Tag Archives: Bill McKibben

A full day at the SWF

My yesterday was entirely devoted to the Sydney Writers Festival, and I had a great time, starting out at Walsh Bay, where my choices seemed to keep me away from the monster queues.

10 : 00 Poetry on the Harbour: Adam Aitken, Judith Beveridge and Kim Cheng Boey, with Ivor (‘I know they’re good poets because I published them’) Indyk in the chair.
In general I prefer to hear poets read their own work over having actors deliver sonorous, deeply felt renditions, because actors’ performances tend to narrow the range of possible readings. And I prefer poets’ readings that avoid the incantatory (though I’m delighted by the over the top bits of Yeats and Tennyson I’ve heard). All the same, all three of these poets read their work with such modesty and introspection that I longed for just a touch of the rock star, just a hint that they might be able to hold us in the palm of their hands and wring our withers.

It was an excellent reading nonetheless. Adam Aitken read his ‘Pol Pot in Paris’, and a poem taken from his father’s letters (introduced with, ‘I love my father, but he had colonial attitudes’) got actual laughs. Judith Beveridge began with an anecdote from Robert Creeley: at a school reading a child asked him, ‘Mr Creeley, was that a real poem or did you just make it up yourself?’ Among the poems that JB had made up herself was a lovely piece about a man washing himself at the railway station tap just outside Delhi. Of the extraordinarily cosmopolitan Kim Cheng Boey’s poems, I particularly liked ‘Stamps’, in which the poet converses with his little daughter.

11 : 30 First Nation Stories: Richard Van Camp and Boori Monty Pryor herded ‘like cats’ by Anita Heiss.
In introducing his poets, Ivor Indyk mentioned university positions and awards. In this session, Anita Heiss talked about which Indigenous Nations/mobs people came from, including herself. Both Richard and Boori perform and tell stories in schools. Richard gave us what I took to be one of his schools performances; Boori talked about his. Both men were very funny, and Boori gets the Me Fail I Fly nomination for the most charming man on the planet. Yet with all the humour and charm he managed to put some hard truths. ‘This is the only country in the world,’ he said, ‘that mines a culture and sells it off to the world but doesn’t want to know about the people who produce it.’ He told of a group of preschool teachers who asked him for advice on how to tell Aboriginal stories to their charges. ‘Do you know about the 1967 Referendum? The Gurindji campaign? The reserves?’ he asked (though he probably named different specifics). ‘You won’t be able to tell the stories until you know about the fight to keep them alive.’

13 : 00 The Politics of Storytelling: Mike Daisey and William Yang, chaired by Annette Shum Wah.
I’m told Mike Daisy’s story was shattering, but I went to sleep during the loud, bombastic opening section of his monologue, which I guess was meant to be the warm-up (a baby cried, presumably at the sheer loudness, and was incorporated into the rant, to the delight of the fans in front of me but adding to my need to absent myself). William Yang showed a number of slides, and it was reassuring to see that his style worked just as well when taken out of the tightly controlled environment of his shows. The discussion was interesting – Annette asked about their provocativeness (William’s photos can be a bit rude, and Mike uses four-letter words, hardly confronting in Sydney I would have thought, but he did mention a show where a big bloc of the audience stood up and walked out – it’s on YouTube and his response is wonderful). William said that when he first did his shows he was part of an angry community. Now he might put in an occasional naughty photo out of impishness. These were such different men, yet their mutual appreciation was lovely to behold.

16 : 00 David Wessel, Meet Paul Keating with George Megalogenis.
Note to anyone doing this kind of gig: it really really helps if you read up on the person you’re appearing with and can refer approvingly to his work. Both these men did that and it was a great leavening to what could have been a dry conversation about economics. David Wessell (economic editor of the Wall Street Journal, was able to drop a number of Keating’s famous phrases into his presentation (‘The recession we had to have’, ‘A shiver looking for a spine to run up’, etc). Wessell explained the causes of the GFC memorably as resulting from two false assumptions in the US: that house prices would never fall, and that extraordinary financial innovations spread risk in such a way as to diminish it to the point of negligibility. Keating, equally memorably described chinese reserves as a great cloud full of water and electricity floating over the world, and Alan Greenspan building a copper pipe up into the sky to draw down the water. He also talked about Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece as having a big one-off party made possible by converting to the Euro and suddenly enjoying German interest rates. Right now we’re seeing the morning-after crash. Questions were probably intelligent, but were well above my head.

18 : 00 Have We All Been Conned?: An Emergency Town Meeting: Bill McKibben, Ross Garnaut and Clive Hamilton, with Tim Flannery as participating Chair, discussing the politics and science of climate change.
A case of false labelling. Of course, we all knew it was a Writers Festival event and not a political rally, so it was no surprise that it was, as my son described them, four bald men in glasses talking to an appreciative audience about the current state of affairs. No one was really concerned to plug his own book – it was, as Tim Flannery, said, a bit of a dream team.

Was Copenhagen a success or failure? Too soon to tell, but it has meant that developing countries are now taking on climate change rather than waiting for the developing countries to do their bit first.

How come Australia is the biggest laggard in climate change action, yet it has the most to lose? Ross Garnaut spoke with transparent obliqueness of lack of political leadership. Bill McKibben, I think it was, first mentioned Kevin Rudd by name. Clive Hamilton sunk the boot: Kevin Rudd thinks science is a lobby group, and he’s a manager not a leader.

What about the Greens’ rejection of the CPRS? A lamentable strategic error, seemed to be the consensus, rather than a grievous failure of principle as we have seen from federal Labor. Bill McKibben said wise words here. Coming from afar, he said, he had the luxury of responding without knowing or needing to know the details, but what we have to remember is that any victory, however small, is to be celebrated, and any victory, however large, is only a step forward. This is a struggle that will continue for our lifetimes and beyond.

Perhaps the grimmest note of the evening was the statement from, I think, Bill McKibben, that our challenge now is no longer to prevent climate change but to take action to deal with the new world we now live in.

In question time we reaped the consequences of the false advertising. Person after person took the microphone to tell us what they thought about the subject. One woman, from an outfit called A Hundred Percent Renewable, had even brought a banner, which she trailed after her disconsolately as she left the microphone, having failed to get a taker to hold up its other end.

And I’m off to another full day today.

Recent journals (1) – Heat 21

Ivor Indyk (ed), Heat 21: Without a paddle (Giramondo December 2009)

Some of the reasons why you should subscribe to Heat, or at least read it:

1. Worthiness. Your money and attention help to sustain cosmopolitan Australian literary culture.

2. Self-protection. Extracts from works in progress allow you to prejudge the finished work. I’ve decided to avoid a significant number of award winning books on the basis of such advance warnings, and I’m likely to steer clear of one or two foreshadowed in this issue. The poetry provides a similar warning function: poetry is so much a matter of taste, and journals like Heat can play the crucial role of taster. And there are the critical pieces: on the strength of Kate Lilley’s detailed exposition of Susan Howe’s The Midnight, I won’t go looking for it any time soon (far too rich and recondite for my thin blood); Peter Craven’s critical review has put me right off Brian Matthews’s biography of Manning Clark. But it hasn’t enamoured me of Peter Craven: he’s bracingly forthright in his judgements, and even when he’s completely wrong-headed he provokes interesting conversations, but he comes across as too full of himself and too pugnacious for me to actively seek him out.

3. Titillation. Then there are the poems and extracts from works in progress that have the opposite effect. Poems from, among others, Pam Brown, Ken Bolton, Chris Price make me want more.

4. Education. In this issue, Josiane Behmoiras embeds an introduction to the work of Paul Virilio, a cutting edge French thinker, in an account of her recent trip to France (complete with implied travel advisories on the stench of urine by the Seine and problems with Australian Visa cards on the Metro); where her discussion of his work descends from glorious abstraction, it seems to be arrive at important conclusions about how we should live, very close to those of Bill McKibben’s much less abstruse Deep Economy.

The four-colour section in the middle introduces us to the  painter Jon Campbell, and offers us a hand in understanding why we should be interested in his work.

5. Base pleasure. Maybe this is only for people who are or have ever been editors, but Heat can be counted on for regular hits of the sour pleasure of Other People’s Gaffes. The best one in this issue occurs in a poem: ‘a woman rides a / pink vesper that you could / park anywhere’. I’m reasonably sure the poet had a chic little Vespa scooter in mind rather than an evening star blazing to the kerb in the sky.

6. More substantial pleasure. This is of course the real reason for reading Heat at all.

Here, Jena Woodhouse interviews Michael Hofmann, poet and translator, and though her introductory paragraphs use rude words like polytropic, once we get to Hofmann himself the prose becomes a joy to read.

Luke Carman’s three prose pieces gathered under the title ‘The Easy Interactions of an Elegant Young Man’ have a wonderful, disturbingly comic cumulative effect. Part way through the second I realised I saw him read similar work at the Sydney Writer’s Festival earlier this year, and described his reading as rapidfire and surreal. It works that way on the page as well.

And then there’s James Ley’s ‘A Degree of Insanity’, a straightforward, intelligent essay on Samuel Johnson that is splendid in itself, not least because it quotes generously from Johnson’s sonorous prose. Its appearance in this journal gives added pleasure, as it seems to send ricochets out, pinging off the rest of the content. Peter Craven, for example, drops a couple of Johnson’s famous quips into his argument for no apparent reason other than to establish his own gravitas. The notion, from Johnson’s Rasselas, that ‘all power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity’ bounces prettily off the mild derangement of Luke Carman’s pieces and some of the poetry. The excitement surrounding literary journals in eighteenth century London sparks reflections about the role of their descendants in our time, Heat among them.

Next:  Overland issue 197.