Searing sunshine. Beautiful buildings and gardens at the University of Western Australia. The Swan River. Pop-up shelters on green-grassed ovals. Bunting. The smell of Moreton Bay figs crushed underfoot. Smiling faces. Encounters with old friends. Congenial conversations with strangers. A buzz, excitement, movement. Packed performance theatres, lecture theatres, tents, Winthrop Hall. Local writers centres seeking new members. Children, craft and ice-creams on Family Day. Writers, would-be writers and readers mingling.
The four-day festival included a day-long seminar on publishing; sixteen three-hour workshops with experienced writers and one hundred other events, as well as a day-long program of activities especially for children on Sunday. Almost one hundred and eighty novelists, memoirists, biographers, journalists, travel writers, comedians-and-actors-turned writers, poets, academics, retired politicians, several lawyers and a Catholic priest stimulated, enlightened and entertained their audiences in a number of venues.
There were international speakers, among them Margaret Drabble, Jo Baker, Lionel Shriver and Simon Garfield; a strong contingent from other parts of Australia as well as numerous locals. Experienced and emerging writers spoke about their latest books and discussed their writing processes. There was something at this festival for everyone.
With so much to choose from, John and I missed things we might have otherwise attended. But we did the best we could with the program published a month earlier, and ticked and crossed those sessions we thought would best suit our temperaments and our interests. In spite of our plans, we often changed tack and went to different sessions which we mixed and matched according to whim, and often to our great delight.
I’ve been going to the Perth Writers Festivals for decades. One that I remember with great fondness was held at the Fremantle Arts Centre, a tiny venue by today’s standards. That year, a dear friend and I booked into bed and breakfast accommodation within walking distance from the Centre, because we didn’t want to miss anything. We went to everything on offer, including a bus tour of Fremantle.
The festival has moved on since those early days. At at various times it has been held at the Perth Concert Hall and the Perth Art Gallery. Each place offered something unique, but UWA provides a delightful setting with a central hub and nearby venues. After speaking at Writers Festivals in Melbourne and Sydney, I’m convinced Perth’s festival is best. Biased? Perhaps.
There were many highlights, of course. and other people might choose differently. But some of my stand-outs were the wise Dame Margaret Drabble, author of seventeen wonderful novels; the fresh new writer, Xavier Toby, who had doubled as a comedian the week before in the Perth Fringe Festival; Angela Meyer, whose careful research and bubbly persona made the sessions she chaired a special delight; and a thought-provoking session about the current political language being used in Australia to talk about asylum seekers. Speakers in this conversation were Thomas Keneally and Rosie Scott, who have edited A Country Too Far, a book of asylum-seeker stories contributed by eminent writers; Debra Adelaide; and ‘reformed’ asylum-seekers, last year’s Young Australian of the Year, Akram Azimi, and Carina Hoang.
Last week, I wondered if perhaps I was too old now for writers festivals. Tonight, I know I am! I won’t need rocking to sleep. But I have so much new information to think about, so much to process, so many new ideas to share, that I’m glad I’ve attended another festival. And I look forward to doing it all again next year.