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Brisbane Writers Festival

READERSVOICE.COM aims to pick up a few interesting reading tips. For this issue I went along to the Brisbane Writers Festival. Also I attended the book launch of the first anthology by Women on Oxford, called A Pocket Full of Wry. It's a book of stories with ironic twists.

I wandered around the Brisbane Writers Festival at the State Library, by the Brisbane River, on September 12. I mainly wanted to see Stephen Cummings, the former lead singer of The Sports which came out of the punk era. He had released 20 solo albums.
I’d seen him perform in The Sports back in 1981, at the Cloudland Ballroom with Madness and The Go-Betweens. When he was interviewed by an ABC Radio journalist at the writers festival, I got a bit of a kick out of it when he mentioned this concert. Sometimes you wonder if things in the distant past ever happened; it’s good to get corroboration.

He said he’d lost a lot of his hearing, but I’m not sure if that was to do with performing all those years. In his session, he was asked about his life in music and talked about his memoir, Will it be funny tomorrow Billy?.

He was a straight-shooter about various people and topics, and was sometimes quite funny. He had some good observations, but you might need a thick skin to listen to some of his views. He didn’t seem to like Christians, which I like to think I am. He didn’t like lawyers either. Or the standard of music criticism these days.

He said he didn’t really have a career and just stumbled from one day to the next. He was happy he was getting to lead a slack life.

He said he wrote his memoir because if the people who lived through experiences didn’t write about them, then history would be analysed through “lazy orthodoxies” — a brave thing to say at a writers festival. They tend to be a bit ideologically driven.
He wanted to set down the period of pub music he was part of in the 1970s and 80s in Australia, particularly in Melbourne. He started out in a band paid by a union to play to various worksites, he said.

He talked fondly of his time playing in pubs. He said that bands used to write songs and perform them the same night, and people would go along to hotels to see them. But these days people only went to concerts if they knew exactly what they’d be hearing.

He also said music had lost a lot of its power, and only made the news if it was linked to some other story, about a celebrity perhaps. Music was usually just an adjunct to something, like an installation in the adjacent art gallery.

He recommended The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis. This 1983 novel is named after the favored opening move by chess player protagonist Beth Harmon. Themes include feminism, alcoholism and drug addiction. It tells the story of her life, from her childhood in an orphanage, through addiction, and rising through the ranks in chess.

While I was walking to the State Library for an afternoon at the festival, I looked up from the footpath and saw a tall, grey-haired man in a dark suit standing above me, alone, leaning on a railing, smoking a cigarette.

I’d seen him give a talk earlier in the day, about his memoir Shots (Black Inc.). He had said he tried hard not to hurt anyone when writing his memoir, and would disguise identities of people who had behaved badly. Don Walker wrote the 1978 song Khe Sanh and other notable songs performed by Cold Chisel. Khe Sanh is about an Australian Vietnam veteran’s life. It’s one of those classics that almost become national anthems in Australia.

So I walked up the stairs and back around toward him. He was putting out his cigarette and heading off somewhere. I asked him for some book recommendations. Like a lot of people who don’t have to prove anything to anyone, he was a friendly and helpful guy. He said he liked The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. Also he liked Jorge Luis Borges Book of Imaginary Beings, and The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake. He said he liked a book on William Burroughs he once read, and one on Picasso, but for the lives and not for the writing.

His songs were often written about people’s lives, but he said he just made them up, and didn’t get the songs from talking to people who’d led lives like that.

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