The Melbourne Writers Festival recently completed its 30th annual festival, but this year was my first time attending it. I wrote a few of my observations in a previous blog-post, but since I couldn’t do justice to all I had seen and heard in a single post, I saved some of it for this post.
It would have been impossible to attend everything, so I had to select those sessions I really felt strongly about, sometimes foregoing other sessions that looked just as interesting. There was such a wide variety, and in so many venues, that any festival goer was spoilt for choice.
One session which made a deep impression on me was part of a theme entitled Words and War, which was done in conjunction with the Shrine of Remembrance. The education auditorium is a recent addition to this beautiful building which honours the memories of those who have fallen in war. The setting is a striking one, its forecourt paved with simulated trenches, its walls decorated with paper poppies and its roof a red transparent symbolic poppy through which one can see the main Shrine itself.
The session I attended – Lest We Remember – was a discussion between Liz Byrski and Clare Wright, hosted by Christina Toomie, and was about those who are marginalised in the writing of history.
Liz Byrski has written 12 non-fiction and 8 fiction books, but her latest, In Love and War: Nursing Heroes is about the experiences of a particular group of nurses and patients. During the Second World War, East Grinstead was an English village close to the airfields used by RAF and American fighter pilots, many of whom suffered horrific burn injuries, so it was the ideal place to build a special hospital for the treatment of burns. This hospital ran along different rules from normal hospitals because of the importance of rehabilitating the badly scarred men, and making them feel as normal as possible. Because of this, the nurses were actively encouraged to fraternise with their patients.
The patients, when interviewed decades later, had only good memories of their time spent there, and of the wonderful nurses. However, many of the nurses had a different version of events. At first, Liz couldn’t find any of the nurses because no proper records had been kept. When she did manage to track some of them down, many wanted to remain anonymous and had never even told their families about the part they had played in the war years. Proof that the history of war is generally told by the men, not the women. Liz trod a difficult path in trying to present both sides of a delicate situation.
Clare Wright is a television writer and producer who, in time for the one hundred years commemoration of the First World War, had embarked on a special series of programmes about Australian soldiers, as remembered by the generations that followed them. She found similar problems to Liz during her research, because every family wants to remember their ancestor as a hero and she found that not all soldiers are the heroes that their families have believed for a hundred years.
How does one present the story of a soldier who might have been shot for cowardice, or who died from what, in the record books, is called SIW: Self Inflicted Wounds? SIW can mean anything from a bullet shot at close range through one’s hand, in order to be exempt from further fighting, to more definite and final suicide. (Fans of television’s Downton Abbey will recognise that some of these issues were raised in that excellent series.)
Later that day I attended a session called Older and Bolder, hosted by the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre. All attendees (mostly older women like myself) were treated to a glass of wine before the event. Chaired by Renata Singer of the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre, the panel comprised international author Simonetta Agnello Hornby from Italy, actress and author Sarah Winman from the UK, and Shobhaa De from India, all of whom gave their theories on how various societies treat aging women.
Society, it seems, embraces aging men with distinguished grey hair and life experience, but tries to pretend that aging women with grey hair and wrinkled skin are invisible. This is not helped by Hollywood and fashion trends, but women who are aging need to embrace their aging process because the alternative – dying young – isn’t desirable for any of us.
This was an inspiring, empowering session, and perhaps the best example came from a woman who stood up during the Q&A to tell us that she was 48, and had a started playing in an all-girl band a year before, at the age of 47. If anyone had told her when she was 46 that she would do such a thing, she wouldn’t have believed it. She urged everyone in the room to follow their dreams and take ownership of whatever they want to do.
One evening during the following week I listened to two astrophysicists – Brian Schmidt and Katie Mack – talk about the universe. I must confess that this made me feel rather small and insignificant since I didn’t understand most of what they were saying, but my sister enjoyed the session. Not really my thing, but it was interesting to hear something a little different even if it was, pardon the pun, way above my head.
The final session I attended was about adapting a particular series of books into a television series. The Phryne Fisher Murder Mystery books, set in 1920s Melbourne, are written by local author Kerry Greenwood, who agreed to the television rights after meeting Deborah Cox, one of the producers and the chief writer of the adaptations.
I read my first Phryne Fisher book during one of my previous visits to Melbourne, and four books later I have become a firm fan. I have never seen any of the television episodes, so I was eager to find out a little more about it. While I would have loved to hear Kerry Greenwood herself speak, she was not scheduled to be at the session. However, producer Deborah Cox was joined on stage by Ashleigh Cummings, the actress who plays Dot, and the two of them were not only entertaining, but provided plenty of information on why certain stories or books are adapted in ways that differ from the original.
As a fitting footnote to this last story, I visited the historic Melbourne home called Rippon Lea a few days ago, to see an exhibition of the costumes used in the television series. The house itself has on occasion been used as a location for some of the filming, as have parts of the extensive grounds. This beautiful estate is part of the National Trust of Australia, and is very much a working museum which often houses exhibitions of this kind. The ballroom in the grounds of the estate is also a popular wedding venue.