Daily Archives: May 9, 2020

My day at home with the Yarra Valley Writers Festival


On a cold and showery day, I’m rather glad that I’m not in the even colder Healesville for the Yarra Valley Writers Festival, which is being held online instead. I’ve decided that it’s very strenuous attending an online writers festival, even though I’ve barely moved from my desk all day. Perhaps that’s what makes it so tiring: there are no little breaks moving from one venue to another, no distractions of the book displays, no-one to chat with between sessions.  I am absolutely in awe of fellow-blogger Lisa at ANZLitLovers who has not only managed to pay attention far more assiduously than I have but she has even managed to blog the sessions as they are occurring.  Brava Lisa!

The day started with David Lindenmeyer Saving the Environment: It’s Not Fire & Brimstone, It’s Science. Using a Powerpoint slide-based format, which felt a bit too lecture-y for me (especially when he was in effect just reading the slide), he mounted a strong argument that the major fire threat  to Australia lies in its logged forests,rather than in old growth forests. An old growth forest regenerates better and more quickly than a logged forest, is less likely to have canopy fire in the future, and by their very nature, logging plantations are likely to be closer to houses and infrastructure. Salvage logging in already-burnt fires is the most damaging act of all – and one which is championed by the timber industry. And, as he points out, despite continual demands for access to old growth forest, 92% of forestry employment is in logging plantations.  But check out Lisa’s report for a much more coherent summary of his presentation than mine!

Leading on from David Lindenmeyer’s talk, the next session was called Fire and Climate. The focus on fire was a deliberate choice in planning the writers festival, first because the Yarra Valley is often wreathed in smoke from hazard reduction burning, and second because the 2009 fires surrounded Healesville (where the festival is held) devastating towns in the surroundings, but leaving Healesville untouched- for now. Tony Birch wrote an essay for Meanjin in 2017 (Two Fires – you can read it here) describing accompanying a friend to Christmas Hills after the 2009 Black Saturday fires. The daughter of that friend was Alice Bishop, who was one of Tony Birch’s creative writing students and here on the panel, having written her own book of short stories A Constant Hum, which explores the psychological consequences of bushfire- something that she experienced herself. The last speaker on the panel was Prof. Tom Griffiths, who has written on bushfire with Forests of Ash: An Environmental History (2001) and Living with Fire (co-authored with Christine Hansen, 2012) which emerged from a community history project in the wake of Black Saturday.  Griffiths in particular warned that because of the engulfing media response to coronavirus, we have not yet worked through the emotional and environmental consequences of a fire season – not a specific day that can be identified with a capital letter- that affected the whole continent. There was an interesting interaction near the end of the session where Alice Bishop rather defensively rebutted the question of whether people should rebuild in fire-prone areas, arguing that power lines should be put underground and that it’s a simplistic response. Somehow, I don’t know if Tom Griffiths would agree. Again, Lisa on her blog has done a much better job of this than I.

HastrichContinuing with the environmental theme, Writing About the Natural World featured Chris Flynn whose recent book Mammoth has been receiving quite a bit of coverage, Vicki Hastrich whose Night Fishing I reviewed here and Lia Hills who wrote The Crying Place, which I hadn’t heard of. The session was chaired by Robert Gott, who is almost intimidatingly articulate and intelligent. Apparently there is a huge amount of research in Mammoth, and although Flynn was guided by some historical facts, he gave up trying to direct the narrative along factual lines. Very different types of environments were dealt with by Hastrich (the sea) and Hills (the desert). Hastrich spoke about the landscape of the imagination, while Hills talked about the process of recording her narrative quickly and using voice recognition software that also picked up the sounds of the leaves, wind and birdsong, which she wrote into the book.  And here’s Lisa….

The-Glad-Shout-Alice-RobinsonI’d actually read books two of the three authors featured in the next session Place in the New World Order, although it has probably turned out to be a very unexpected “new world order” than when they were originally planning this festival. The moderator, Elizabeth McCarthy asked them how they were responding to the pandemic, which perhaps was not the best use of the time available, as I’m not sure that any one person’s experience of this strange time is any more momentous than any one else’s. Alice Robinson wrote The Glad Shout  (reviewed here) which is set in the middle of a climate change emergency.  Meg Mundell writer of Black Glass (review), released her 2019 book The Trespassers  which has a pandemic as its premise. I’m not familiar with the four books released by Karen Viggers. Only Meg Mundell starts with ‘place’ when she is writing (in her case, prompted by the Point Nepean Quarantine Station for her most recent book), whereas both Viggers and Robinson used ‘place’ more as an influence on ‘character’. All agreed about the danger of avoiding becoming didactic over social justice issues- Viggers referred to “hovering above”, using the perspective of different characters to explore issues. And again,the indefatigable Lisa….  (How does she have the energy??)

A Writer’s Lot: 50 years but who’s counting was a discussion between two playwrights of different generations, David Williamson and Hannie Rayson. It was a retrospective look at Williamson’s career, where he emphasized the importance of hearing Australian voices on the stage – something that rarely happened up until the 70s and 80s.  At this point, Lisa went for a walk….

I really enjoyed the session How Weird Does Your Family Have to Be? It was moderated by ABCRN presenter Michael Mackenzie, who has his own fascinating life story with a Jewish father who escaped Germany and died just after he was born. The panel comprised Alice Pung (Polished Gem –read before I started this blog ), Richard Glover who wrote Flesh Wounds (which I haven’t read and now want to) and journalist Rick Morton One Hundred Years of Dirt (also unread).  Alice Pung’s family was not ‘weird’ but as Cambodian/Vietnamese refugees, they were traumatized. Glover has emphasized the ‘weirdness’ of his family with a laugh, but his story of an alcoholic father and an absent mother who completely invented a false identity to her family actually reveals sadness and deception. Rick Morton’s father was a brutal man, but his father in turn was abused by Rick’s grandfather who seems a truly malevolent man.  Lisa is back from her walk, so here’s her much better summary.

_tsiolkas_ damascusI’m flagging now- and I’m not even writing lengthy blog posts. Where’s afternoon tea? I’m bailing out after Christos Tsiolkas’ Road to Damascus (my not very favourable review here). Tsiolkas wrote the book to answer his question “How did this religion come to change the world?” He talks about his determination to write something “heretical but not blasphemous” and describes his own story of how he came to write this story about Paul. He also talks about the importance he places on structure when he writes, something which he displays with this book and The Slap with the point of view alternating between chapters. Actually, I liked him much more in this interview than I imagined I would. And Lisa? She has skipped this session and is coming back for Charlotte Wood and The Weekend, which I haven’t read.

I don’t have to drive home, but I think that I’ve had enough for one day. Ooooff. The technology worked well enough in this brave foray into online writers festivals. There was only really a problem with David Williamson, whose broadcast was delayed ironically just after Hannie Rayson admitted that the technology was going well and hoping that she hadn’t “put the mockers on it”. (She did.)  Along with many who were following it on Twitter, I quite enjoyed seeing everybody’s book-lined  studies in varying degrees of tidiness (David Williamson wins the prize for most untidy). I wish that there had been a break between sessions for people who were in for the long haul, rather than back to back sessions with barely a 3 minute break between them. In fact, a short lunch break wouldn’t have gone astray.

But well done, YVWF for being brave enough to forge ahead, and for putting together a rewarding day’s watching and listening. And Lisa? you’re a legend.


‘Time Song’ by Julia Blackburn


2019, 284 p.

Disappeared places have their own special allure, especially when they have sunk to a watery death. I think of towns shifted or submerged during the building of a reservoir (like, for instance Bonnie Doone which was covered by the Eildon Dam or Tallangatta which reappeared when the Hume Reservoir sank so low). Then there are the ‘lost’ lands covered over by the waves. Think Atlantis, or the Theosophists’ Lemuria: huge land masses, supposedly supporting sophisticated civilizations, which are now the stuff of legend.

Rather less legendary, however, is Dogger Bank, which is mentioned every morning on that strange, soporific radio item, the Tide Report on the BBC in England. Dogger Bank is the last remnant hint of Doggerland, which existed in the North Sea and English Channel 18,000 years ago, making what we now know as the United Kingdom a contiguous part of Europe. It was not a land ‘bridge’, which suggests a narrow and tentative link between UK and Europe. Instead it was a fertile plain, with its own coastlines and rivers, with humans roaming across it. It was not a route from one place to another, but a territory in its own right.

People have known about Doggerbank for centuries. Particularly low tides have exposed the remnants of old forests, and the continual calving of the eastern English coastline reveals an ongoing array of fossilized remains and flints. But recent developments like windfarms and extractive industries tell us more today about Doggerbank than we have ever known before. Huge machines have been scooping up the ocean floor, bringing up bones and artefacts, and oil exploration companies have made their geological surveys available to academic archaeologists and palaeontologists, a source of information that they could never, ever have afforded themselves. (So maybe there is something to be said for oil exploration after all).

Julia Blackburn is not a geologist, palaeontologist or archaeologist. She is a poet and author, but in this book she walks the Suffolk and Norfolk coastland of the eastern UK, picking up stones, shells, bones and flints as she walks. She is not alone in this: people have been picking here for years. She talks to these collectors, who show her their hoards, giving her bits and pieces. They exist in a wary relationship with academics, who they often perceive as being too keen to sweep up artefacts to store them away in universities, where they may remain almost as hidden as they were under the ocean for years. But sometimes there are finds which transcend this uneasiness, when the collectors realize the significance of what they have found for the human story, and it becomes a shared endeavour between collector and academia.

This is a beautifully presented book, which has colour plates showing the ice, coastline and river formation of Doggerland 18,000 years ago; the receding ice and flat plain, fractured with rivers and tunnels at 15,000 years ago; the gradual encroachment of water 13,500 years ago; the emergence of a recognizable UK at 10,000 years before present; and the remnant Dogger Island in the middle of the North Sea at 7,000 years ago, the connection between UK and Europe severed. It’s a human story too, that stretches back 1.8 million years, through Homo Erectus, Homo antecessor, Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens, some signified by a few stone tools or human footprints fossilized into the land surface.

There seems to be a spate of beautifully written environmental histories and essays that have been published recently. I’m thinking of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, David Sornig’s Blue Lake (my review here) and Vicki Hastrich’s Night Fishing (review here).

But it’s also a very human story because of the way she tells it. Her search is narrated almost as a conversational journey, as she meets with this person and that, and as she relates her own reminiscences of places and items she has herself found. Collectors and academics share their enthusiasms with her, and indirectly with us too. There is a lot of science in this book (and her list of acknowledgments at the back of the book demonstrates her debt to academia) but it’s written very much in layman’s terms. Her response to the academic literature is expressed in 18 ‘Time Song’ poems, which intersect the text, each preceded by a black and white drawings by Enrique Brinkmann.

There’s another story here too, a deeply personal one. She tells us in the preface that her second husband died a few years ago. We learn that she had met him when she was eighteen. He was Dutch, and for four years they crossed from one side of the North Sea to the other. They broke up, she married someone else and had children with him. After an absence of 27 years, they met again and married. During their first year of married life they again criss-crossed that North Sea to each other, him living in Amsterdam, her in Suffolk. Like Doggerland he was present, then disappeared; reappearing again and then absent for ever. In many ways, this book is a love poem to him and he is always just below her level of consciousness, just below the surface. Her final, beautiful Time Song is written to him. ‘Time’ is elapsing, but her exploration of Doggerland shows her that things can pass and yet persist, and that the universe has its own rhythm and trajectory, quite independent of us.

There was a pale and almost transparent moon in the sky this morning. The air has become very autumnal. It will soon be my husband’s second death year but because of the strange mathematics of absence, his age no longer increases with the passing of time. At night I sometimes stretch out my hand towards him and wait until I am almost convinced that an answering hand is there, even though I cannot feel it. I’m sure this is quite usual. It’s what people do. (p.11)

This is a beautiful book, contemplative and wise.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library