AS I inadvertently delivered a ”scathing attack” on the Australian literary establishment, I ought to explain. The occasion was the ”keynote” address that I unwisely agreed to, to introduce the Brisbane Writers Festival (BWF).
Nanjing Night Net

A festival opening address is only ”keynote” if the festival has a theme, which the BWF did not. My job was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the BWF and to laud literary festivals as estimable and indeed, indispensable enhancements of public life. This was not made easier by the consideration that the BWF is nowhere near 50 years old, and could only be made to appear so by my pretending to believe that the Warana Writers Weekend, which was held for the first time 50 years ago, was the same thing by a different name.

The Writers Weekend was not open to the public; Queensland writers and publishers – one might almost say the literary establishment – just sat around and chewed the fat for what one imagines was a boozy weekend.

The Writers Weekend went on like that for 23 years before the public was admitted and it became the Warana Writers Week. It was all downhill from there. A partnership was set up with the University of Queensland and the festival moved into town, with events at the South Bank centre and other city venues. Its initial budget of $50,000 came from the Australia Council, the state government and corporate sponsorship. It was not until 1996 that the Writers Week became the BWF.

Numerous websites will tell you that the BWF is ”an event aimed at writers”. Certainly it is very hard work, especially for those writers who have been invited to conduct three-hour creative writing classes. I was shocked to discover some of the Australian writers I most admire have to accept such invitations because without the modest fee, they could not pay the mortgage.

The first-ever literary festival is supposed to have been held in the English spa town of Cheltenham in 1949. As a resort the town had seen better days, but it still had the assets of a spa, with concert halls, dance halls, hotels, rotundas, cafes and parks. By bringing writers into the town to talk with readers, Cheltenham secured for itself a new lease of life. Cheltenham Festivals is now a brand running festivals of jazz, music, science, folk, film, poetry and comedy. The unemployment rate in Cheltenham is less than a third of the national average.

The Hay Festival has become an international brand, with festivals in Segovia, Budapest, Istanbul, Beirut, Nairobi, Dhaka, Kolkata, Kerala, Toronto, Xalapa, Riohacha, Cartagena, Bogota – usually fabulous venues with troops of excited young volunteers who are honoured to be looking after the writers and eager to show them the best their town has to offer.

Trudging up Grey Street to the Queensland State Library to teach creative writing for three hours to people who have paid $100 each is an entirely different ball game.

Generally speaking, state capitals are not ideal venues for any kind of festival. Adelaide manages to create a pretty festive atmosphere, despite the fact that most writers are housed in regulation business accommodation. What makes the difference is the size and layout of the city, the extent of parks and gardens, the radiant weather – and the hospitality offered by vintners, hoteliers and publishers. No other state capital has any of that to offer. Adelaide also takes the trouble to put writers in touch with each other before they have to address the public. It wants its writers, as well as its readers, to have a good time.

Literary festivals are readers’ festivals. They have nothing to do with school, or with learning how to make a living as a writer, or with urban branding. Yet in Australia, all these contributions are demanded of an incorporated urban festival if it is to have any funding at all. The city fathers of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane would be astonished to know that there are literary festivals where the events are free, where writers are the guests of festival patrons who give parties for them; festivals that writers long to be asked back to.

Tom Stoppard said of the festival at Galle in Sri Lanka: ”The festival was just what one wishes a literary festival to be, a treat and a tonic.” Galle is one festival where writers join in each other’s events, where minds meet and souls engage. It’s a long way from Grey Street.

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