Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 8, 2023

2023 Bendigo Writers Festival Sunday 7th May

My stamina is not what it was… I was beginning to fade by Day 3 of the Bendigo Writers’ Festival and I only went to two sessions.

After breakfast at JoJoe’s, I headed off for ‘Two Worlds’, featuring guest curator of the festival Clare Wright and author, screenwriter and speechwriter, Don Watson, whose most recent book is The Passion of Private White.  This was all the more interesting because I had thought that it’s the kind of book I want to know about, but not necessarily read. (This house is full of Don Watson’s books that we’ve bought but never read.)

This is the blurb from Goodreads, worth quoting in full because it shows how the book ranges across so many issues:

The story of a fifty-year relationship between a Vietnam veteran and a remote Aboriginal tribe: a miniature epic of human adaptation, suffering and resilience.

The Passion of Private White describes the meeting of two worlds: the world of the fiercely driven biologist and anthropologist Neville White, and the world of the hunter-gatherer clans of remote northern Australia he studied and lived with. As White tried to understand the world as it was understood on the other side of the vast cultural divide, he was also trying to transcend the mental scars he suffered on the battlefields of Vietnam. The clans had their own injuries to deal with, as they tried to adapt to modernity, live down their losses and yet hold onto their ancient lands, customs, laws and language.

Over five decades, White mapped in astonishing detail the culture and history of the Yolgnu clans at Donydji in north-east Arnhem Land. But eventually presence meant involvement, and White became advocate more than anthropologist in the clan’s struggle to survive when everything – from the ambitions of mining companies and a zombie bureaucracy, to feuds, sorcery and magic, despair and dysfunction – conspired to destroy them.

And the fifty-year endeavour served another purpose for White and the members of his old platoon he took there. Working to help the community at Donydji became a kind of antidote for the psychic wounds of Vietnam. While for the clans, from the old warriors to the children, their fanatical benefactor offered a few rays of meaning and hope. There was no cure in this meeting of two worlds, both suffering their own form of PTSD, but they helped each other survive.

This is a miniature epic of human adaptation, suffering and resilience, an astonishing window into both our recent and our deep history, the coloniser and colonised – indeed into the human condition itself.

Wright asked about the catalyst for writing this book.  Watson explained that its origins were accidental… he’d known the subject, the geneticist and anthropologist Neville White, for 55 years, and was always ‘gunna’ go to the Northern Territory with him, and finally did so. He found that the NT is a seductive place with many problems, and eventually he decided to write about it.  It’s so important to get the balance right so as not to make the situation seem hopeless, because it’s not.

Nevertheless, worryingly self-destructive things happen in these communities but truth-telling means you can’t whitewash it.   It’s a real patriarchy, for a start. As Australia was in the 1950s, when an extremely tight-knit RSL patriarchy of old soldiers sent boys to fight in Vietnam.  Watson says that Vietnam veterans were more hurt by the rejection of the RSL than they were by the rejection of the community because many of them had served in imitation of their fathers in WW2. There was also anger about the cursory treatment of Vietnam deaths in the newspapers.

(I knew that for many years the RSL refused membership to conscripts who had not served overseas, but I didn’t know that they were scornful about the service of those who had gone to Vietnam.  Now their memberships are so critically low, they welcome anyone with family connections to the military.)

Was there redemption in Arnhem Land?

Watson made the point that of anthropology, ethnology and history, anthropology is the most difficult to understand.  The information is minute, some of it is insignificant, and some of it, is not.  Anthropologists ‘get a bad rap’ these days but we would know very little about First Nations if not for them, and what they recorded was offered to them because Elders knew their culture was under pressure and they wanted it recorded before it was lost forever.  Historians like Henry Reynolds wrote of the frontier, but anthropologists wrote about what was happening on the other side of the frontier. Neville was interested in how warring tribes came together to fight against the invaders.

Wright asked:  American Journeys was written from the perspective of an outsider, so is this new book written by an outsider in his own country? Well, he didn’t speak the language for a start, so it was hard.  Neville, says Watson, knows more about culture than many young men do in these homelands; they are singing about places when they don’t know where they are.

(BTW Wright said that she is currently researching her next book in Arnhem Land, and she says it’s a case of ‘the more you know, the less you know’.  I’m intrigued by this and keen to know what this book is going to be about.)

Not at my best early on a Sunday morning, I had set off for the festival with the motel key in my pocket so *pout* I had to miss the next session with Cate Kennedy in order to return it. So we spent the interim in the Art Gallery viewing their ‘Australiana, Designing a Nation’ exhibition.  Ambitious in scope, it was let down slightly by the exhibits for the 1970s and 80s. Signage told us that Whitlam’s support for the arts was visionary, and there is no doubt in my mind that the money was well spent in literature, dance, music and film.  But there’s not much to show for it in the visual arts, not if the Bendigo exhibition is anything to go by.

My last session was ‘The Gun Century’ and it was the only disappointment of the festival. It was billed like this:

War is dominating the 21st century in a way that survivors and peacemakers after the Great Wars could never have imagined. And while it’s all about the weapons – who makes them, who owns them – lined up behind the artillery are ranks of those whose money bankrolls the powerful. Is global peace an illusion? Has diplomacy been hi-jacked?  Discussing past and present states of conflict, what do these researchers see playing out as the 21st century grinds on?

But the discussion was hijacked by stories of human rights abuses.  All very important, of course, but I had heard a good deal about that in Saturday’s session ‘Peace and Justice’ with Antony Lowenstein and Elaine Pearson, hosted by Tasneem Chopra.  What I wanted to know from this session was, who is making money out of the conflict in Sudan?  Who sells all those weapons to Afghanistan?  What monstrous profits are being made from the conflict in Ukraine?  What is Australia’s role in arms manufacture and sales?

Maybe I expected too much.

We set off home, survived a fierce rainstorm on Pretty Sally, and had a warm welcome from Amber and our dear neighbour who cares for her when we’re away.  We had some fine meals in Bendigo but it was very nice to have home-cooked Marinara with a well-aged red, followed by a good Scotch to toast Jock Zanfrillo whose recent sudden death has been a sobering start to this season of Masterchef.

Many thanks to everyone who made this Bendigo Writers Festival such a success.  A big bouquet to directors Rosemary Sorensen and Clare Wright, to all the authors and panel hosts, to the bookshop staff and a special cheer for the volunteers without whom it would not happen.  Some of them were standing outside in the bitter cold to direct foot traffic, and yet they were unfailingly cheerful.  They breed ’em tough in Bendigo!









  1. Thanks for all these write ups Lisa … love them.

    I must say that from the description of that last session, your questions were the sorts of things I would have expected.

    And good on you for having a scotch to toast Jock. I would have too if I could have found my good scotch!

    Did you notice a smaller group this year for the competition … 18 I think not 24. And no selection episodes … a change? I don’t think that hurts.


    • Thanks, Sue. I like it when you and others write up festivals I can’t get to, so it’s paying it forward.
      Re the session… I know from being a panel host myself that it’s difficult when a panellist is determined to run their own agenda. It’s not like school where you’re in charge and can bring the kids back into line!
      re M/C: I heard somewhere that this was a shorter season anyway, so that ‘missing’ first episode is probably one that was culled for that reason. But I used to enjoy it, I liked seeing their signature dishes and I liked being able to pontificate from the safety of the sofa about which ones were up to scratch and who was being strategic etc. I was surprised, and not surprised by the winner last night. A very ordinary dish won for sentimental reasons over a highly skilled fusion dessert whose maker ought to be in the finals, assuming that she can do other things as well as that. I’m looking forward to seeing more from her, she’s like Reynold Poernomo, I think!


  2. Here I am, a fan of Don Watson’s writing, yet to read ‘The Passion of Private White’. Yes, the RSL treated those who served in Vietnam very shabbily. Both, I think, because they were conscripts and because war was never officially declared. A boyfriend of mine in the 1970s was a returned Vietnam vet.


    • In general, I’m more in favour of not fighting wars than fighting them, but from what I’ve read, Australia treats its vets very badly indeed. The money that was spent on the AWM should have been spent on welfare services IMO.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great write up of Don Watson’s session, which I attended too. I was inspired to rush out and buy the book, but like your other Watson books, it may sit on the shelf for a while before I get to it! I was in Bendigo all day for Sunday only: the Cate Kennedy session was great – sorry! – the Garner session was predictably interesting; and Claire Keegan was terrific (she’s so sharp though, that I really felt for her interviewer). Like you, I was impressed by how well-organised it all was. Much better than some bigger festivals that I won’t name and shame (but which should try harder – when I can’t find where to buy tickets on your website, or the address of the festival, that’s a problem).


    • Well, you know what I love about smaller festivals: introvert I may be, but it’s the social side of things. For most of my life I’ve been going to LitFests on my own, and I’ve always enjoyed the intimate atmosphere at festivals where there’s a social hub for people gather to buy the books and a coffee and gossip/brag about the sessions they’ve been to. You used to be able to do that the Malthouse, and you can’t do it at Fed Square because it’s a commercial space and even in the cafes around the festival venues, you can’t just start up a conversation with people nearby because you can’t be sure they’re from the festival.


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: