Aggro, larrikins and glitter: In praise of the lesser titan on the festival circuit

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Anson Cameron was getting very excited, reading an entry for the Furphy Literary Award. It leapt off the page and made him laugh out loud. He told his fellow Furphy judges he had found a wonderful new talent.

The Furphy Anthology 2022.Credit:

As it turned out, the talent was not new. The short stories are entered anonymously, and the winning story was from celebrated short story writer Cate Kennedy. Which is not to say the Furphy award doesn’t discover new talent, Cameron and Kennedy told a session at the Bendigo Writers Festival last weekend. There’s a book, Furphy Anthology 2022, to prove it.

Furphy is a name famous for beer, water carts and the writer Joseph Furphy. The title of his huge rambling 1903 novel, Such Is Life, gave the Bendigo festival its theme for 2023. It’s not a very readable novel, Cameron admitted, and it makes best sense when read as a series of short stories.

This year was an unfortunate clash of the titans, for the Melbourne Writers Festival had decided to move to the same dates. I’ve been attending the Melbourne festival for many years, but this year I was invited to Bendigo to host sessions with Sophie Cunningham and Carmel Bird. And I’m glad I went.

Bendigo is the lesser titan: small enough to feel intimate, with a sense of community between writers and readers. Helen Garner, still testing positive after a bout with COVID, made it via Zoom. From overseas, George Monbiot and Nick Hornby also appeared virtually, and Booker-shortlisted author Claire Keegan appeared in person; but, at heart, the festival was, as Furphy would put it, “aggressively Australian”.

Joseph Furphy’s novel Such Is Life gave Bendigo Writers Festival its theme.Credit: NLA

There was a bit of aggro at a session on the women’s movement in Australia, when Meredith Burgmann recalled her radical days in the 1970s. NSW Labour Council secretary Barrie Unsworth wouldn’t allow her group to speak at the Sydney Trades Hall. But we’re hearing from a candidate in the Miss Australia quest, he said.

When the women started hissing, he added: “Well, if she came here she wouldn’t get any competition from you.” Later, in the pub, he told Burgmann: “Never mind, I think you’re pretty.”

I suspect that Joseph Furphy, always the radical larrikin, might have been on Burgmann’s side, though it’s said his marriage wasn’t happy. Would he also have approved of the panel spruiking the anthology Nothing to Hide: Voices of Trans and Gender Diverse Australia? Such categories didn’t exist in his day.

Editors Sam Elkin, Yves Rees and contributor Sasha Sydek described how they wanted to move away from harrowing and traumatic stories, important as they were, to a celebration of their identity. It was a colourful session, both on the stage and in the audience. Singapore-born trans activist Sydek said she had found her calling and voice in Australia, and also her love of fashion: she was in glittery green from top to toe.

Furphy was religious, yet I think he would have liked Christos Tsiolkas, once a teenage rebel and now a complicated middle-aged man, who abandoned faith first in God and later in radical politics after he went to Eastern Europe and discovered how fallible and damaging those politics could be. But Furphy probably wouldn’t have liked Tsiolkas’ visceral descriptions of the human body.

Once a teenage rebel: Author Christos Tsiolkas.Credit: Wayne Taylor

Tsiolkas is now an agnostic, but still has a sense of awe and spirituality and a gratitude to his parents. He would still go to the cemetery and kneel to say a prayer. “I have to hold these contradictions in both my hands.”

Attending a literary festival often means holding contradictions in both hands. Such is life indeed.

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