Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 16, 2019

2019 Word For Word Non Fiction Festival: Nyaal, 16/11/19

Geelong Library and Heritage Centre (Source: Wikipedia)

Day 2 of the 2019 Word For Word Non Fiction Festival at the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre continued the theme of Nyaal, which is Wadawurrung for ‘open your eyes’.  In my first session of the day Geelong author Sue Lawson began her conversation with Professor Ron McCallum OA about his book Born at the Right Time by first listing his stunning list of achievements and then addressed ‘the elephant in the room’ by asking how the theme applied… because Ron McCallum has been blind since birth.

The session was indeed an eye-opener.  Sue Lawson is a highly skilled interviewer and it was a warm, funny, laughter-filled session.

McCallum says he was ‘born at the right time’ because he’s among the first generation to be able to take advantage of new technologies that support people with vision disabilities.  When he was a child in kindergarten at the RVIB school in St Kilda Road, he was once tactlessly told that he would end up making baskets in the sheltered workshop, but he had a remarkable teacher called Evelyn Maguire who recognised that he was gifted and told him was special and that he would have a different future.  Indeed he did: as you can see in his profile at Wikipedia, he is the first totally blind person to be appointed by any university in Australasia to a full professorship in any field or as Dean of Law. He has worked for the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; been an ambassador for the European NGO confederation, Light for the World, and he worked on the official review of the Fair Work Act 2009, along with publishing 10 books and numerous professional articles and research papers.

McCallum ascribes his different future to the influence of three women, to whom his book was dedicated: his mother Edna McCallum; his surrogate mother Lois Doery and his wife, confidante and life companion, Professor Mary Crock. His mother nourished his love of reading by reading to him when he had exhausted the small number of Braille books at his school.  He met Lois when he was 25, and she became the reader who read everything to him for 15 years. (It was in this period that technology began to play its part because she could read books onto cassette tapes so that he could listen independently and when he wanted to).

His wife Mary came into his life when he was 37 and had never dated because it was all too complicated.  Instead he had spent all his adult life working 14 hour days, sublimating sexuality and relationships, but she transformed his life.  He told some funny stories about her discovery that there were no mirrors in the house and his discovery of hand cream in the bathroom instead of toothpaste.  But he also said that his career as an academic really took off after he was married because colleagues perceived him as ‘normal’ instead of ‘a nice guy who was no competition’.   Relationships, he said, bring people into the central vortex of society, and maybe people should be more tolerant of people outside it, but that’s how it was in the 1990s.

He has a phenomenal memory.  It’s not as good as it used to be, he said, drawing a laugh when he said he used to know dozens of phone numbers and now he doesn’t because of his mobile phone. He thinks there’s an element of intelligence in having a good memory, but there are also strategies such as sequencing and rehearsing that enable remembering complex strings of information.

The arrival of computers has transformed life for the blind.  In the US there are audio descriptions built into films, so that what’s happening on screen can be heard by the vision impaired using headphones.  This is not mandatory here in Australia, but it can be accessed on Netflix.  To stay informed about current affairs in print, the blind used to have to rely on Radio for the Print Handicapped (3RPH, here in Melbourne, where I used to work as a volunteer reading newspapers, and 2RPH in Sydney) but now there is an App which will read any newspaper or journal aloud.  And the books that McCallum so loves to read can be scanned and read aloud using computer technologies as well.

My second session was an eye-opener too. Chaired by Harrison Tippet, it featured Meg Mundell who was the editor of the world-first collection We Are Here, Stories of Home, Place and Belonging, and contributors Claire G Coleman and Rachel Kurzyp.  Tippet began with some stats about Geelong: there are about 1500 rough sleepers in this city, and there is a shortfall of 7200 places for housing.  Since Geelong is Victoria’s second largest city, these stats give you some idea of the enormity of the problem.

As I said in my review of this profoundly moving book, the theme is ‘place’.  Meg said that though the book grew out of workshops where homeless people were supported to tell their stories, she didn’t want the whole book to be stories of homelessness.  What she wanted to do was to disprove the stereotypes and to show that homeless people do have something to offer.

Claire (who is a Noongar woman) added that there was emotional catharsis in telling a story, and that there were added complexities for Indigenous people.  Home for them is their ancestral land on country, and the place where they live might not be a ‘home’.  Often they can’t live on country, because it’s inaccessible (e.g. it’s mining country), or because it’s too expensive in contemporary cities.  There was great empathy for Behrouz Boochani now in New Zealand because it’s a terrible thing to be afraid to live in your own country, in the way that Kurds under siege are now in fear for their lives.

But the most impressive moment in this session came in question time, from a member of the audience. When a middle-aged women got up and said she was going to make a brave disclosure, I’m sure everyone thought she was going to brave the stigma of admitting that she herself was or had been homeless, but no.  The panel had made some brutally critical comments about Centrelink and this woman then admitted that she worked there.  I think it was sobering for everyone to see that it’s not just a job for the people at Centrelink: there are people who do genuinely care, and who work there doing the best they can because they want to help.

(When I was dealing with Centrelink on behalf of my father, I saw some staff exercising great patience and compassion in the face of outright belligerence and aggression, and while I understand that such behaviour is born of frustration and fear, I can still see that it must take courage to get up and come to work in the morning when you know that you’ll be facing that kind of unremitting hostility.)

My final session wasn’t about a book: it was about a passion project called Tony Wilson, who also writes children’s books and is a football fanatic, has set up a website to showcase the World’s Greatest Speeches.   It features speeches ranging from the political to the satirical, and includes speeches from the everyday: birthday and wedding speeches; eulogies, lectures and acceptance speeches.  What is most revelatory is that it provides the speech in full, so that you can see and hear the context often not obvious from the stellar moments that we tend to remember.

Wilson started out by analysing the features of a great speech like Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’.  He identifies repetition, simile and metaphor, allusions and alliteration, antithesis, conduplication (repetition of words or phrases such as ‘I have a dream’) and parallel phrasing (as in ‘We will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to gaol together, to stand up for freedom together.)

What makes a speech great is ‘the moment’: Redfern; the Dismissal, the Challenger disaster, and 9/11.  There is also the delivery: using the rule of three and the modulation of emotion.  Of course there must be something to say, as Greta Thunberg says so powerfully in her ‘How dare you’ speech., and a speech needs a good title, such as ‘I am Somebody‘.  The language and writing is crucial (think of Churchill’s ‘We will fight them on the beaches’); and often humour, originality or surprise are important too.

Wilson welcomes submissions to his site.  If you have a suggestion, get in touch with him at his website.

More from the festival tomorrow…





  1. Hi Lisa, what a great and varied day you enjoyed. It was very interesting to read your observations. I have read We are Here, but must read Born at the Right Time.


    • Hi Meg, thanks for dropping by:)
      Re McCallum, I think I’m even more in awe of him because (in a past life) I studied law myself for a while. There was so much to read, and so much to remember, and he said that while he could find other students to read criminal law to him, that was not the case with property law. But it is so much slower to listen than it is to read (which is why I don’t do podcasts if I can avoid it) he must have worked incredibly hard just to pass law, never mind all his other achievements.


  2. I’m sure our neo-Liberal masters design hostility into the welfare system to discourage people from using it (as they do into the prison system to increase the punishment). And if that makes it less likely that compassionate people would want to work there, well there’s another benefit.


    • Bill, you will, I think, be interested in my write-up of today’s day at the NF festival in Geelong. My last session was about Neo-liberalism and the Rise of the Right. Watch this space!


  3. He is an amazing man to have achieved so much. It’s always challenging to be inclusive for it’s often one’s own ignorance that gets in the way of engaging. I have been through the system on a good number of levels and it’s mostly hostile but of course there are exceptions thank goodness. The increasing suffering in this rich country is hard to bear at times but there are those who rise above it somehow and a beacon and inspiration to others. It sounds like a very special conference and you are so generous in your sharing.


    • I’m very lucky to be able to go, so it’s nice to share. We can’t all go to everything, so I know that I appreciate other bloggers sharing their festival experiences, as Sue recently has with her Canberra jaunts!


  4. What a varied day Lisa. Your write up of Ron MCCallum brought back so many memories, including the fact that we also hav Radio for the Print Handicapped here. Also, my Mum used to do taped reading of law books for a blind student in Sydney for a few years. But my best memory is of being involved in setting up a very early version of the Kurzweil Reading Machine in 1983 when I volunteered at George Mason University Library in Virginia USA. It was a very early text to speech machine, and was pretty primitive, but how exciting it was. I had forgotten that. My son was born 8 weeks early soon after and everything else flew out of my brain!

    I reckon relationships still “bring people into the central vortex of society” to a large degree.

    That speech project sounds really interesting.


    • I must admit I found it reassuring to hear about being able to scan books to audio for yourself…
      I had serious problems with my sight as a child, and am probably only sighted now because of a chance meeting my mother had with an eminent eye surgeon after other doctors had told her that blindness was inevitable for me. But the experience of having my eyes bandaged for so long after surgery has never left me, and I do feel quite panicky about the possibility of losing the ability to read in my old age because reading has always been so important to me. It’s good to know that I could still retain the ability to choose what I wanted to read, rather than have to depend on others choosing for me.
      (It used to drive me crazy at 3RPH that my co-readers would always choose the short tabloid articles to read on air, whereas I thought readers were entitled to hear the longer, more analytical pieces from The Age!)

      Liked by 1 person

      • That would have been very scary. I think it’s a fear all we readers have.

        I think Vision Australia provides these machines. My ma-in-law got one when she started going blind. A main use was also to read letters etc that she got, but the machine, then anyhow (this would have been around 2004), was not so good with complicated layouts, logos etc. It was much better for pages of plain text. I’m guessing phone and tablets now do this? – hold them over the page and the device can read to you? (Or did you say this already and I’ve forgotten. I’m on a notifcations page here that doesn’t have the post).


        • He didn’t go into details about how it worked. He said there was an app for newspapers but whether that works for books too, I don’t know.
          Of course I would have to get over my resistance to learning new technology. I still can only do the most basic things with the microwave…


          • Haha, Lisa, I think you will if you want to enjoy your later years! At least, I see technology as making a big difference as I become less able!

            Anyhow I’m sure as he said there are many text to audio apps and systems out there now for different purposes. The newspaper on is probably inbuilt, I’m guessing?

            PS. I finally braved my 3 year old microwave’s sensor cook the other day – for frozen veggies! Clever me!!!


          • What befuddles me is the smart tv and hard drive and sound system! I’m losing that battle … no, to be truthful, I’ve lost it!


            • I guess we learn the things we need to learn. ANd I have never needed to learn how to use some of the things in our kitchen because The Spouse does the cooking, and I only do old-fashioned things like baking (using the a-hem ‘Bake’ function in the oven).

              Liked by 1 person

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