3-volume The Fortunes of Richard Mahony to read at school for matriculation (which was how he knew it was a classic, even though he only recently learnt that Henry was a woman).
My last panel was with writers John M. Green and Gideon Haigh – their wit, charm and encyclopaedic knowledge combined so well at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year that we did it all over again at Byron Bay. We talked offices, work, the revolutionary powers of the printing press and Xerox copy machine, the office in the electronic age, double entry, Leonardo da Vinci, and many things besides. Who knew Florence’s Uffizi was built as offices? (Haigh took his wife there as part of their honeymoon tour of the offices of the world, while researching his latest book The Office. Luckily for her the world’s offices include not only the Uffizi but the pyramids and the skyscrapers of Manhattan.)
5. I met some inspiring people at the festival, from its new director Jonathan Parsons, Northerly festival magazine editor Elissa Caldwell and her photographer son Nat, to my fellow panelists and other writers, especially writers Sarah Dowse and Tony Taylor (whose beautiful book Fishing the River of Time has just been shortlisted for the Age Book of the Year awards along with Double Entry, and who told me amazing stories of growing up in London on the Thames where his father was harbour master – I can’t have enough stories of the Thames) and sociologist, tv presenter and style maven Adrian Franklin who by chance also told me stories of rivers, lakes and fishing.
Thanks Byron Bay Writers’ Fest. You are the best.