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December 04th 2017 print

James McCann

My Welcome to Writers Fest Country

Something quite remarkable distinguished this year's Melbourne Writers Festival: it was attended by a writer who happens not to be of the Left, Quadrant's James McCann. Here's a small sample from his much longer and still-paywalled piece in our December issue.  Another good reason to subscribe

bosch IIThere are 300 events scheduled for the festival and three or four of them are running at any given time. Like a man who has lost his glasses, there are many things I can’t see. Sadly, on the second day I miss out on “The Perils of Populism”, “Women Writers in the City”, “Climate Change Activism”, “The Vandemonian War” and “Feminist Lit”—and that’s just before lunchtime. Instead, I opt for a panel discussion, “Death in the Digital Age”. It is held in a different room, a small, stuffy cinema about fifty metres from the main hall. Approximately a quarter of the audience is made up of young men who, to put it politely, look as if they are interested in digital things, and the rest of those assembled are so old that, to put it impolitely, they might have pressing concerns about death.

After another welcome to country, the MC and the panellists speculate on a variety of topics (What happens to our Twitter when we die? Wasn’t that episode of Black Mirror good?). I’m not sure how much of it the seniors are actually following. An elderly woman nearby keeps nodding her head and humming in agreement at statements which really don’t warrant that response—“Facebook was originally intended as social media” (“Hmm!”) “You’ve all seen roadside memorials” (“Hmmm!”). The highpoint of the discussion comes when the MC uses the term “online detritus” to describe old Facebook accounts and e-mails. I have never heard this expression before, and am quite impressed. The feeling is fleeting. As the festival goes on I hear three different speakers use detritus as a metaphor in three different speeches, and realise that detritus is just an unusually popular thing to say in Melbourne’s literary circles.

This is a small sample of James McCann’s report
from the Melbourne Writers Festival.
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It is by no means their worst tic. That, by the way, is the expression, “We need to think about these issues as a society.” That sentence, or some close variant (in escalating clumsiness “Society needs to think about these issues”, “These are issues which our society needs to think about”, and “We, as a society, have to come together around these issues and really think about them”) is uttered countless times at the festival. The sentiment is totalitarian (“society needs to think about it!”), but also populist (“the entirety of society should be consulted”) and, more than anything, an admission of mediocrity (“Me? Oh, I don’t have anything to say on the issue myself. I’ll leave that to society”). It is also, as is the case at the “Death in the Digital Age” panel, seldom actually true. Do we really, as a society, need to think about what happens to somebody’s Facebook account when they die? Isn’t that something we could figure out on our own?

The festival has booked MCs for all the events. Ostensibly they’re there to introduce the writers and run question-and-answer sessions, but more often than not they take it on themselves to crowbar progressive ideology into otherwise apolitical topics.

At “The Genius of Birds”, science writer Jennifer Ackerman is scheduled to discuss “the sophisticated science behind birds’ brains and behaviours”, but not before an MC gives an acknowledgment of country—which, by this point, I have to assume has been mandated—and then starts to pontificate about the Kulin nation, who “would have been very aware of the birds in this area” before Europeans came and “paved over the ground”, which resulted in the loss of “understanding”. Ackerman’s lecture itself is very enjoyable; she talks about different birds, their startling intelligence, enormous memories, and surprising ability to solve puzzles. At one point, a sparrow flies into the room, and there is much amusement. In closing, the MC says that Ackerman has today demonstrated that “human beings are not separate to nature … we are a part of it”. She has, of course, done nothing of the kind. She has demonstrated that one species of bird is capable of using a twig to find food, not annihilated human exceptionalism….

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Comments [10]

  1. Jody says:

    Why worry about it? Once it was “God Save the Queen”. Now it could still be God save the Queen – but would refer to a different kind of queen.

  2. Warty says:

    James McCann tells us that he was ‘tasked’ with attending this brain tumour of a festival, and seeing he doesn’t recognise that ‘task’ is a noun and requires an auxiliary to be used as a verb, such as ‘given the task’, I can understand how the imposition occurred in the first place: literary retribution.
    But, as I subscribe to Quadrant, I feel it only polite to read on, though I need to offer condolences to this writer, the poor soul requested to attend how ever many hours of ‘electrifying’ virtue signalling, Keith or Roger felt he needed to suffer through.
    On the other hand what does it say of the inner city individual that sits through all that stuff on an apparently voluntary basis? Well, I have to admit I personally suffered a form of brain rot, that peculiar variety of flesh-eating disease, in my early to mid twenties, when testosterone was high and genuine discrimination particularly low.
    The irony was I actually considered myself quite intelligent, back then. And now, with the advantage of greater maturity, you come to realise the claim of intelligence is overrated, to say the least, with by far the majority of those you come into contacted convinced that you are anything but. You learn to tolerate this, with diminishing bleats of protest, particularly when you discover the need to reread articles and passages in order to get their import to stick.
    But there is this to say about my retreat into quite a different echo chamber to the Trotskyite one I inhabited all those years ago. The fact that I immersed myself in the half baked ‘liberation’ ideology of the late 60s and early 70s, I can say I have a faint fetch of the hell-hole that attracts the readers (and writers) to the New Matilda and Huffington Post and all those other inner city publications. So I feel no need to ‘go there’ again, despite the ‘development’ of the ideas with regards to identity politics and gender-bending: that stuff was all there in embryonic form anyway, though the issues surrounding Islam are new.
    And the claims that the great irony that we radicals of the early 70s were all about free speech was a load of codswallop anyway: we were just as ready to shout down those who disagreed with us as the radicals of today: we wanted freedom for ourselves, not the supposed old farts that opposed us.
    So, to cut a long story short: James McCann’s expedition perhaps serves a purpose, in that it allows us to laugh at the degree of ‘groupthink’ served up at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival; but I’m more than happy to retreat to the embrace of my own preferred company. And though I’ve never met any of them in person, I consider Roger Scruton, Peter Hinchen, Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, G.K. Chesterson and a number of others amongst my closest friends. Some of them guide some unlikely bedfellows, like Tony Abbott, Cory Bernardi and Steve Bannon; and though none of them have ever heard of me, I do believe I am part of a larger community mind and may have some influence, however tiny, by means of my own quiet reflections. Milo Yiannopoulos may pride himself as being a more overt conduit of conservatism for the young, whilst writers and readers attached to the Quadrant have a quieter, perhaps more penetrating influence, that may well take a decade or so to fully manifest.
    The compact between ‘the living, the dead, and those yet to be born’ is a view to the long term, not instant results.

  3. Keith Kennelly says:

    I include Burke and GK in my cohort of interesting scribblers. Among others; W Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad, the Frenchman … damned memory… of Madam Bovery, … ahhhh … Gus Flaubert and the Russian, Nik Leskov mix with them. I’ve only added one new friend in the last 20 odd years.

    Another American, James Burnham.

    The more I read the more I realised I knew so little.

    Still know beggar all … really.

    • Warty says:

      I am not familiar with Gus Flaubert nor Nik Leskov. But, as you say, there are so many thinkers and writers ‘out there’ who show up just how little one knows. On the other hand Socrates was the wisest man of his time and he was convinced he knew nothing, unlike the sophists who thought they knew a lot.

  4. Keith Kennelly says:

    Hi Warty

    Gustave Flaubert wrote Madam Bovery. A masterpiece about marriage and relationships. It took him 7 years to complete the novel.

    Nikolia Leskov was a classic Russian writer. He was very earthy and wrote of the common Russian. He was the only Russian great who never matriculated.

    His writing was in many ways similar to Henry Lawson. He was loved by the common people.

    I found both these immortals years ago. I’m

  5. Keith Kennelly says:

    I enjoyed Plato but loved Diogenes even more. ‘My kind of guy!

  6. Keith Kennelly says:

    ‘Anything to silly to be said is sung,’

    Voltaire

  7. Keith Kennelly says:

    This was a discussion about writing, not so called music.music.