Thursday, 3 May 2018

Today at the Sydney Writers’ Festival

It was a sunny, warm autumn day when I arrived at the Seymour Centre, on the way to Carriageworks, and I bought a ticket for a later session. I had wanted to see the session titled ‘History’s Next Generation’ but it was sold out so I settled for ‘Straight from the Headlines’ featuring the ABC’s Tony Jones and Michael Brissenden, who had both written thrillers.

I arrived at the main venue ahead of time and queued to buy a coffee. There were police in the café, it seemed like there were dozens of them and I wondered why. The guy who wrote my name on the disposable cup did it poorly so when they called out the name of the person whose name was written on the cup the guy initially thought it was “Nathan”. I took my coffee to a couch and sat down, then went out and headed to the Co-Op Bookshop to see what books they had in stock. Their shop is very small compared to how it looked when I worked at the university a decade ago. They have a very limited range of stock, mostly textbooks. I had wanted something about the 17th century in England but they had nothing in that line. I bought a novel by Japanese writer Kobo Abe and returned to the main venue.

I sat down and read the book for about 10 minutes then queued for the first session I had bookmarked in my calendar, ‘Immersive Histories’, which featured three historians, Adam Clulow, Peter Hobbins and Paul Ashton, all Australians. There were more people queueing for the free event than could be accommodated in the hard seats the venue held. The session was hosted by Caroline Butler-Bowden, who works at Sydney Living Museums. The most interesting part of the session was when Clulow said that universities should expand the parameters that they use to choose what types of output by academics are used to grade performance. He had produced a website based on his research into a famous legal case that had soured relations between Britain and the Netherlands in the 17th century and had received an unusual amount of feedback from members of the public who had found the website and used it.

Hobbins talked about his research into the North Head quarantine station, which was in use for a considerable period of time in the past. Ashton talked about his research into a shipwreck in Victoria in the 19th century. I asked a question about the viability of historical fiction considering that people in earlier times were motivated by emotions and ideas that we might find foreign. “The past is a foreign country,” I said. How can we trust historical fiction when it tries to pull us back into the lives of people who died a long time ago. Hobbins answered the question, and pointed to the work of Kate Grenville, which I thought was a bit superficial. I was not entirely satisfied by the answer.

After the talk I went to the university’s swimming pool where there is a café and had some Chinese food. It was cheap and filling. The food and a drink cost me $16. Then I headed down to the Seymour Centre and listened to Brissenden and Jones talk about their novels. It was interesting to get their take on the way the political landscape has changed since the arrival of social media. Brissenden said that the rules have totally changed from the way they were in the days before social media. He said that people online live in echo-chambers, himself echoing a line I have heard other people use, but it is one I disagree with. Both writers read from their novels. Jones’ book goes back to terrorist attacks in Sydney in the 70s, attacks that most people nowadays will have completely forgotten.

When the talk was over, I left and headed back to the main venue to listen to Melanie Cheng talk about literary fiction and its ability to foster empathy. She gave a lecture with notes based on an essay she had originally published in Meanjin. “Knowing how well literary magazines are patronised, I feel confident that you will not have read it,” she wryly commented at the outset. In her talk she referred to medical studies that have been conducted into empathy, mainly in the US and Britain. The questions that came later from the audience showed that there is a significant appetite for this kind of material in the community.

People like being able to have contact with the authors who entertain and inspire them. The general feeling in the audiences I was a part of during the day was that writing is important to people, although most of the people at the events were older women. There were a few couples aged in their 60s but single men like me were rare.

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