Saturday, 24 August 2013

MWF 2013: No Safe Place

Okay, so yesterday when I said I would be going to Women of Letters today, I meant it. Except that my dementia-riddled cat kept me up half the night and I had a very uncomfortable sleep punctuated with weird dreams and when I dragged myself out of bed this morning I felt a bit sick. I went to the Writers Festival, because Writers Festival, but I'm not quite feeling up to driving anywhere this afternoon as there is a high chance I may fall asleep at the wheel. So you get this blog early! And I get to take a nap this afternoon.

This morning I was back at ACMI for No Safe Place, an event hosted by Clare Renner. She was interviewing Morris Gleitzman and Deborah Ellis about their books written for children, and more particularly, their books that focused on young characters in danger. I was drawn to this event because of the subject matter, but also because I am a massive Morris Gleitzman fangirl and I like hearing him speak about his books and readership. However, I hadn't done much research on Deborah Ellis, and was pleasantly surprised to realise I had actually read some of her work before.

Morris Gleitzman spoke about how he still uses humour in his stories, no matter how bleak the setting/plot because the more he puts his characters in jeopardy, the more he wants to give them tools to cope with it. He enjoys starting with a character, then getting to know them and the biggest problem in their lives. He focused particularly on friendship in his Felix series (After, Once, Then and Now) because he likes to believe that maybe, MAYBE, a friendship could provide some kind of safe place, despite the worst of human circumstances surrounding it. He maintains that innocence is not the same as ignorance; rather, innocence is a lack of cynicism, and therefore she be preserved as much as possible. He thinks his target readership of 8-12 years old is the perfect age to believe in your own power to influence change - kids of that age are often old enough to know how to question things, and not blindly accept everything the adults around them say and project, but young enough to predate the rush of hormones and cynicism that can often accompany adolescence.

Deborah Ellis believes that children have a really strong sense of justice and injustice, and that 'safety' is an illusion, no matter how much we would like it to exist (which I agree with also). She was also quick to remind the audience that the present that happens today only happens because of decisions made in the past. Too easily we forget this, and lose the chance to make the right decisions for the future. Clare Renner also quoted Malala Yousafzai's UN speech when she thanked the writers for using pens and paper as their most powerful weapons, which was a really lovely way to finish off the talk.

There were heaps of questions asked, a few from some really articulate kids. I joined the line to have my book signed, and this boy in front of me was sort of hopping on the spot as he saw the authors come to sit down in front of the signing queue. 'I can't believe I'm really here!' He said, and I melted into a puddle of book appreciation. It's moments like these that I love best about the Writers Festival, and I wish, wish, WISH I'd bought tickets to more events.

Friday, 23 August 2013

MWF 2013: History's Script and This Is Scotland

It's that time of year again - Melbourne Writers Festival! I really regret not buying my tickets earlier this year - three of the events I wanted to attend were booked out when I got my act together (Tavi's World, Book Club and Lucrezia Borgia). I have booked tickets for four events now - not nearly as many as I would like to attend, but money and time are two issues that I can't really compromise on at this stage of my life, so it is what is is. Today, however, was my first of three festival days!

I took the tram in to ACMI at Fed Square and fronted up for History's Script at 11.30. Michael Cathcart from Books and Arts Daily on Radio National was interviewing Sarah Dunant and Jane Sullivan, and recording the whole session to broadcast on Tuesday. Before I even talk about the session, I just have to say that it made me even more ticked off that I'd missed the Lucrezia Borgia session. Like, ragey. It would have been so good (especially as Sarah Dunant was involved, and has just written a novel on the Borgias called 'Blood and Beauty').

Sarah Dunant is a well-known historical fiction and thriller author who studied history at Cambridge, but her interest was really piqued from reading historical fiction. She feels that gender affects people's approach to history and her obsession and specialisation in the Italian Renaissance was influenced by Florence, where she now spends a lot of her time.

Jane Sullivan is a journalist who has written two novels, the most recent of which is called 'Little People' and set in Melbourne in 1870. She came to Australia in the late 1970's and found out that Melbourne used to be known as 'the Chicago of the South'. She has not studied history beyond high school (she studied literature at university) but came to history through her love of stories.

Both of these women were excellent speakers, and their passion and enthusiasm was evident. Sarah Dunant likes to put the 'soil' in place in her manuscript first - the politics, culture etc - then create a character from that, and stick to the character the stuff that she knows. There was much discussion of the 'licence to invent' when writing historical fiction and where the lines are drawn, and the existence of different truths - after all, 'the victors write the history' that is most commonly known/accepted. Sarah Dunant in particular talked about her disagreement with the Showtime series of 'The Borgias' - why add sex and violence and nudity and sensationalism, when the real truth of the history is just as crazy and exciting? Jane Sullivan pointed out the importance of afterwords - how they can acknowledge what's true, what's untrue and what the author/historians are still not sure about.

Michael Cathcart spoke about 'pluralising' history - how history is inclusive of lots of different versions of truth and we know have British histories instead of British history and Australian histories instead of Australian history. Sarah Dunant also expanded on her theory of gender and historical fiction - men are now coming to read historical fiction more and more, so have the men changed, or has the historical fiction changed? It's also important for women, particularly young women, to read about times (often quite recent) where women didn't enjoy the same rights we do. It shows us how carefully we need to protect what we do have.

Having thoroughly enjoyed myself, I inhaled some caffeine and went to the Deakin Edge simply stunning Atrium for the This is (Sparta) Scotland panel. Liam McIlvanney was chairing, and the Scottish writers taking part were John Burnside, Kirsty Gunn and Doug Johnstone, which pretty much meant it was an hour of auditory bliss with that many accents floating about. They read pieces of their work to us, and then discussed what it meant to be a Scottish writer, and the literary backdrop of the country. There was particularly interesting mention of different brands of nationalism and the discomfort of being appropriated into it, being known as the 'voice of a nation'. Coming from a nation famous for their crime writers, Doug Johnstone deliberately includes family life and mundane domesticity in his high-octane crime dramas in order to explore those contrasts. John 'bleak is my middle name' Burnside expressed delight that here at the Melbourne Writers Festival 'you can walk from one cultural experience to another without getting drunk along the way', and they all mentioned other writers who had influenced them in various ways - Iain Banks and Irvine Welsh (Doug Johnstone), Neil Gunn (Kirsty Gunn - no relation!) and Hugh MacDiarmid and John Muir (John Burnside).

I came home to blog about these sessions in preparation for tomorrow, when I'm going to No Safe Place, and also a Women of Letters salon. Expect another blog in the next 48 hours! Meanwhile, I have some reading to catch up on.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

An unexpected fall into Sydney

Long time readers of my blog (hello, three or four people that you number!) might recall my last dealings with Jetstar, when I went to Japan with family. Due to the 18-hour delay on our flight to Narita, we were each issued with a $100 Jetstar voucher. It was set to expire in September, and I hadn’t given it too much thought, because I figured I wouldn’t have the time to go anywhere. But after receiving my August roster, and noting that I had a spare two days, I thought I’d check it out regardless. $77 later (plus the voucher money), I had plane tickets to Sydney. I didn’t get too excited until I realised it had probably been a good thirteen years since I had been there, and started to realise how much I had forgotten about it. I was able to stay with Margi (Mum’s cousin) and it was so good to catch up with her and see Padstow again.

Dad and Riley drove me to the airport, and as we turned into the carpark, I got an email from Jetstar to say my flight had been cancelled. Ah, Jetstar. Not that it surprised me, but I figured I may as well go inside and talk to someone at the desk. Luckily they were able to fit me onto a flight that only left half an hour later, so we all sat in the food court and waited. Ever since my first European trip, when I was 18, I have simply loved being in airports. I don’t even know why. I think I just associate them with traveling and all the great experiences that go along with traveling. Either way, I get really giddy and excited in airports. I’ve even managed to get over my fear of flying. I mean, no one likes flying (and if you do, you’re weird and I don’t want to talk to you about it), but I’m over that phobic sense of doom that comes from being in the air in a big metal box.

Margi picked me up from Sydney Airport because she’s awesome, and I had the best night’s sleep in one of the comfiest spare beds I’ve ever slept in. Perfection.

I got up early on Tuesday (well, 7.30, but that’s pretty early considering I was on holiday) and walked to the train station. The sun was already warm and delicious and there were no clouds, and I was listening to a Sonya Hartnett audio book and Padstow is gorgeous, and it really was such a gentle and perfect start to the day. It took about fifty minutes from Padstow Station into Town Hall Station, because luckily enough, Sydney Airport is on the same line as Padstow, which is handy for visitors. I bought a hot chocolate and a bacon and egg muffin and sat in this cute little cafe to wait for the walking tour to start (I was way early). The walking tour I went on was run by I’m Free Tours, and most of you will know that I was a guide for this company in Melbourne for about five months this year. Annoyingly, I had to give it up because uni was too demanding of my time, but I wanted to do the Sydney tour, which has been running for four and a half years! My guide, Justine, started the tours with her boyfriend Ross, and was really interested when I told her I had worked with the tours in Melbourne.

We started at the Town Hall, and walked through the Queen Victoria Building. We saw the Pitt St Mall, and Hyde Park, including Raymond the dancing pensioner, made famous in a Tropfest film! Woo! We walked along Macquarie St and saw the old rum hospital and the Hyde Park Barracks Museum, and Sydney’s oldest church, St James. The little cross on top was once the highest point in Sydney....

St. James' Church - formerly the tallest building in Sydney
We walked down Martin Place, peeking in at the anchorwoman reading the news, and saw the enormous GPO, with the ANZAC cenotaph in front. We saw Sydney’s sweet attempt to compete with Melbourne’s street art/laneway culture - in Angel Place, they’ve suspended a canopy of 110 empty birdcages as a tribute to the many species of birds driven out of their natural habitat by the building of the city. It was quite beautiful. We had a break in Australia Square, with the charming sculpture of the ‘Waiting’ businessman, by Seward Johnson Jr. After our break we kept walking, heading up to Customs House with it’s scale model of Sydney beneath a transparent floor. That was pretty impressive. Customs House also had a number of swastika-like symbols in the foyer, and a sign up explaining why they had chosen to keep them there, despite the very negative Nazi connotations associated with the symbol. The swastika, at some point or other during history, has been appropriated by most major religions and stands for peace and Customs House says it’s important to remember it’s lovely origins, and try and reclaim them.

We headed through the beautiful Circular Quay, past buskers and holiday makers, saw Cadman’s Cottage and walked up through the Rocks. I’m Free Tours also offers a night tour of the Rocks at 6pm (all nights except Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve) that goes into more detail about it’s crazy history full of mystery, murder and mayhem. I had planned to do it, but found myself far too tired, so I’ll save it for my next trip. We did, however, see some parts of Rocks on the normal day tour that were interesting: the only roundabout in Sydney where it would be legal for me to graze my sheep; the Hero of Waterloo pub, famous for getting sailors drunk, waiting for them to pass out, then kidnapping them and forcing them into slave labour on ships; and a view and explanation of the history of Fort Denison. The tour finished at the Overseas Passenger Terminal, with a perfect view of the Opera House. The tour was chock-full of interesting history and trivia about the city, much like the Melbourne tour. It’s such a good way to spend a morning, and includes heaps of useful info about what to do during your stay. It also includes a free map with info on free stuff, cheap eats and attractions, and transport. Most importantly, make sure you TIP. Yes, it’s free, but it is the guide’s job. They make no wage or salary, so they live off their tips. As a former guide, take it from me. TIP DECENTLY.

After I’d finished the tour, I stopped for lunch of roast pumpkin, apple and chestnut winter salad and a cider and I sat outside and basked. I headed to The Rocks Discovery Museum which provides a pretty comprehensive history of the area divided into four ‘eras’ - pre-European colonisation, as a convict settlement, as a port, and the 20th century history. I had a huge chocolate ice-cream and went back to Customs House and lurked around their library trying not to spend all my spare time indoors. By the time I hopped on a train back to Padstow, I was nearly asleep on my feet. I accidentally power-napped when I got home and lay down on the uber-comfy bed, but half an hour later I was up again, and spent the night catching up with Margi and eating pizzas. Bliss!

The next day I let myself sleep in for an hour, but I was still on the train and in the city by 10.30am. After breakfast, I did the Writer’s Walk around Circular Quay, which comprises about 60 plaques set into the ground stretching all the way from the Opera House, round Circular Quay nearly to the Overseas Passenger Terminal on the opposite bank. I think I managed to miss a few plaques (I don’t think I quite reached 60) but I took photos of some and read every word. They encompass both living and deceased writers, who are with Australian or who have visited Australia. For instance, May Gibbs and Banjo Paterson are obviously mentioned, but so are Charles Darwin and Arthur Conan Doyle. It was a real eclectic mix. 

I headed into the Museum of Contemporary Art because it was so close by, but, embarrassingly, I didn’t look at any of the art. Instead, I spent lots of money on presents at the gift shop. I was waiting to start a guided tour, but I was investigating my map of Sydney and thought I’d try the Art Gallery of NSW instead, so I walked from Circular Quay, through The Domain, to the Art Gallery. I stopped for lunch and had a grilled chicken burger with avocado and Swiss cheese and then spent an hour wandering around the European collection at the Art Gallery. It’s handy knowing what I like to look at most - pre-20th century European art - because it means I can be in and out of an art gallery quickly, particularly if I’m pressed for time. The Art Gallery of NSW has some really beautiful sculpture as well.

ANZAC memorial at Hyde Park
I walked from the Art Gallery, back through The Domain and down into Hyde Park and went to the ANZAC memorial. It’s a really solemn place, but strikingly beautiful with a really moving ‘sacrifice’ sculpture in the middle. There’s also a little museum on the bottom floor which is free to look at (as is everything I did today!). My legs felt like someone else’s, so I headed back to Padstow, stopped for an orange juice at a nice cafe near the station, and walked back to Margi’s. Margi really kindly drove me to the airport and I was on a plane, with a stomach full of airport pad thai by 6.30. Sean picked me up in Melbourne and I went home to unpack!

It was a great mini-break, and a wonderful way to rediscover Sydney. I’ll definitely be back soon, but I still maintain that Melbourne is better. I also really enjoyed sightseeing on my own - moving at my own pace, doing only the stuff that really interested me, eating HUGE amounts of food...yeah. Loved it!