THIS BEING MY first Adelaide Writers’ Festival, the stories of past festival excesses had me in a state of nervous excitement. Apparently, a couple of festivals back, a poet, having enjoyed his publisher’s hospitality for a number of hours, had then begun roundly criticising the waste of money spent on the party. That money could have been spent on publishing his new anthology, he had snarled, before storming off, falling over and crushing to death a poor illiterate duck. So as I arrived at the Hilton Hotel, the engine room of the festival, I fully expected the footpath to be encrusted with blood and feathers, and the lobby to have forsaken its hushed piety for a Caligulan romp.
What I found were numerous publicists quietly holding the hands of nervous authors, urging them to get into those tents and “slay ’em”. Well, maybe not in those words, but that was the feel. I was slotted for one appearance only, a crime panel chaired by Nic Hasluck. Just as I lobbed up, Roger McDonald (Mr Darwin’s Shooter) was finishing his stint to a rapt audience of several hundred. The tone was set. Amit Chaudhuri (Freedom Song) then captivated the audience with the deftness of another Indian of similar stature, Sunil Gavaskar.
David Marr somehow managed to get us all thinking about real crime while avoiding being prosaic or preachy. The hard work had been done. It was left to me to whack a couple of boundaries. The Q&A section worked a treat. Marr may have discounted that the legions of young women in the audience had been there for him, but Maloney and I were riding high on the sort of middle-aged self-delusion captured so well by Kevin Spacey in American Beauty.
We came crashing down to Earth. They were all there for Janet Evanovich. I sucked up blatantly, suggesting that Evanovich’s heroine, Stephanie Plum, should come down under for her next adventure. It was a suggestion met with voluminous applause. At our book-signing, Evanovich led the way. The last time Adelaide had seen queues this big was for the portaloos during the 16th act of the Mahabharartha. I went back to the Hilton, changed and returned to the book area. Evanovich had done another session and this time the queues were even longer.At the Random House party that followed, all the top Random gals chose floral motifs in their outfits. Tom Keneally chose the same outfit he wore as Tina Turner’s replacement. Looking for the loo, I took a wrong turn and thought I had walked onto the set of Romance.
Then I realised it was a publicist giving her author courage for his gruelling schedule. Well, I guess that would have been the explanation.Being a young player here in Adelaide, I then made my first big mistake. I thought the Random Party was the event I’d been invited to as a Vintage author. But it turned out that was the dinner that followed. I missed it. Pity, I would have liked to pass the salt to Vikram Seth.
ON DAY TWO, I caught wind of the first scandal of the festival. The previous evening, one author had been so abusive to his/her publisher and peers, that even his/her agent was thinking of excommunicating him/her from the stable. Buoyed by such tumult, I bounced down to the tents and took in some book launchings. Like everybody else, though, I was marking time for 5pm and the biggest showdown since the Rumble in the Jungle.
In the East tent, weighing in with close to 2,000 attentive ears, was the new kid on the block, Paul Keating. In the West tent, with a slightly smaller crowd, was the champ, Vikram Seth. These days, such crowds can only be expected for some guru’s seminar on negative gearing, or IT operating systems. But no, here was a big excited crowd only interested in the currency of ideas.
Anti-philistinism was alive and well in Australia. While standing in the Keating crowd, I overheard the man next to me ask the woman next to him if she had ever heard the ex-PM speak live. She hadn’t. Neither had he. Neither had I. I reflected on how remarkable it was that somebody could be in politics that long, could have such an impact on our lives, could feel so familiar to us, without us ever having heard him utter a word in person. It brought home to me what a wonderful opportunity these festivals provide. They enable us to hear people discoursing live, not via the TV lens, audio compression and digital mastering.
By a quirk of fate, at the Pan Macmillan author dinner that evening, I found myself seated a handshake from the ex-PM. We were all a little hesitant to make small talk less he threaten to “kick our heads in”, but when I ventured to ask his all-time favourite novel, he became animated and nominated Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader. Being the only fiction author in the immediate vicinity, naturally I was also the only person who hadn’t read it. Conversation moved to the parallels between the treatment handed out to Germany after it lost World War I, and NATO’s present isolation of Russia, which Mr K thought a tragedy for Europe. Lively discussion followed, with P.K. joining the fray not as some aloof statesman but simply as one more author with an opinion.
Later I kicked myself for not suggesting he adopt my song Suburban Boy as a play-on theme for his talkfest. The night was topped off when my fellow author, Anson Cameron, spied John Astin, aka Gomez Addams, at the table behind us. Even ex-prime ministers, I’m afraid, have to stand in the shadows when in the presence of somebody who can talk Swahili, dance the tango and fence with the passion of Errol Flynn. The festival purred on like a well-oiled Bentley, but it would have to complete its journey without me. My time was over.
As my cab for the airport pulled away from the Hilton, there were no bloodied feathers on the footpath. At least one author, however, waits uncertainly under the big cleaver. The ducks of Adelaide may have their revenge yet.
Article copyright © Dave Warner, 2000. First published in The Sydney Morning Herald.