Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 14, 2017

2017 Bendigo Writers Festival

Apologies for being offline this last weekend when we were at the Bendigo Writers Festival – but the internet was playing up at the hotel we stayed at.  I read books instead of blogging, of course! (More about that later, reviews are on the way).

We started Saturday with David Marr in conversation with Sian Gard in a session called Mood Swings. It was about That Dreadful Woman who was the subject of the most recent Quarterly Essay called The White Queen. I’m a subscriber to QE, so I have a copy of it but I’m afraid it went to the Op Shop unread, because I find That Woman and the politics she is associated with, so very depressing.  Marr, however, made an entertaining session of this, though I have to say he had an easy target…

After that The Spouse went to something called Make Mind Music, and that made for entertaining reading on his Facebook page because it turned out to be more about meditation than music and #PuttingItMildly he was not best pleased with his choice.  OTOH I went to Steven Amsterdam and a session called Walking the Line, which was about the topical issue of euthanasia and his book The Easy Way Out. (See my review).  It was interesting to learn that he was in favour of euthanasia because I had not got that impression from the novel.

I had a gap after that so I hit the festival bookshop.  And what a disappointment it was.  In previous years there have been shelves and shelves of temptation, but this year, National Bookshop Day notwithstanding, I could not find anything I wanted to buy.    I walked round and round the offerings, which didn’t take long because they’d more than halved the number of shelves, filled up one of them with children’s books and the rest were either books I’d already read or ones I’d decided not to.   I was not the only would-be buyer who was unhappy either.

I was told the next day that they’d split the festival bookshop between two venues… which was even more puzzling because we went, on Sunday morning, to ‘Good from the Start’ at the Ulumbarra Theatre where this second pop-up bookshop allegedly was and I  never saw it.  I should explain: most of the festival venues are clustered together in the arts precinct on View Street, starting with the old Capital Bank building (with the bookshop in the festival hub and the box office), and including the old fire station, the Trades Hall building and the Visual Arts Institute.  The Ulumbarra Theatre is five minutes walk away, in a re-purposed prison which has been jazzed up with stunning architecture to become a theatre, with lots of other spaces including a bar and a café.  We went in through the main entrance, hung around a bit on the ground floor, and then went upstairs to the book launch and never set eyes on any bookshop.  Maybe they set it up later…

‘Good Life Sunday’ is a whole day series of events at the Ulumbarra, devoted to lifestyle.  At ‘Good from the Start’ there were tastings from local producers of cheese. herbs, charcuterie and wine, and then Sonia Anthony from Mason’s of Bendigo restaurant launched her book, A Sense of Place, food wine and recipes in Central Victoria.  And to say that I was surprised by the contrast between the ethos she was espousing and the experience of eating at Masons, is an understatement.

I am not in the habit of critiquing restaurants: they have their good days and bad days, staff let them down, and the market generally takes care of the bad ones because people just don’t go there.   Mason’s, however, is the most popular restaurant in Bendigo and Trip Adviser recommends it.  But I do not understand how a restaurant can be rated with one ‘hat’ when staff want to know what you’d like to drink before you’ve seen the menu, and they react with surprise when you say you like to choose your wines after you’ve decided what to eat.  When we were told that the menu was on the reverse side of the paper place mat (something we were not told when we were seated), we reluctantly  chose the ‘roaming menu’ without having any idea what dishes it comprised other that that it was three entrees, one main, two side dishes and a tasting plate of desserts (so choosing which wine was still pot luck).  I won’t comment on the food at Mason’s except to say that I am an adventurous diner but The Spouse liked some of it better than I did, and that we sent back shared plate after shared plate with much of it uneaten.  (Which brooked no comment from the waitstaff: you’d think they’d want to know why, but as they churn the diners through in a frantic atmosphere more like a large Chinese restaurant, I don’t suppose that staff have time to care).  And I don’t care how fashionable it is, I dislike the concept of a shared meal: when we dine out The Spouse likes to choose dishes that are more complex than the ones he confidently cooks at home, and I like to choose spicy dishes that he doesn’t like.  I also don’t like it when waitstaff consistently interrupt conversation because they are in a hurry.  I am not rude: I always turn to face them as soon as I see they are there, but hey, I don’t want to be rude to my fellow diner either and I would like him or me to get to finish a sentence before the waitstaff barge in. Finally, I find the whole idea of a double shift an insult to good food. We had to be in by six and out by eight which is not my idea of congenial dining out.  We had nostalgic thoughts about Bouchon’s Restaurant where we always used to go, but alas, Chef Travis has moved on elsewhere *sigh*.

Anyway, The Spouse bought A Sense of Place and at his next Good Life Sunday session which was called ‘Ultimate Seafood’, he also bought the Australian Fish and Seafood Cookbook: The Ultimate Kitchen Companion which is fabulous if you like seafood and fish which we do.  Every Australian fish you can think of has its own page, with a description and how to cook and store it, and then there are delicious recipes from an amazing team of authors (this blurb is from the Fishpond website, via the link above:

John Susman is Australia’s preeminent providore of seafood, supplying the country’s best restaurants. Anthony Huckstep is a restaurant reviewer, former chef and cookbook author. Stephen Hodges is regarded by many in the food industry as Australia’s best seafood chef. Sarah Swan is a chef and recipe developer who worked for Neil Perry’s Rockpool Group for 14 years.

Meanwhile, I was at a session called The Real May Gibbs and it was the highlight of the festival for me.  Vivien Newton was an excellent interviewer, with just the right blend of asking probing questions and letting the author Robert Hughes speak for himself. They had restocked the festival bookshop (though they still didn’t have copies of Robert Dessaix’s latest book) so I bought a copy: it’s called May Gibbs: More Than a Fairy Tale: An Artistic Life and it is exactly what the title promises.  Lavishly illustrated on quality papers, it traces May Gibbs’ early career including her activities as a supporter of the suffragette movement and as a propagandist for WW1, and it celebrates her place as the first professional full-time children’s book illustrator.  Hughes made the point that the media trivialised her, calling her ‘the mother of the gumnuts’ and labelling her ‘reclusive’ but that she was not like that at all, and this biography sets the record straight.  I have added it to my collection of literary biographies and will read and review it soon.

But while The Spouse had a good time at ‘The Moral Tightrope’ which was about the history of ethics, I was disappointed by Robert Dessaix’s session.  It was called ‘It’s Got to Stop’ and it was billed like this:

An orgy of kissing and hugging has broken out across the Western world. And while the words ‘I love you’ are rarely heard anymore, people you’ve barely met end their emails with ‘Love’.

Why have all the rules gone out the window? How can order be restored?

Can Pushkin or Elizabeth Strout be of any use here?

Acclaimed writer of fiction, autobiography and the occasional essay, Robert Dessaix, takes a stand.

I had always thought that Robert Dessaix could make any topic intellectually stimulating, but I was wrong.  After fifteen minutes,  I was bored brainless by inane examples of contemporary kissing habits and the audience politely tittering.  I wondered where Pushkin was, but wasn’t prepared to stay any longer to find out.  I sat outside in the sunshine instead and read more of Chinese Literature, a Very Short Introduction, and when Tim joined me afterwards, we drove home.

Thanks to Aunty Gloreea for looking after our little scamp, Amber!


  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  2. The fish and seafood book sounds great – fish is so tricky in nomenclature though I think it is improving. Does the book give the common alternative names?

    And, I must say I’m generally with you regarding this current mania for share plates. It’s particularly tricky for those of us with food intolerances. And yet, in these situations, if you just order order one plate for yourself you often don’t get a rounded meal. Some of these shared plate restaurants do do some delicious food, I know, but my preference is for more traditional dining. Like you were are adventurous diners, but our adventures often go in slightly different directions!!

    • Yes, I just checked, the seafood book gives the scientific names and also common alternatives in different states.
      Re the sharing menu, I couldn’t tell for sure, but it looked as if, when you ordered a la carte, the serves were double serves. There was a massive and very expensive steak that must have been a serve for two, so we assumed that the other main options were too. But there was no time to ask the wait staff, when you have to eat within a two hour time frame and they’re in such a hurry, you feel pressured to make a decision quickly.

  3. I’ve just read a short May Gibbs bio in a book about notable Australian women, she was far more than just Gumnut babies. I’d sign off Love from Bill, but I take it Robert Dessaix would disapprove.

    • What was hilarious, when the audience came outside and friends were farewelling each other, was their embarrassment about whether to kiss or not!
      PS What was the book? Or shall I wait for your review?

  4. Oh dear. I would have been very annoyed at the restaurant. How old is Amber?

    • Well, as I point out, it’s the most popular restaurant in Bendigo, so you mustn’t take too much notice of me!
      Amber is two, going on three in late December. She is beside me now, having forgiven me for forsaking her for a weekend…(She’s a Silkie, BTW, not a Yorkie).

      • I thought she was a silkie as she didn’t look like a Yorkie. Easy to mix up the two, but we have Yorkies in the family

  5. Love Amber. Animals first. Thre Robert Dessaix session sounds “different”. All this huggy, kissy stuff. Is it the way the world is going in reacting to politics or everyone just getting older. Sitting in the sun and reading does sound nice. At least Robert Dessaix loves his dog.

    • I see that there is exactly the same session in the Tassie program. Good question: when does a public intellectual get to retire and smell the roses? I’ll have to get hold of his book and find out what he’s really on about…

  6. […] *Lisa, ANZLitLovers attended the session ‘The Real May Gibbs’ at the recent Bendigo Writers’ Festival […]

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