Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 12, 2017

2017 Woodend Winters Arts Festival

You might not have noticed but I’ve had a weekend offline.  We’ve been away and I decided to take a break.  No laptop, no internet, no email, and not even Facebook on my phone until I had a photo to post: Amber looking rather regal while enjoying her holiday at a neighbour’s place.  (It doesn’t take her long to commandeer a sofa!)

But now we’re back home after a wonderful time at the Woodend Winter Arts Festival, which is always held on the Queen’s Birthday long weekend.  Woodend is a delightful little town and although it’s early winter and the weather is crisp and cool, the venues are warm and welcoming and so are the people.  The festival is an excellent blend of musical, arty and bookish events.  We attend it every year if we can.

This is not a music blog, so it will suffice to tell you that the festival showcases classical music and jazz along with chamber music.  The musical program takes place in the beautiful St Ambrose’s Church and the (not-quite-so-beautiful) hall where we heard

  • a sublime concert titled Vivaldi Vespers and performed by Ensmble Gombert and Accademia Arcadia conducted by John O’Donnell, with soloists Katherine Norman, Kristy Biber, Christopher Roache, Daniel Thomson and Jerzy Kozlowski;
  • An impressive  recital by young piano virtuoso Tony Lee;
  • A program of Telemann,  Graun and Bach, performed by the brilliant Accademia Arcadia; and
  • the surprising classical recorder quartet, Quinta Essentia from Brazil.

The Spouse also went to hear some classical guitar performed by the Australian Guitar Trio, and we had a splendid Saturday night dinner at Café Colenso who can be relied upon to dish up a delicious meal and get us to an 8pm concert on time:).

The bookish events were excellent.

On Saturday we started with ‘Political Apathy: a disaffected community’, featuring Troy Bramston, James Button, Lisa Chesters and chaired by Michael Bachelard.   The agenda was to look at issues behind the rise of marginal political groups and disasters like Brexit and Trump.  James Button talked about a group called Open Labor.  I had never heard of this group, which seeks to redress political apathy by reforming the Labor Party, so this was very interesting indeed.  He said that young people today are more interested in identity politics, single issue politics and (the big one) climate change and they are not interested in party politics because they are turned off by internal politicking.   Lisa Chester said that the problem is worldwide, but she thinks it’s not apathy but more a case of engaging in politics differently and a disconnect between the modern electorate and Canberra being out of touch.  But she also said it’s often a case of people not being interested in politics except when it affects them (and I don’t have much patience with that attitude because I think that’s selfish.  Do we not care about the rest of the world any more?  Do we not care about people in need because it doesn’t affect us?)

Troy Bramston thinks people have good reason to be cynical and disaffected, and he listed a litany of broken promises from our recent crop of Prime Ministers.  He thinks that current leaders are loathed by most people and that they worry about the way both sides of politics have given up on fixing the budget.  He says that people are willing to accept budget cuts if they are fair (but I think that their definition of ‘fair’ mostly depends on whether cuts affects them).  He also went on about unions having too much power, (which was an odd thing to say on the very weekend that cuts in penalty rates started to take effect for hospitality workers, a clear example of unions being powerless to protect vulnerable workers).

There was also talk about people doing politics on social media and how people are sick of scripted speeches workshopped by focus groups – but I thought the most interesting snippet was from Lisa Chester who reminded us of the live cattle exports debacle where the ALP responded to social media outrage about the mistreatment of animals – and then had to backtrack because of the farmers’ outrage over the value of the trade.  She said that now parties look much more closely at the keyboard warriors to see where they’re coming from, and they recognise that at the end of the day, it’s good policy that guides decision-making. So, no, clicking ‘like’ or sharing #hashtag is not taken seriously as political input.

I noted that none of the speakers ‘fessed up to the role of the media with its conflict-ridden agenda and its gotcha moments in our current political climate.  See my review of Lindsay Tanner’s Sideshow if you want to know about that.

On Sunday we went to hear Troy Bramston in conversation with Mary Delahunty about his book Paul Keating, the Big Picture Leader.  She is such a good interviewer, with pertinent questions and a comprehensive grasp of issues, and even though we know quite a bit about Keating, and had heard all the quoted Keatingisms before, it was still an interesting session because of her questions.  (The Spouse has got this book at home, but I’m going to read Don Watson’s Recollections of a Bleeding Heart first because it’s been on the TBR for ages.)  What was most pertinent in the context of the previous session, was what Bramston said about how Keating differs from contemporary politicians: he had a clear vision, determination, conviction, authority, and courage and imagination.  And that is why we miss him.

I also went to a session called ‘Australia at the Crossroads’ with Sally Warhaft and journalists from Crikey: Bernard Keane, Josh Taylor and Sally Whyte.  This covered some of the same territory as ‘Political Apathy’ but they also talked about how hard it is for young journalists: they can’t specialise because staff cuts mean that now they have to cover so many different areas.  They were scornful about professional politicians and their obscurantist ways of talking, but they did acknowledge the role of the media in the problem.  Sally Whyte talked about how media coverage of comparative trivia obscures the real politics that matter – that goes on behind the scenes and we don’t hear about it.  She gave the example of the furore over the Safe Schools program while immigration policy rated barely a word.  Bernard Keane also made the point that it’s easy now to be oppositionist, with the classic example being the way the mining industry sabotaged the mining tax with a highly effective TV ad campaign.  I didn’t note who it was who offered the most contentious snippet – about terrorism.  We have given up freedoms, we have more surveillance than ever before, but we are still not safe.  And, it was said, it’s because defence companies – who lost a lot when the Cold War ended but are now making lots of money out of anti-terrorism security – don’t want the ‘war on terror’ to end.  ASIO does, and copped a lot of criticism when they debunked the link between refugees and terrorism.  An interesting if not entirely convincing PoV.

Photo credit: Mish Mackay

The highlight of the whole festival for me was Sheila Drummond in conversation with one of my favourite authors, Jacinta Halloran.  The topic was ‘Inspiration!’ and Jacinta talked about her journey from medical career to being an author, making the point that the arts and science are not mutually exclusive because both involved creativity and thinking laterally.  At school she had found it hard to choose between literature and science and it was when she was in her thirties and a friend was seriously ill, that she realised you only get one chance at life and she should try writing because she had always wanted to do it.

Jacinta credits the RMIT creative writing school with her success.  She started at diploma level and loved it.  It was a different way of learning, compared to medical school: it was nurturing, and the feedback she received was constructive.  She ended up doing a Masters degree, and says she would never have written her first novel Dissection (see my review) without the structure and the deadlines of the course.  The inspiration for the book – exploring a ‘crisis of the self’ – came from the widespread fear among doctors that they will inevitably make a mistake and may be sued.  Doctors are notorious for not seeking help when their lives are falling apart in the way that the character’s life in Dissection disintegrates, and it was fascinating to learn that some medical curricula actually include this novel as required reading.

Jacinta had a Catholic education, and she made the point that Catholic culture can impose some values that are negative for women – who are taught to be dutiful, modest, good and guilty. Pilgrimage (see my review) is another example of negotiating faith in a scientific world.  She was interested in what people do when Western medicine fails, and she chose Motor Neurone Disease for her character because it is the disease that doctors fear most.  (If this is a disease that terrifies you too, donate here because you will be giving practical help to sufferers now while there is still no cure. One of our friends has recently died of this awful disease, and his partner tells me that it was MND that supported them in practical ways throughout the final dreadful years).  Jacinta says that the process of writing can be a way of facing up to your fears, and these two novels do that: facing the fear of doing harm to a patient and getting sued, and confronting the fear of getting a diagnosis of a fearsome disease.

Jacinta’s most recent book The Science of Appearances is partly set in Kyneton, not far from Woodend, and she told us how she researched it by staying in a cottage there for a few weeks, riding around on her bike to get a feel for the place, and poring over old editions of the local newspaper.  I commented in my review that Halloran describes the punishing daily bike ride to Romsey as if she’s done it herself – well, now I know how this authenticity came about!

My only disappointment is that there isn’t yet a new novel under way!

Congratulations to Jacqueline Ogeil, the WWAF artistic director and all the wonderful volunteers and sponsors on another terrific festival.  We’ll be back next year – we’ve already booked our accommodation!



  1. Actually, I did think you’d been quiet for a few days! Sounds like another lovely weekend away. Good for you going off the grid! Did your fingers twitch at all or were you so busy you barely had time to think about it?

    I enjoyed your write up of the various political/journalist sessions. The “Australia at the Crossroads” one sounds like it covered some of the ground the journalists covered in the Muse event I went to earlier this year, particularly the pressure on journalists and difficulty of finding time to do real research. It’s good that they recognised the role of the media.

    And, your comment about union power and the evidence (or lack thereof) happening right at that time made me laugh.

    • It was so lovely to get away, and Woodend is such a beautiful spot to escape to:)
      My fingers did not twitch at all. When we weren’t out and about, I just read and wrote. I don’t think I could do it for long, but it was nice for a day or two.
      I think journalists are all saying pretty much the same thing about the state of play. As a nation, we are going to have to do something about keeping a free and independent media, maybe what the French do with partial hands-off funding from the government. Margaret Simons is one of the best at commenting on the options, I’ve heard her at the WAAF before and I love her writing.

      • No, I couldn’t do it for long but a day or day free every now and then wouldn’t hurt. I must check out Woodend, as a place to visit, not necessarily the festival though that sounds excellent too. Music and books after all.

        • They have a beaut secondhand bookshop *and* a regular bookshop too. Pretty amazing for a small town to be able to support both.

  2. Today’s was probably the quietest mailbox I’ve had since I started blogging, I kept checking to make sure my phone was connected. I read Bernard Keane every day, he’s pretty good on politics and the liberties we’ve given up for no advantage – we won’t realise how much until students in the next Occupy or anti-war movement are treated as terrorists.

    • Well it’s a public holiday over here in the East of course! And, I do find that things quieten down blog-wise when the northern summer starts which is around now!

  3. I did wonder about the Crikey journalists, and how their ‘news’ model is funded. I won’t say how I know, and maybe things have changed, but from what I’ve been told, Crikey hasn’t always paid its writers in the regular way. None of the other media sites can pay their way through subscriptions, so can Crikey do it and still pay its journos properly?

    • I hadn’t thought about it, except to willingly subscription. The owners must have viable long term objectives in mind as they are also funding an arts start-up, Daily Review

      • I guess so. I find I’m paying more for news than I used to when we got The Age every day: I ‘donate’ to The Guardian, Eureka, Inside Story and (sometimes) The Conversation, and I subscribe to The Saturday Paper and QE. The Spouse buys the Weekend Australian, but I don’t read it except for the Review. It adds up to quite a bit…

        • Interestingly, I believe paying money to The Conversation is tax deductible, but to The Guardian isn’t. So, are they both “donations” or is one a donation and the other a self-determined subscription!? I do both of these and have recently been considering Crikey which I think is a more formal subscription model?

          I “subscribe” to Inside Story too but usually don’t find time to read it. Oh for more days without commitments – except I think I’ve chosen all these commitments and they’re mostly good!!

          • I don’t read everything from all of them. But then, I never did read the newspaper cover-to-cover.

            • No, me neither. I get the free Canberra Times on my iPad but that’s just to keep up with some local news.

  4. Wow, what a weekend of interesting, stimulating interactions and things to think about. Enjoyed hearing about it all and the political information is really something to take in. Glad you had such a good time.

    • I just wish I’d been able to stay for the session on Alan Moorehead. It was on late on Monday afternoon, and we have learned the hard way that it pays to beat the long weekend traffic returning to Melbourne by leaving at lunchtime. We keep promising ourselves to take the train next time, but haven’t yet organised ourselves to do it…

      • Ah, but you’re retired! You could go home on Tuesday!!

        • I am, but Tim’s not…

          • Oh, I thought he had now. I’ve clearly got the wrong end of the stick! Tell him to hop to it!! ;-)

            • He doesn’t want to. And he’s studying too, so our travels have to fit around semester breaks…

              • Fair enough. I was joking really! The way my life seems to be going with pulls in so many directions I sometimes think it would be easier to be at work! Except most of the pulls would still be there!

  5. Jumping in here in response to some of the youth commentary on the ‘state of politics’. The problem is that there are few opportunities for common ground these days in terms of struggle. When our representitives are culled from a narrow demographic and politics is seen as a career not much can change in terms of the elevation of those most in need. Thanks to the surge in right wing popular politics that have been around for a number of decades more of the same is to be expected.
    Always good to read your commentary Lisa. And yes I did miss your emails in mailbox.

    • I think you’re right, Fay. The classic example is the Tweedledum/ Tweedledee approach to funding private schools. Blind Freddie can see that some of the education budget needs to be redirected to schools with greater needs, not only in the interests of those individual children, but because our economy can’t afford to have unemployable people.
      But just try redressing the inequity and both sides capitulate…

    • I agree that one of the issues these days does seem to be the “career politician”.

      • I’d rather have a career politician than a career businessman like Clive Palmer or Donald Trump…

        • Interesting. I’m not sure I’m convinced about that preference, but can see your point!

  6. Many thanks for this great post, Lisa, and I’ll be searching out Jacinta’s novel – Dissection. Glad to hear you had such a terrific and interesting time in Woodend. :)

    • Oh good! I hope you enjoy it:)

  7. What a wonderful write up – it really is a very successful little festival. Did you manage to make it up to Woodend in time for the fireworks on Friday evening?

    • No, we prefer to avoid the Friday night traffic, and we’re not keen on fireworks anyway. We make an early start on Saturday instead:)

  8. […] I took Max to Woodend with me, and I read it.  And found my sense of unease justified.  The narration by Max did not […]

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