The universe works in mysterious but synchronous ways: Byron Writers’ Festival

11 Aug

Last Wednesday I sat in Byron Bay library updating apps on both my apple devices, one of those annoying time sucks we do to placate the gods of digital technology. I grabbed a few books at random from a display case to pass the the time. One mammoth, glossy coffee table book entitled ‘Wendy Whiteley and the Secret Garden’ looked inviting. I knew within a few pages it was a book my garden besotted mother would adore. I emailed Dad to ask if she already had it. 
Then there was the novel I’d downloaded last week on a whim, ‘The Women’s Pages’, by Debra Adelaide. It appeared on several best seller lists and seemed a light read, welcome respite from the kindle book I’d just finished, Magda Szubanski’s wrenching memoir, ‘Reckoning’. It was wonderful.

I was aware the annual Byron Writers’ Festival was on from Friday to Sunday, however with severe storms forecast and Mum and Dad coming for an overnight visit Sunday I put the festival out of mind.


The storm was even worse than predicted and we heard on the radio that wind gusts wrecked several of the festival marquees. Staff and volunteers worked overtime and the Festival opened as planned, if a little waterlogged. Local news reported both opening day and saturday were sold out. Suddenly it ocurred to me I should take advantage of expected finer weather on sunday and make my first foray into a writers’ festival.

A quick scan of the huge program online confirmed plenty of interesting sessions on sunday. Former politician and environmental activist, Bob Brown and his partner, Tasmanian wool farmer, Paul Thomas, were first up talking about their new travel memoir, ‘Green Nomads’, and I noted that Australian National Living Treasure, the cartoonist, artist, poet and author Michael Leunig was featured. A few clicks and $130 later a day pass arrived on my phone.

 Michael Leunig

Mum and Dad arrived in their motorhome a day early to park alongside us at Gypsy Hill. Dad immediately set to work figuring out what was running down our battery. We spent a happy time catching up on family affairs over meals in our caravan. Mum’s knee is still tender after she wrenched it a couple of weeks ago so she was happy to take it easy.

Sunday brought the promised return of sunshine and I set off early to make the first Festival session. It was only when I’d settled into my chair and was half listening to introductions that I read through the program in detail. At that moment I realised the universe had synchronised my day for me. In addition to the high profile speakers I noted a panel discussing the genre of memoir featured Magda (along with the very funny Mandy Nolan, Richard Glover and Rosie Waterland). The following session was Debra Adelaide discussing ‘The Women’s Pages’. On top of that I had the frighteningly talented journalist and writer, Sarah Ferguson, (ABC TV’s ‘The Killing Season’) with Mathew Condon as a replacement for Helen Garner. Finally, I had to laugh silently when I read that Janet Hawley would be chairing a session on ‘Creating Sacred Spaces’ with Wendy Whitely, architect Peter Stutchbury and philospher Damen Young. Thank you universe!

Paul Thomas (L) Bob Brown (R)

Mathew Condon and Sarah Ferguson

L to R Janet Hawley, Peter Stutchbury, Wendy Whiteley and Damon Young 

As is my journalistic habit I took a few notes and distilled them here:


Michael Leunig was asked where he finds proof of love in the world, to which he immediately replied (to peals of laughter), “I can’t give you the address”. He went on to say he believes our definition of love is too closely confined to couples. He says we must all work with love and that creative work is not creative if not done with love.


In his work Leunig seeks to return to a childlike state of innocence, a kind of ‘yearning to invite the fairies’. It seems his fairies bring whimsy, invention and peculiarities when they visit to deliver the quirky, humourous characters he is renowned for. He insists these characters are born fully formed with their own integrity and character traits and that sometimes they contain great wisdom. This is not to say his creative process is easy. Far from it. He says every good piece he has ever done he’s done ‘through regression, not progression’ and quoted Winston Churchill’s maxim, ‘When you are going through hell just keep going’.


When asked about happiness Leunig said the concept of happiness wasn’t something that he had an ‘impulse towards’. He said he is more inclined towards holding happiness and despair together as a kind of ’emulsion’ and added that ,’A sense of meaning in life is better than happiness as it equals sanity which is a way of people being coherent to each other’.


My overwhelming impression of him is of a slightly bemused, humble and gently humourous creative genius. He richly deserves his National Living Treasure status.


The session on ‘Writing our Lives’ (Mandy Nolan, Richard Glover, Magda Zsubanski and Rosie Waterland) was more like a sit-down comedy club that a panel discussion. They riffed hilariously on Byron Writers’ Festival being renamed the ‘Festival of the Scarves’, such was the preponderance of scarf-wearing women, and joked about death and funerals, deafness, Mullumbimby, shopping and failure. They have all had more than their fair share of real life drama to deal with but through the alchemy of humour they’ve turned it into gold.


Sarah Ferguson didn’t give much away talking about the making of the three-part political ABC TV documentary, ‘The Killing Season’, which dissects the machinations behind the removal of Kevin Rudd from the prime ministership and the elevation of Julia Gillard from deputy PM to PM.


Ferguson’s companion book, ‘The Killing Season Uncut’, fills in some gaps that couldn’t be aired. It was clear from Ferguson’s responses to Mathew Condon’s questions that working with both Gillard and Rudd was deeply fraught, however her commitment to ‘peeling back the layers’ of both politicians and delivering them to the audience remained her prime motivation throughout the long drawn out production process. The book appears to be the piquant relish on the side of the main dish. Probed about her techniques for interviewing she said, ‘forensic preparation is everything’. The obvious final question from the audience was, “Will there be an Abbott and Turnbull story? Perhaps ‘Captain’s Cull?'”. Ferguson said she hoped too but that the political cycle had yet to conclude.


The final session of the day, “Creating Sacred Spaces”, chaired by the journalist and writer Janet Hawley, contrasted the practitioner (architect Peter Stutchbury), with the artist and gardener (Wendy Whiteley), and the philosopher-author (Damen Young).


Each of the speakers presented a quite different, highly personal understanding of sacred space, but the common thread was a connection to the natural world, however ephemeral that might be. I particularly liked Stutchbury’s exhortation to architects to feel the generosity of the natural space a house will sit in and to develop a feeling of how the building will age over time. He asserts that there is no great architecture without serenity (he referenced the Pantheon in Paris). He says a common failure is to only be concerned with building the ‘here and now’. Whiteley talked about appreciating the life force in nature which may be a ‘wildness’, and not necessarily always serene. She said ‘moments of magic, harmony, peace, and moments of recognition can occur anywhere at any time’ and that they are elusive. Young is a practical philospher who likes to conjure up the profound in the every day by small family rituals of intimacy, such as holding hands with his wife as they walk around their neighbourhood and nightly reading to his eleven-year-old.


I left the session, and the Festival, smiling, reflective and lighter in spirit. I hope to return next year with my mum.

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