1984: newspeak is new again

1984 tour poster for shake and stirWe saw the Shake and Stir Theatre Co.’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 at Ballarat’s Her Majesty’s theatre today, and what a superb performance it is. The Brisbane company is touring, and has there ever been a better time for it?

With Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s reprehensible use of the term illegal maritime arrivals burning in my ears — well done, minister, for ‘unpersoning’ the desperate people seeking safety in our country, and hang their right to do so — Orwell’s observations of language control, propaganda and social warfare have never struck closer to home.

A government that has declared war on its own citizens to propagate the class structure. Demonising of an external other, or traitorous domestic foe, to justify draconian measures. Reducing access to education and awareness. Attempts to enforce conformity of belief and behaviour. Bread and circuses to help keep the proletariat amused and distracted? Even some history tweaking. And of course, adapting language to carry a specific message, and ensuring media carry only that message. Ignorance is strength, indeed.

Admittedly, we’re not in Room 101 territory just yet, and S&S did not draw any analogies — for instance, their footage of Oceania’s wars was from World War II, as far as I could tell, and they stuck to Orwell’s script — but the Ministry of Truth echoes were powerful just the same. Orwell’s vision is undiminished.

S&S did a superb job of bringing a relatively complex story to the stage. Winston’s monologues are delivered on big screens — clever, in keeping with the monitoring of citizens and delivery of propaganda by Big Brother — and other characters take up some of the duty. The bank of screens formed the back drop for a sparse, evocatively lit stage, with Cold War-style concrete walls evoking the barren homes and factories, and a swinging stage delivering Winston and Julia’s love nest for sexcrime. [Do check out the Eurythmics’ ‘soundtrack that never was’ 1984: For the Love of Big Brother.]

The screens not only gave Winston his inner voice but also allowed Big Brother to broadcast to the audience, and turned the audience into Big Brother’s observers, seeing off-stage family life and dream sequences as well as tracking the characters’ on-stage movements.

The love scenes and torture scenes were well handled, provoking the barest of titters and squirms from the predominantly school-student matinee audience. And then there were the rats!

Well acted, well delivered, topical. Doubleplusgood. Most excellent.

The Australian ‘right’ club strikes again

queensland literary awards logoAnother day, another nose at the Australian newspaper stuck up the arse of Queensland’s new autocrat, Campbell Newman. Those boys are really enjoying Newman’s slaying of the literary dragon, in his cancellation of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards.

This time (in yesterday’s Weekend Australian) it’s Ross Fitzgerald sinking the boot, lambasting writing festivals — or at least a selection of them — for not paying attention to the nation’s up-and-comers; for not selling enough books; for making those garretted writers get out and talk about their work to the faintly curious, non-buying masses.

There are good points he makes about how writers are perceived to have to operate to make a buck. Some enjoy meeting readers, some do not; some like rubbing shoulders with their peers, others do not. Are festivals a cost-effective way to invest in a country’s literary industry? But he’s taken the Newman approach to a problem: if it’s not working, or perceived to be working, don’t fix it; axe it. That’ll learn’em!

If the Australian‘s editor, Chris Mitchell, is right, none of it matters anyway for the young, emerging writers: if they’re ‘good’ enough, those young guns will find their market. Ta-dah!

Fitzgerald wails about a ‘sloppy’ schedule at the Sydney Writers Festival that means he can’t see two people he’d like to — unfortunate, but, you know, diddums. I think he’s right, though, to question the audience the marquee festivals target — he could’ve also mentioned the prices most marquee festivals charge for admission that must impact on the money people are willing to spend on books, for instance, and indeed how many panels and events they can attend.

He questions the validity of foreign writers on the program, but that’s more problematic. Should no one here be interested in how others perceive the world — one of the reasons people read, one would think; those who don’t read selectively to have their world view reinforced, at least. Bob Katter’s book should sell well up Queensland way, for both reasons.

Fitzerald decries the Sydney festival giving Katter and Kevin Rudd a platform — we’ve heard enough from them surely, he suggests. Thing is, maybe we haven’t. Maybe the people who buy their books are looking for something behind the media veneer and pointed headlines. Maybe these pollies have just the same right for consideration to have their written opinions heard and discussed as any other scribe. Maybe.

Fitzgerald doesn’t talk about the Emerging Writers Festival, or the National Young Writers Festival. Genre events don’t get a look in. As Fitzgerald notes, being on a festival program is one of few ways a writer might hope to attract some mainstream media attention, but even then, good luck with that: unless you are someone like Katter, or Rudd, or maybe an award winner, say, a Vogel award winner.

Fitzgerald doesn’t note that the marquee festivals spread their net widely, relying on the headliners to draw an audience that, one hopes, will stay for a taste of the up-and-comers also on the program — a program that, again, hopefully, will work to provide them with that hard-to-get exposure. Exposure by osmosis, not just in front of an audience but in the green room, too.

A recent lit fest I attended was Adelaide Writers Week: I came away with a bag of books and knowledge of two Aussie debut novelists I’d never heard of before; one has just been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award. A connection has been made. The festival panels were free; grazing was encouraged. Schmoozing was enabled. The signing queues were long. One book I wanted to get had sold out.

Fitzgerald and others decry the rewards given to established writers who, apparently, don’t deserve them, having already made their mark and achieved, presumably, some kind of self-sufficiency, and call for greater focus on the emerging writers — hear hear! — but yet fail to acknowledge that Newman’s applauded stroke has taken out two valuable, career-starting awards for emerging Queensland writers. And surely a university professor like Fitzgerald would have some opinion on Newman scratching the nation’s only prize for science writing. Nah.

Few have talked about the way in which Newman raced to kill off the awards, leaving Queensland the only state without such a program. A unilateral decision that left his Arts minster blowing in the wind like a dag on a sheep’s arse, her standing in tatters before she’d even been sworn in.

Unhappy with last year’s awards decisions, looking to save a buck, Newman’s answer was to scratch the whole thing. Not cut back on the cash, or maybe roll some awards together, which given the economic times most folks would’ve understood. Just kill’em off, taking with them the emerging writers manuscript prize and the David Unaipon award: two rare opportunities for starting writers (not necessarily young ones, mind!) to get a leg up.

How important is an award, really? Well, yesterday at the Williamstown Literary Festival, a panelist speaking to a packed room on ‘the path to publication’ told how she had been shortlisted — shortlisted, not won — for the Vogel award. The award is, ironically, supported by the Australian: yes, the paper celebrates the death of two such awards while sponsoring another, age-restricted one — the word you’re looking for is hypocrisy. Anyway, this writer was shortlisted for the Vogel and it was, combined with her CV of short stories and articles, sufficient springboard to establish a fledgling career in the literary industry.

Anyhow, the Queensland Literary Awards, set up by the writing community to replace the government’s, has extended its submission deadline until May 20. University of Queensland Press has continued its support of the emerging writers and Unaipon prize. A leg up for those with the ‘right’ stuff.

  • To find out more about the issue, see Queensland Writers Centre‘s list of links to some of the conversation about Newman’s action.
  • Calendar of Australian literary festivals
  • Queensland Literary Awards to go ahead, sans philistine premier

    This item from ABC News is something to cheer about. Only days after the premier of Queensland withdrew government support from the state’s literary awards, established by then premier Peter Beattie in 1999, a group of volunteers have rallied around the organisers to see the awards go ahead. And blow a big raspberry to that petty little autocrat, premier Campbell Newman. Good luck, guys. I’m sure you’ll do the state proud, even if your government can’t.

    UPDATE: Krissy Kneen says there’s a meeting at Avid Reader book shop, in West End, on Tuesday (April 10) at 10am to discuss the revamped awards. All welcome.

    UPDATE 7 Apr: The organisers of the Queensland Literary Awards have a nascent website as they scramble to ensure this year’s awards go ahead and cover the previous categories: queenslandliteraryawards.com

    Campbell Newman, subsidised arts and the popular vote

    Sadly, today’s editorial in the Australian doesn’t surprise. Had it not been self-published, an editor would’ve have a field day cutting out the tired old tropes. The piece shows as little awareness of the reality of publishing in Australia, I can’t help but wonder if the editor was a board member of Borders.

    Good on Campbell Newman for cancelling the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. They deserved it. How dare they short-list a bio from that terrorist David Hicks? What do they think this is: a democracy?

    Scary stuff, literature, especially that high-falutin’ stuff that goes to pains to use big, fancy words and literary balderdash to criticise and question today’s society and the people who run it.

    First ones against the wall, that lot.

    ‘If (Newman) restores the awards in future, as he has hinted, he would do well to ensure they reward the best-quality writing, including that which appeals to the broader public.’

    What is clear from the editorial is that the editor has fallen for the PR from his own circulation department and believes that quantity is a measure of quality. He hasn’t eaten at McDonald’s lately, it appears. See, books aren’t one size fits all. It’s what makes them such an interesting product to try to market. There’s no accounting for taste. Clearly, the work of the Qld Premier’s Lit Awards hasn’t been to the editor’s taste, nor that of the LNP. Tough.

    As Nick Earls said in his response to the axing:

    While I’ve had little personal reason to love the Premier’s Literary Awards, I’ve been glad they’ve been there.

    It might not be my cup of tea, either, but I don’t doubt for a second that it’s important. Just as important as the popular fiction that I write. Maybe even more important, at certain levels.

    I wouldn’t mind if someone was throwing cash awards around for the stuff I write. Hey, here’s an idea. How about the Oz step up, take the editor’s philosophy and run with it. Out with the old men like Patrick White, a recent front-page feature of the Oz’s venerable lit pages, and in with the popular fiction. The crime, the romance, the YA. Dare I suggest, the horror? And before the movie gets made. That’d be a bonus.

    ‘Newer writers will also build loyal readerships, if they are good enough,’ the Oz says.

    Define good enough. And then tell me how they build that readership. I would’ve thought the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards with sections for unpublished manuscript and unpublished Indigenous manuscript was a perfect avenue for that new writer to be noticed. It’s back to the table outside the local bookstore, huh?

    Maybe the Oz can up the Vogel to remove the age restriction — after all, those young guns have got an entire lifetime ahead of them in which to make their career – if they’re ‘good’ enough. Maybe the Logies can add a book category and the Oz can print the ballot. Twilight for the win.

    Here we sit in 2012 still arguing about what makes a great read, and how to recognise the practitioners who provide it. The bean counters still treat books like tins of pineapple and tell us homegrown or imported, it doesn’t matter.

    The Oz is appalled at writers, and artists in general, sucking on the public tit. This ‘vocal minority’ should be standing on its own economic two feet.

    That’s an interesting precedent to set, isn’t it? No seed funding for industry, is what it amounts to. No subsidy for innovative new tech. Government-funded apprenticeships? You want a library? Better start charging admission and rental fees. Reading’s a luxury, after all, not a right. You want an oval? Build it and maintain it yourself — stand on your own two feet. If you build it, they will come.

    In a separate article in the same day’s Oz, the comment is made that Campbell isn’t planing to cut other government awards, not even for drama. I guess there’s something appealing about taking one’s lobbyists and business pals out to see a show, maybe do some deals in the intermission. No, he’s singled out the lit awards, and why?

    Because he knows that the ‘vocal minority’ that is the country’s writers don’t have a lot of support in the wider community. Not even in newspaper offices where economic rationalism reigns, and the idea of a good read starts at the back of the paper, where ‘good’ is measured by dollar signs. Campbell’s looking for easy money to bolster a bottom line, hoping those pennies he loves so much will become pounds. What a bleak hole he’s digging for Queenslanders.

  • The Queensland Writers Centre has compiled a great list of responses to Campbell’s axing of the awards. The centre has taken a very reasonable, proactive approach to the debacle. You can plug into it here.

    And there’s this thoughtful piece from TLC Books about just what lit awards offer, and why they’re good things to have, both for the community and for writers.

  • A sad day for the Fourth Estate

    death of  ABC news team in helicopter crashIt’s hard not to be cynical, isn’t it? Phone taps. Intrusions. The sheer puerile nature of the front page coverage of nobodies doing nothing, elevated to the status of somebodies by some sense of community interest. How askew have our priorities become? Jaded by the misery, we elevate false idols and then wail when they let us down. And the media, hungry for hits, desperate for circulation, plays the game and delivers poorly constructed, poorly edited superficiality and wonders why they lose market share. By sacrificing the high ground, they lose the only ground they ever had, becoming just another blog of bluster and blame rather than a source of information and understanding. Regurgitation without questioning. Hyperbole is not the journalist’s friend.

    And then you get the news that arrived today, and you wonder how the hell it came to this, that it takes the death of three good men to make you realise that it isn’t all bad. That buried under the dire vile of the commentators and the sensationalists, there are honest journos out there delivering the goods. That the Fourth Estate still means something.

    The loss of journalist Paul Lockyer, cameraman John Bean and pilot Gary Ticehurst in a helicopter crash is a sad day indeed for the ABC, the trio’s families and friends, their peers. Despite the economic rationalisation continuing to change the face of the media workplace, despite the Federal Government’s push to make service subservient to budget surplus, despite the erosion of the code of ethics tarring all with the same unseemly brush, the good guys still try to make sure the truth gets out. Whether anyone wants to hear it is anyone’s guess.

    I remember my first editor, more than 20 years ago, lamenting how the journalist was no longer welcome at the door. How once you’d be invited in for tea and scones; now you were viewed with suspicion, antagonism or an eye to manipulation. It’s the professionals like Lockyer who defy that prejudice, who keep our trust in the Fourth Estate alive. Read this article about Lockyer’s impact in Grantham and you’ll get an inkling of why I still believe; of why I feel the touch of sadness for the loss of people I’ve never met; and the disappointment that it can take a tragedy to expose the good work done by a maligned profession. Vale.

    things to do in Melbourne #4 — dinner and a show, with added penguins!

    No smoking sign

    Melbourne’s a great town for dining out — it prides itself on its culinary culture, in fact. Which makes the reason for it to cling to the foul tradition of smoking in al fresco dining areas rather puzzling. Just recently the Monash City Council caved to business pressure and gave up a proposed ban; the businesses were more concerned about losing their smoker market — who would continue to eat out anyway — than attracting the much bigger non-smoker market. A curious piece of business intelligence, but there you go. Old habits — and old smokers, for that matter — die hard. And it looks as if the council will continue to chip away, so good on ‘em. But that’s not the point of this here rumination

    Rather, it’s to direct your attention to the rather groovy Butterfly Club in South Melbourne. We went there a couple of Sundays ago, not so much for the show, but the decor. How very hipster of us! But seriously, it’s such a lovely venue, long and narrow in an old shop/residence, with a bar downstairs and another up, both with lounging rooms attached, and the most wonderfully squeaky wooden stairs to the loo with a view of who’s waiting in line, and in the front room, the performance space with its fold-down theatre chairs and the most rudimentary of lighting. It’s like having a cabaret in your own lounge room. And everywhere, there is kitsch: old books and here a Robocop action figure and there some island masks, vintage lamps and bits of boats … wonderful stuff.

    We chanced upon Christine Moffat, performing Really Nice Day, with able support from a male pianist who had his role to play, and even the audience was dragged into the conceit. It was a lovely kidnap tale with a healthy dose of psycho, interspersed with musical numbers that helped move the narrative along. I’ll never listen to ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’ in quite the same way again!

    Anyhoo, after the show we had dinner around the corner at the Groove Train (with Butterfly Club discount, no less), which probably isn’t up there on the city’s fine dining guide but ain’t to be sneezed at (billowing clouds of nicotine notwithstanding) for a filling well-priced meal, and then — penguins!

    One benefit of daylight saving is you can have your 6pm show and a meal and still get to St Kilda by twilight. Twas a chill little breeze plucking at our coats and the sea was a metallic cobalt colour when we got there, kind of grateful we hadn’t tried to squeeze into the crowded beachside eateries — especially the one with Eddie Maguire bellowing at people to come eat their entrees over the PA. Yikes!

    No, much better the slow walk along the jetty and out to the rock wall, where some intrepid little penguins (formerly known as fairy penguins) had braved the city side of the protective mesh fence. There’s a rookery out there, amazing given the proximity to smelly old humanity with its dogs and lower order specimens who have, in the past, delighted in destroying little penguins (hence the fence).

    How amazing is it to be able to wander a manmade structure in a busy bay, and be able to spy wobbling penguins climbing the rocky ramparts, extending their fragile little community into foreign territory? And even more amazing is it to be able to snaffle a soft-serve ice cream — with nuts — on the walk back?

    Librarians take HarperCollins to task

    Here’s a video from a library in the US, suggesting that HarperCollins’ plan to limit e-book loans to 26 times (ie approximately a year’s worth of lending, based on a fortnight’s turnaround) before libraries have to re-buy the title is more than a little misguided. It’s interesting that libraries are reinventing themselves as not just providers of reading matter, but social hubs; publishers are struggling to reimagine their profit models in an e-age, so this won’t be the last bullet through the foot thanks to a trigger-happy beancounter.

    With the ‘shelf life’ of e-books a factor, could libraries end up functioning like video libraries, where e-books are rented rather than loaned? Or should publishers simply forsake the income from backlist replacement copies, and be happy that their authors are getting exposure through the public lending system and hope that borrowings translate to purchasing? I wonder what types of inducements we’ll see added to e-books to encourage upgrading — deleted scenes? commentaries? maybe some discount coupons for the gorgeously bound hardcover collector’s edition?