When the Sydney Writers’ Festival comes round each year, I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven. I’m like a starving dog salivating through a butcher shop window, yearning for that door to open.
Not only am I desperately hanging out to get into my booked sessions but I also want to soak up the incredible ambiance. The weather has been miserabnle before but today the surprisingly warm Autumn sunlight twinkles across the waters of Sydney Harbour as the Bridge seemingly peers over your shoulder. Yet, the view isn’t just about the landscape. It’s also about watching the crowds mill past and watching people deep in thought or discussion and wondering why each and every one of them are there. Are they all like me desperately hoping to hit the big time? Anyway, I soon spy Gleebooks and the four letter word I can never resist: SALE and my Santa’s sack fill to the brim is left behind the desk for later. It’s better than the Royal Easter Show.
Yes, indeed, like a scruffy little rabbit-chasing black dog rolling in a fresh cowpat until the stench has well and truly infiltrated the fur follicles (nameless, of course!!), I could roll in the Sydney Writers’ Festival until it was well and truly absorbed by each and every cell. I was definitely in my element.
It is easy to go a bit crazy at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in the same way people literally go mad at the Boxing Day sales. You’ve been waiting so long to get back especially if you, like me, have been counting down the days ever since the last one. Yes, indeed. I live from festival to festival. It is Mummy’s “Great Hurrah” every year when I run away from home and responsibility, flaunting my writer’s cap. Most other years, I’ve stayed in Sydney overnight although this year, I’m here for the day.
This year my programme looked like this:
1.30 Roger Woodward Concert Pianist with his autobiography: Beyond Black & White
3.00 Claire Tomalin: On Charles Dickens the Inimitable
6.30 Norman Doidge: The Brain’s Way of Healing
Although I was looking forward to each of the three sessions for different reasons, my focus was on the session with Norman Doidge. Actually, focus is quite the understatement. I was like a crazed fan trying to invade the Beatles’ hotel during their 1964 Australian Tour. I not only wanted to thank him for how much his books have changed my life but I also wanted to tell him how learning the violin had accidentally rewired my brain and that much of the process of learning the violin mimicked the ideas of Feldenkreis (These are ideas presented in his second book along with case studies)…..as did learning to ski. Indeed, learning the violin has rewired my “noisy brain” and enabled me to enjoy listening to music and even listen to the others in my vilin ensemble to pick my cue. This is a huge improvement.
Although playing the violin and learning to ski might appear very different on the surface, both involved that slow, conscious movement and intense repetition to improve. That is, at least the way I was learning them with my swag of physical disabilities or “issues”. This is what’s required to maximise rewiring the brain.
I managed to listen to Norman Doidge again today on Radio 702 with Richard Fidler and this really helped to cement in the concepts as Filder really probed the depths of his responses.
You see, while it’s all very well to have nitty gritty scientific discussions, what people really want to hear is: “What can this do for me or my loved one who is “blocked” in some way or another? How can you make it better? What can I do?
After all, rewinding back to my darkest hours, I was moping round the house singing Meatloaf’s epic song: Anything For Love http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9X_ViIPA-Gc. I meant it too. I was prepared to do anything at that point to snatch back any time with my kids that I could. I even went off chocolate and cut back sugar for a few months, which was a huge achievement for me!!
However, how does an unknown contact a guru, even when they have a riveting story which shouts their findings from the mountain top?
Sadly, it just doesn’t happen. Tried reaching him via the festival beforehand and no success. Stood up in the queue with my walking stick and foot in boot to ask a question and I could barely stand up and they ran out of time. I guess I’ll have to get cracking with my own story.
By the way, I didn’t think about this at the time but just think of the neuroplastic implications of perpetual whinging?!! Yikes! It makes me shudder!!
Anyway, rewinding to my session with Roger Woodward, concert pianist http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Woodward…
You might recall that my grandmother, Eunice Gardiner, was an accomplished International concert pianist who’d not only attended the Royal Academy of Music in London but was appointed one of a handful of Fellows. Eunice taught at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music when Roger Woodward was a student and although I’d never met Roger Woodward, it seemed like he was something like a long lost member of the family. Not our family but my grandmother’s family of pianists. I met quite a few of her protege’s over the years and she had an affinity with them I could never even try to grasp. They were birds of a very exceptional feather and by nature, an exclusive club. The rest of us mere mortals simply didn’t get it. My mother had originally been in that family and had met my father at a soiree at my grandparents Lindfield home featuring pianist Gerard Willems and also attended by Australian authors Ruth Park and husband D’Arcy Niland. I’m not sure if Roger Woodward was there that night but until recently I’d thought he’d played that night and so he was very much enmeshed in my personal history.
While Woodward spoke about his time at the Sydney Conservatorium and took me into my grandmother’s world, what really gripped me from his talk was his belief in social justice and the need to take a stand. That as creatives we can stick our head in the sand and ignore it or stand up and fight. In 1965, he moved to Poland where he became strongly associated with the Solidarność movement. He remarked that while a lot of artists stood on the fence, in Australia, you stood up for your mates. He said: “I don’t feel comfortable sitting back as a human being and saying: “That’s not my business. Stand up for human rights. Australianness is standing up against a bully.”
On a lighter note, I must say that Woodward is the consumate performer. Not just at the piano but also in the way he delivered story after story and you were transported back in time into his shoes. You could sense each and every emotion as you sat riveted on the edge of your seat I hadn’t expected that. Although I grew up with the classical music scene all around me, I was very much a foreigner….an alien so I was really pleasantly surprised to enjoy his session so much.
By the way, I just have to mention that he was waering these striking maroon and navy striped socks.To be they displayed a character, personality. Not quite sure what else socks say about a person but I was wearing a pair of navy “Happy Socks” with different coloured circles all over them. Yes, they were colourful and quirky, reflecting just a little of who I am too.
Next, I was off to Claire Tomalin: On Charles Dickens the Inimitable. At this point, I was joined by my friend Clare, who was my appendage for the afternoon (I have a companion card). Although I’m somewhat interested in Dickins, I must confess that I’ve filed him under “should read” rather than “must read”. While I love performances of his works, I don’t read a lot of novels and prefer shorter and more contemporary works. That said, I have been researching our family history and Dickens writes about that period of history and he does it exceptionally well. This was the carrot enticing me to explore Dickens further.
If you have attended writers’ festivals yourself, you, like me try and organise your sessions around a can’t miss and then sandwich something else in to fill the gaps in between. This was how I ended up at this session exploring Dickens. After booking the tickets, however, a friend had heard Claire Tomalin interviewed about the book on radio and then I was sold. I even bought the book beforehand. Suddenly, crusty old Dickens which I’d struggled through at school, had been metamorphosed into a character himself. A character I was intrigued to explore not just as a writer but as a student of people.
Tomalin, who has written many biographies in her time, said: “the best way to get to know a writer, is to hear their own voice” and she read out a letter Dickens had written to his sister. However, there were two anecdotes which truly appealed to me. Firstly, she mentioned that Dickens wrote with a quill. That somebody could write so prolically with such awkward equipment, is beyond me. Just think was his output would have been if he’d had a computer! He’d have filled a library all by himself!! Secondly, she talked about how Dickens loved walking and by walking we’re not just talking about a stroll to the local shops. Indeed, he walked 20 miles a day. This struck me as a kind of therapy.
However, the Sydney Writers’ Festival isn’t complete with a bit of indulgence. Clare and I ended up dining out at a fabulous restaurant the Ash Street Cellar. It was a thorough great meal and such a thrill to be back in the city. I felt like a real person again…myself. I used to work and live in the city many lifetimes ago and it’s still in my veins. That said, I do prefer the more relaxed beachside, family lifestyle these days. I prefer to just visit the smog these days.
The Sydney Writers’ festival continues and the Vivid light festival starts tonight , I believe. We saw a few glimpses of it last night but I’ve seemn it in previous years and it is spectacular.
Are you a writers’ festival junkie? Do tell!