Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 10, 2014

Bendigo Writers’ Festival 2014

We are just back from a most enjoyable weekend at the Bendigo Writers’ festival.  Thanks to our good friend Gloreea who came to dog-sit our dear old Saffy, we set off yesterday at sunrise and arrived in Bendigo in time for our first session – Alex Miller in conversation with Raymond Gaita.  It is always a pleasure to hear Alex speak and this was no exception.

After that The Spouse and I parted company – he went off to indulge his interest in classical antiquity with a session called The Idea of Greece while I went to Hacks and Heroes, which was a silly name for an excellent session with poet and art critic Chris Wallace-Crabbe in conversation with  Sasha Grishin about his new ground-breaking new book Australian Art: A History.  What’s different about this one is that it brings together indigenous art and the rest of the Australian art tradition, instead of segregating them as so many art histories do.  It also celebrates the work of many neglected artists and there is more prominence given to the work of female artists.  There was a lot to enjoy in this session but I was particularly interested to see Grishin’s PPT slide showing previous art histories – it’s rather gratifying to see that over the decades these have become more and more comprehensive.  The cultural cringe is dead, and rightly so….

Now that I’ve had the privilege of chairing a panel at a literary festival, I realise just how much skill and effort is involved in doing it well.  The aim is to give the authors an opportunity to showcase their books, to talk about their ideas and to engage with the audience, and it’s a matter of asking the right open-ended questions.  It’s important to give all panel members a fair go, to keep the discussion moving along, and to be familiar with the authors’ books so that you can respond to what’s been said.  So when I’m at a festival, I take the opportunity to watch and learn from the best of them   Two chairs stood out for me: Natasha Mitchell in conversation about The Amazing Brain with Doris Brett and her husband Martin, and on Sunday Jeff Sparrow leading a discussion about subjectivity in non-fiction, in a session called I am a Camera.

Doris Brett’s latest book, The Twelfth Raven: A memoir of stroke, love and recovery,  tells the story of her husband’s journey through stroke to recovery, and the intimacy of this session meant that it needed to be handled with tact and delicacy.  Natasha Mitchell was superb: thoughtful, responsive and compassionate, especially with an audience member who shared what was for her an intensely emotional experience.

Jeff Sparrow led his discussion with aplomb.  I am a Camera explored the phenomenon of journalists intruding into the story, and featured authors Moira McKinno and Julie Szego, and also John Van Tiggelen, former editor of The Monthly magazine.  I myself am not very keen on the subjective evidence style but it was interesting to hear it championed, not least because it made me more wary of it!

The session called Science Matters was excellent too.  David Holmes chaired a lively panel consisting of Natasha Mitchell, Jane McCredie, Leslie Cannold, and John Pickrell.  Their passion is science and its importance in 21st century discourse.  The point was well made that if ordinary people don’t have science literacy then they can’t participate in important debates about climate change, and they may make foolish decisions about vaccinations, fluoridation and so on.  Leslie Cannold is a passionate advocate for people to understand that all opinions are not equal and that people need to understand the evidence base that underlies science.   The problem is that scientists are not necessarily good at communicating and too often they think that the facts will speak for themselves.

My last session on Sunday was Homer’s Troy and the Gallipoli Writers, presented by classics scholar Chris Mackie.  It was fascinating to learn that so many of the educated elite who went to Gallipoli had had a classical education, and looked at the enterprise through the lens of Homer’s Iliad.  Gallipoli, in fact, is an old Greek word meaning beautiful city, and some of the British poets we know so well (e.g. Rupert Brooke)  took copies of Homer with them and were excited about the idea of becoming warriors so near to the ancient city of Troy.

Mackie said that WW1 was a ‘very classical conflict’.  It was fought at a time when classics dominated the curriculum for the socially elite, and it is hard for us to realise how this much this mattered to them. There was a bunch of aristocratic young men (described by Mackie as ‘nerds from British public schools’) who called themselves the Argonauts, who saw themselves as re-enacting going to Troy. They had a romantic view of the war and when Brooke died, his death was written about in lyrical Homeric language as ‘dying on Achilles’ island.  DH Lawrence and Charles Lister described Gallipoli as a suitable resting place for those who died on the plains of Troy.

Just as Gallipoli is a place of pilgrimage today, it was in the past as well.  Even Alexander the Great went there in 334BC in recognition that the first hero of the Trojan War was killed there – but he wanted to assert himself not as the war’s first victim but rather as a hero who was going to be like Achilles.   Lord Byron went to Gallipoli too and re-enacted Leander’s swim across the Hellespont – and apparently people still do this today and the authorities stop the sea traffic once a year in August for them to do it!)

I asked Mackie if he thought that perhaps this perception of the conflict in classical terms might have contributed to the scorn often expressed by Australian soldiers for the officer class, and he laughed and said it probably did.

Mackie said that what fascinates him is why some conflicts are remembered in epic terms (Gallipoli) and others (the Western Front) are not – and what I liked about this festival was that there was a place for this type of session along with a variety of others.  Indeed there was something for everyone at Bendigo!

The festival venues are all within a stone’s throw of each other in the Arts Precinct in View Street, and visitors are spoiled for choice when it comes to somewhere to eat (though some coped better than others with the crowds).  We had a delicious dinner at Le Bouchon on Saturday night, all the more enjoyable because we were within walking distance of our hotel and could enjoy the recommended wines without a qualm!

We will certainly be going again next year:)


  1. Lisa, I can understand why you want to attend the festival again next year. So many interesting subjects and discussions. I must try to get there next year.


    • Hi Meg, I am beginning to think that I like smaller festivals better than big ones. There was a marvellous atmosphere at the BWF – lots of friendly chat and the festival program was tops.


  2. Sounds good- especially Chris Mackie’s presentation- I wonder if it will turn up on the internet somewhere? He’s Head of School at my university, but I’ve never actually heard him give a paper. I agree with you about the skills involved in chairing a panel- it’s frustrating when a chair loses control of timing etc. or allows questions to get out of hand.


  3. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  4. That does sound a wonderful festival Lisa. I’ve been to Mudgee, Melbourne and Sydney festivals now, and while all are great in different ways- the Mudgee experience was much more relaxing by far. I hadn’t seen any publicity about Bendigo until just before it was on (I couldn’t have gone anyway), but will definitely keep it in mind for next year- although I was hoping to go back to Mudgee, which was on last weekend- and it clashes with the City to Surf!

    Liked by 1 person

    • When I retire I’ll be checking out the NSW regionals too. Strangely, the big festivals seem to have less choice these days, I suppose they have to sell lots of tickets to cover their costs and so they have to market what’s popular rather than what’s good. (IMO the two are rarely the same).


      • There are so many festivals now that we couldn’t actually get to them all even if we tried! Still at least there’s lots for the wish list. Are you going to the MWF this year?


        • Spoiled for choice!
          No I’m not going to the MWF… I had so many hassles trying to access their program, I gave up. A triumph of style over functionality when half their links wouldn’t load and the PDF printout was too small to read even with glasses AND a magnifying glass. There wasn’t much that appealed last year under Lisa Dempster’s leadership anyway so I couldn’t be bothered.


  5. Glad you had fun Lisa! So much to see, unfortunately (or fortunately) I was unable to get to see a lot of the sessions I wanted to see due to my own involvement in the program this year, I’m hoping to go back to being a viewer rather than a participant next year and take it easy! :) It’s growing year by year and such a wonderful program.


  6. Sounds like an enjoyable Festival, Lisa. It’s fascinating how many towns now have literary festivals. Augurs well for the future of the book and reading – and of regional towns too – I hope. I was interested to read about the Sasha Grishin section. I studied Fine Art at the ANU with him for two years – pretty early in that course’s life at the ANU. He was a great lecturer and tutor. I saw a review of his book in the local paper and was intrigued. I haven’t bought it (yet, anyhow).


    • If you’re seriously planning to buy it, you may be interested to know that there’s a second edition coming out (already!) and it will cover more contemporary art…


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