Sydney Writers’ Festival, 2014:
Tuesday had finally arrived. I slowly awake, checking my phone to see if I have missed anything. A few Viber messages and a message from my girlfriend inaugurate my morning. I descend down the stairs and walk into the kitchen, turning on the coffee machine and commence the ritual of the morning coffee.
The time then comes for me to drive up to Katoomba, where the beautiful Carrington Hotel is located, and, the venue for my first event.
I attend the event alone. I walk up the desk and nervously purchase my ticket. I made sure I was early so I wouldn’t miss out on this event. I take my ticket, purchase a glass of Dark Ale from the bar, and sit outside at the front of the hotel. I pull out a book and begin to fill in the time.
A SWF volunteer comes outside and rings a bell, signaling that the next event is up. I walk inside and take my seat. I chose a poor one. I can only see one chair – thankfully, it was where Flanagan would sit.
I strike up a conversation with an elderly lady in front of me – a very benevolent and heartening woman. I explain to her that this is my first literature event, and that I am extremely excited. In my lap, I hold The Narrow Road to the Deep North, complete with post-it notes hanging out in all different directions and varying amounts of damage to them. Passages are underlines, and varying amount of scribble covers some post-it notes. She makes an observation, and we continue talking.
Then, a SWF volunteer introduces the next session, and in walk two men. The session is about to start.
My first ever literature event began with a reading by Richard Flanagan. The reading was taken from his new novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North (pp. 427-431). A novel of callousness, yet a book about love– let me share that reading with you:
He stopped in the middle of the bridge. A light easterly was blowing a cooling sea breeze in, and he gazed at the water far below coughing white and blue waves. On a near point, ochre-red tower cranes stood like sentinels around the giant unclad sails of the new opera house, its intricate skeleton reminding Dorrigo of the fine lace veins of dry gum leaves. Beyond, the late sun was folding the city into hard and bright bands of light and shadow. It was when he drew himself up from the side rail and resumed walking that he first glimpsed her in the distance, momentarily stepping out from such bar of slanting darkness into the light.
A few moments later he saw her again, coming towards him, framed by the arch of the great sandstone pylon that supported the northern end of the bridge, her head bobbing like flotsam on the rolling swell of the walkers around her. He was on the outer side of the wide walkway, in the shadow thrown by the bridge’s vast ironwork. His whole being was concentrated on this stranger who was approaching him on the inner side, a ghost walking in the sunlight, when she again disappeared from his sight.
The third time he picked her out in the crowd she was closer. She was wearing fashionable sunglasses and a sleeveless dark-blue dress with a white band around the hips. She had two children with her, small girls holding one of her hands. The tragic noise reverberating in the riveted ribcage of the bridge meant he could see the children, laughing, chattering, and her replying. If he could not hear, he still knew: she was no ghost.
He had thought her dead, but there she was, walking towards him, noticeably older, though to him time had made her more, not less, beautiful. As though, rather than taking, age had simply revealed who she really was.
The abyss of years – with their historic wars, their celebrated inventions, their innumerable horrors and miraculous wonders – had, he realised, all been about nothing. The bomb, the Cold War, Cuba and transistor radios had no power over her swagger, her imperfect ways, her breasts longing for liberation and her eyes rightfully hidden. Her lighter, bleached hair seemed to him more becoming that her natural colour; her body, if anything perhaps a little thinner, making her more mysterious; her face, slightly gaunt with its defining lines, seemed to him full of some hard-won self-possession.
Over a quarter of a century after he had first seen her through dusty shafts of light in an Adelaide bookshop, he was shocked by how little her changes meant to him. So many feelings that he thought he had lost forever now returned with as great a power as when he had first known them
Would he stop or would he walk on by? Would he cry out or would he say nothing? He had to decide. So few moments to weigh lives known and unknown, his life now, their life then, her unimaginable life now. He could see the children well enough to recognise in them what he felt to be her unmistakable features. And something in them that was not her and which pained him far more than he thought possible. Perhaps she was happy in her marriage. He was finding it hard to breathe. A thousand mad, maddening notions ran through his mind as he kept on walking towards her. He told himself that he could not barge into her life, causing chaos; he told himself he must, that all was not lost, that they could start again.
She was drawing nearer. He tried to slow his step as his mind sped ever faster. His stomach churned and his balance was uneven. He was close enough now to see the small mole that defined her upper lip. Now he did not think she was as beautiful as ever, or that she was beautiful at all. Only that he wanted her. She was wearing a necklace that sparked an uncontrollable insurrection of memory. Had she seen him? He would call out to her. He would! And then, with the full light of the sun behind her, he saw her pinch her dress between her thumb and forefinger and tug it back up her cleavage. For a moment, perhaps, he expected that in that transcendent light she would now welcome him into her arms and her life.
But here is only light at the beginning of things.
As he went to say something, he realised they had walked past each other without a word. He kept on walking in the shadow, continuing to look straight ahead. He had got it wrong. Her, him, them love – especially love – so completely wrong. He had got time wrong. He could not believe it, yet he had to. Her death, his life, them, everything, everything wrong. And the gravity of his error was so great, so overwhelming, that he could not fight it and turn around, call out, run back. Only when he reached the other end of the bridge did he find the strength to finally turn.
Amy was nowhere to be seen.
He stood in the middle of the walkway, with people spilling all around him – as though he were just one more urban obstruction, a bollard, a bin, a body – and he though of Lot’s wife and what a lie that story was. You become a pillar of salt when you don’t turn and look back. He realised he should have stopped her and he realised he now never could. He should never have walked on and yet he had.
Had he chosen? Had she? Was there ever a choice? Or did life just sweep people up, together and away?
Around him, behind him, beyond him were people, moving very which way. Wild flying particles in the light, lost long-ago, as he knew everything now was lost, in the steel and the stone, in the sea and the sun and the heat rising and falling in the cloudless blue sky, lost in the ochre cranes and the thundering expressway.
For a moment longer he remained there, an insignificant figure amidst the soaring iron half-circles and the roaring traffic, the blue day and the sparkling water. Thinking: How empty is the world when you lose the one you love.
And he turned back around and kept on walking, pathless on all paths. He had thought her dead, But now he finally understood: it was she who had lived and he who had died.
While Flanagan was reading the above abstract, I realised that I had read this passage in a completely different way to how Flanagan was. I had read this part with some pace, some form of urgency in order to get to Dorrigo’s decision to stop Amy or not. Flanagan slowed the pace right down. In doing so, you understand the prolonged and thoughtful decision Dorrigo had to make. And, by the time he had made his decision, to stop Amy, she was nowhere to be seen. The passage holds a completely new meaning after the reading, and a sense of a love lost – again.
After the reading, Flanagan returned to his seat for his conversation with Geordie Williamson. The conversation touched on many themes within the book. One of the highlights of the conversation was of how Flanagan wanted to write the book. Although it is essentially about human brutality, it is a book of love. He explained to Williamson that he was always interested in writing a book about love, and intended the book to be about love, even though his father had lived through the horrors.
After the conversation, audience members can ask questions about the novel. An overwhelming majority of the questions focused upon relatives who, for many reasons, did not share their experience. There were some great questions, and some dull questions. Admittedly, I wanted to ask a question about the small theme of memory within the book. However, I didn’t; I was too anxious.
After the session, I was able to meet Flanagan at the book signing. All that I will say is that I was a stuttering mess. It is safe to say I made a fool of myself.
Unfortunately, life outside the SWF means that I cannot attend events – such as Fiona McFarlane and Eleanor Catton – during the week. My girlfriend and I plan a full day on Saturday.
Saturday, May 24 begins early: the pick up and drive into the city to make sure we found a parking spot, and to make sure we arrive in time to inhale coffee and food before the first event.
We arrive ahead of schedule and make for Coffee & Papers with the SMH. We both make a small mistake by sitting outside and are unable to listen to the discussion from the panel. (This was roughly the same time as Thailand was going through another Coup – where one of the panelists, Zoe Daniel, was a foreign correspondent.) With our papers in hand, we leave early to be in time for A Coloured History.
At the Richard Wherrett Studio, Henry Reynolds, historian and author of The Forgotten War, The Other Side of the Frontier, and Why Weren’t We Told? Alongside Bruce Pascoe, author of Dark Emu, discussed Australia’s hidden past with Lydia Miller, as mediator.
A Coloured History was of great interest to me. I am a trained historian, and completed my honours degree with my supervisor who has written several research works on Aboriginal history. It was with great disappointment that I walked away from the seminar with no additional material about Australia’s hidden past.
We were then on the move to our next event: Simple Living. “Can living with less make us happier or is the simple life not as simple as it seems?… Richard Glover talks to Luke Slattery, Greg Froyster, Inga Simpson and the Finch Memoir Prize winner.” That’s all we were able to get – we were turned away due to the event reaching capacity. What made it worse, being turned away, was that my girlfriend was only interested in this event.
In an attempt to brighten our spirits after being turned away, we walked to the bookstore. After making several purchases, we retreated to the reading chairs set up along the pier. Looking across the water produced some stunning photographs.
Next was lunch at The Rocks and we both enjoyed some reading time before lining up well before our next event. While in the line we inhale some more coffee to keep us stimulated for the next conversation.
The last of our planned events was Mark Isaacs On Nauru, chaired by Sarah Ferguson. Australia’s growing absurdity in asylum seekers has seen the Abbott government build a wall of secrecy around offshore detention, the asylum seekers themselves, workers, and also several tragic events. The discussion was important due to the overwhelming silence on the issue. The questions put forward by Ferguson stimulated Isaacs to convey awareness of the day-to-day lives of asylum seekers and the traumas they all face.
I wish I could talk more about this event; however, I had an irritable gentleman sitting next to me complaining to me about the brightness of my screen. Nonetheless, the final question put to Isaacs from the audience was, along the lines of: ‘how can we change the policies we currently implement?’ Isaacs’s response, I thought, was inspiring: it took into account the current political climate and the contempt expressed to each side of politics. (I’m going from memory, again, but this is the tone of the response) “Each side looks at each other like they are superior to the other. The left look at the right and champion their stance on human rights, talking down to the other side. If we are going to find a compromise for a more humane policy, each side must have respect for the other side.”
Thus, the session was over. Our long, yet exciting day had come to an end. Once again, we walked up the massive set of stairs and walked into the rocks, packed ourselves into my car and headed home. My first Sydney Writers’ Festival was over. Now the countdown begins for the 2015 SWF.