AS organisers of the 2018 Canberra Writers Festival tie up loose ends, they must be thanking the gods of Parliament House for having played into the relentless theme, “Power, Passion and Politics” with a week of havoc and drama in the house on the hill.
This happy timing (the festival ran from August 23-26 and Malcolm Turnbull was deposed on August 24 ) also cemented Canberra’s reputation as a political capital rather than a city of writers.
An astute hook-up with the Melbourne Writers’ Festival meant that literary luminaries like “Trainspotting” author Irvine Welsh added street cred to the line-up of writers, but even he was sidelined when journalists were told on Saturday that former prime minister John Howard, appearing at a sell-out session with journalist David Speers, would open his session to take questions “about recent political events”.
That clashed with Welsh and several other sessions, including the one I attended with transgender media star and former soldier, Catherine McGregor.
Timetabling seems to be a problem for the festival and organisers need to get their algorithms right to make sure punters don’t find all their choices on at once.
Political comment and commentators were prominent, with figures like Emma Alberici, Malcolm Farr, Chris Uhlmann, Katharine Murphy, Lenore Taylor, Karen Middleton and even Mike Bowers as hosts and guests.
Politically-oriented sessions for insiders dominated, with cute titles like “Good Kenny Bad Kenny” for a session where Mark Kenny and Chris Kenny conversed with journo Alice Workman. Hot topics were preferred over writing per se. Anne Aly’s “Finding My Place: From Cairo to Canberra” and Ed Husain’s “The House of Islam” attracted audiences, but not necessarily for their writing qualities.
But an exception showing that a writerly approach to non-fiction was possible was “Around the World in 80 Trees”, where British writer Jonathan Drori conversed with Canberra novelist and ecologist Karen Viggers. Here the audience discovered that the linden or lime tree features in Proust and was a symbol for the Nordic goddess Freya. As well, I heard, Stradivarius used the slow-growing Norwegian spruce for his violins.
Controversy pretty well guaranteed exposure, as in “Canberra Criminals”, with Tim Ayliff, Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlmann and “Do Oysters Get Bored? A curious life”, where Dorothy Hewett’s daughter Rozanna Lilley conversed with Dan Bourchier and later, under the same title, Karen Middleton.
The festival caters primarily to an identifiable Canberra demographic—people concerned about questions of social and political change, but there are other important sectors in the nation’s capital, which is also a centre of academia, quality writing, intellectual debate and scientific research.
Poetry, often treated with tokenism in this festival, was squeezed into the overarching theme in “The Power, Politics and Passion of Poets”. Food and science met precisely the same fate.
For film, there was Ruth Cullen’s film, “The Scribe”, a doco about speechwriter Graham Freudenberg billed as being “about the love of politics, about why politics matters and the passion behind the staffer”.
The Catherine McGregor session, ostensibly about the process of writing the play, “Still Point Turning”, instead saw playwright Priscilla Jackman and the actress who had played McGregor join in mutual admiration. Then a questioner asked McGregor to analyse the current political situation and the host, a theatre professional, gave up and it became a session about politics.
In short, this Canberra Writers Festival had the flavour of a non-fiction festival, in which writers played second fiddle to social and political questions.