Annual, biennial – and does it matter

There is much debate (possibly also in Adelaide) about the wisdom of making the Adelaide Festival and the Writers’ Week annual rather than biennial. The blog tends to think that for the former it was a mistake and for the latter a bit of a problem, given the retreat of publishers from the grand days of the Week, but a problem which is surmountable simply because from time to time during any Writers’ Week you learn about a new writer or some new idea.

The mistake for the Festival this year was probably the mounting of the James Play trilogy. The National Theatre of Scotland produced it in conjunction with others. A Scottish nationalist would probably say they should never have involved their English counterpart company. Compared with the Scottish company’s solo effort with the brilliant play, Black Watch, which appeared at the Perth Festival a few years ago and has been a huge success around the world, it was disappointing and sometimes downright embarrassing even though some of the style echoed that of Black Watch. The blog went to see Black Watch in Perth with a friend who was ex-British Army, the blog being ex-Australian Army and their respective partners being neither. It was, agreed all four, a brilliant piece of theatre and said much about Scotland, Middle East military adventures and just how brilliantly evocative theatre can sometimes be. The James Play trilogy also seemed to suck oxygen out of other Festival events and, while in the second Festival week (which the blog didn’t see) there was apparently some good stuff, there seemed to be less of the less monumental things which fill in a festival.

The Writers’ Week was also ostensibly a bit thin which at least allowed lots of time to visit the Adelaide Art Biennial at the wonderful South Australian gallery; Tandanya, the indigenous gallery; and, an excellent overview of past and present Papunya art at the Flinders University City Gallery in the SA State Library.

But it was the Writers’ Week which stimulated most. The session featuring the Ted Hughes biographer, Jonathan Bate, was exactly 40 years after the notorious Claudia Wright interview with Ted Hughes and Don Dunstan and the protests outside the Adelaide Town Hall with women brandishing placards saying “Murderer”. Readers should buy the Bate biography (as well as his Clare biography let alone his distinguished work on Shakespeare) but if you are short of money park yourself in your local bookstore and read pp 359-363 of the Hughes book.

The Festival also continued its recent emphasis on New Zealand poets (often neglected in Australia despite the best efforts of the Australian writer and poet Barry Hill) with the former NZ Poet Laureate, Bill Manhire, featuring in two sessions. We don’t have a Poet Laureate in Australia which, given the likely choices of our politicians, is probably a good thing. If you read nothing else of Manhire read 1950s in his The Victims of Lightning and if possible find a film or recording of him reading it.

There was much else. Simon Winchester, author of too many fascinating books to list, talked about his latest, The Pacific, as well as canvassing a huge range of other topics including why US publishers use such long and wordy sub-titles (it’s about search optimisation). The Russian-American journalist, Masha Gessen, told us how mistaken the FBI’s profiling policies were in talking about her book on the Boston Marathon bombers as well as in an earlier session (when she could get a word in between Simon Sebag Montefiore and interviewer Luke Stegemann) telling us much about Putin’s Russia. Montefiore was, nevertheless, fascinating although sadly he didn’t recount in either session he appeared the mention of the wart on Rasputin’s penis – a wart of significant historical interest given its impact on many Russian aristocratic women – which is in his new book on the Romanovs. The blog was as delighted by this information as it was to discover, when reading Montefiore’s book on Potemkin, that the allegedly movie set Potemkin villages were actually real and that the accusation that they were just facades was a later propaganda invention.

Robert Dessaix’s session on how Enid Blyton shaped his life was packed with people of a certain age who could finally fess up that, whatever bad things were in Blyton (and Biggles) according to modern librarians, they liberated Robert’s and many other’s imagination. Laura Thompson’s sessions on her book about the Mitfords attracted lots of Mitford tragics although the book (according to the blog’s wife who has now read it) seems to have been heavily influenced by duchessing by the Mitford Duchess and Diana Mosley. The only two Mitfords not to meet Hitler (Nancy and Jessica) got compliments for the former for her writing but condemnation for the latter.

A surprise for the blog was a session with Jane Caro and Annabel Crabb. The blog had sadly somehow formed a negative impression of the former but who it learnt was actually perceptive and persuasive. And the latter made the most telling comment of the week – the Norwegians took their energy wealth and created a fund to finance themselves forever while Australians bought flat screen TVs. Incidentally the Weekend FT (5-6 March) has a fascinating article on the Norwegian government’s investment in preventing forest clearing in Brazil and Indonesia – a wondrous contrast to Australia’s direct action program – affordable because of that sovereign wealth fund.

Perhaps two of the most interesting sessions were with Craig Munro, former QUP editor, and Anne-Marie Slaughter who was once a senior official in Hillary Clinton’s State Department. Munro’s book recounts some great stories about publishing, Writers’ Week and writers. Anyone even vaguely interested in any of the above should read it – Under Cover published by Scribe. Professor Slaughter summed up Hillary Clinton’s problem – possibly a very good (even great President she claimed) but poor candidate. But then – is she the least poor  Democratic candidate? Well no you might say, its Bernie Sanders, given that while he is a sort of moderate Australian or European social democrat he is a dangerous unelectable radical by US standards. Unfortunately he will neither win nor presage a run by Elizabeth Warren.

Other highlights were Brenda Niall talking about Archbishop Mannix and demonstrating why Jim Griffin (and Paul Ormonde who completed Jim’s Mannix biography after Jim died) were perhaps more sympathetic to Mannix than one would have imagined possible; Chris Wallace-Crabbe who competed with Montefiore in a session but whose signing queue after the session was equally long; and, the crime writer Peter May, explaining how his background in film and TV shaped his plotting.

Annual or biennial?  Festivals are important to cities such as Adelaide. In Melbourne, as former Festival Director Robyn Archer once said, you can organise your own festival every week and whether we need as many festivals in Melbourne as we have is moot. Adelaide is also being transformed by overseas students (just witness the transformation of the West End by the University of South Australia) but as SA manufacturing disappears (thanks to Abbott and Hockey) education, arts, culture and agriculture need to pick up of the slack. So annual it probably is.