I think I have an image of my brain as something that needs, periodically, to be shaken up, jolted about, and topped up with new experiences or ideas. Otherwise, it becomes altogether too boring, staid, and set in its ways of thinking. Fortunately, I've just had a week or so that's presented a number of such 'shaken all about' opportunities.
I've been to the Byron Bay Writers Festival. (For any aspiring pedants reading this, yes, I know that 'Writers' should have an apostrophe after the 's'. However, the organisers of this particular writers' festival don't share this belief, and all their publicity and publications don't use an apostrophe. I've been torn between my usual principle of accurately reproducing the title chosen by the organisers and my discomfort in omitting the apostrophe. In this case, accuracy triumphed over discomfort.)
So, the Festival. For the information of readers outside Australia, and maybe for some within, Byron Bay is a coastal town on the far north coast of New South Wales, about 800ks north of Sydney and almost at the Queensland border. The beaches are breathtakingly beautiful, and the hinterland is charming hills and valleys covered in sub-tropical vegetation. This area was the preferred destination for hippies dropping out in the 70s and is still characterised by much debate and discussion about environmental issues, alternative therapies, individual choice and responsibility, residents' action, and the evils of development. It's now also characterised by very high house prices, sophisticated cuisine, and the latest in casual chic. In other words, it's quite a sensible place to hold a writers' festival.
This is the third time I've been to the festival, and each time I have thoroughly enjoyed it. It lasts for three days, and so from 9 to 5 over three days I sat and listened to people talking about books and ideas. (Of course, I knitted too, but I didn't achieve nearly as much as I had hoped). Thousands of people attend the festival which is held in several enormous marquees pitched in the rather barren Belongil Field - though the organisers had tried to add interest with the work of local sculptors displayed in the central area.
There are at least four concurrent sessions at any one time, so there's lots of choice and the inevitable disappointment of missing the events that others declare to be the high points. There's great diversity in the topics - just making a random selection from Friday's program there were sessions on the need for an Australian Bill of Rights; grief; the ethics of writing about war; women at mid-life; China in literature; what writers read; the role of the public broadcaster, and many others.
The 'big names' at the festival were human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson and the philosopher of ethics Peter Singer. Both well worth while listening to (though not without the occasional mental 'yes, but...'). My favourites? Probably a couple of presentations by Robert Dessaix - one on 'An Examined Life' and the other on 'Writing Home'. They were masterly. Beautifully written, wry, self-deprecating, erudite and perfectly read. As a member of his audience I felt really valued by his having taken such care with his work. As always with such events there were unexpected pleasures - a panel session on 'place' in poetry that was wonderful. In fact, having been a 'prose' person all my life it has inspired me to revisit poetry. And I must confess the guilty pleasure of enjoying Tom Keneally and George Masters jousting with one another about Rugby League. You can see how diverse the program was. Lots of jolting of my brain.
On a brief trip to Brisbane I managed to squeeze in a visit to the Queensland Art Gallery - such a pleasure with its riverside location, lovely spaces, manageable size and general child-friendliness.
We went specifically to see the current exhibition 'American Impressionism and Realism', most of which is on loan from the New York Metropolitan Museum. It's the kind of exhibition I really like, where paintings or other works of art that you are not really familiar with are contextualised so you can see how they fit in with other bits of the story you do know. In this case, it's American (or, more accurately, USA) painters who were influenced by the French Impressionist and Realist art movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. I was familiar with the work of only a couple of the painters represented - principally the portraits done by John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt. What I found very interesting was the extent of what might be called the globalisation of artistic movements and ideas at this period. This notion of global influence was extended by including in the exhibition some works by Australian painters of the same period - Tom Roberts, Charles Conder, Rupert Bunny among others - so that you could appreciate the extraordinary influence on world (or at least western) painting of these French art movements.
And my final cultural infusion was hearing and seeing Puccini's 'Manon Lescaut' at the Opera House last night. I'm a sucker for Puccini. I love having his great waves of sound and emotion roll over me. I'm not familiar with this particular opera, which was written quite early in his career and was his 'break-through' work. You know the story, even if you don't. The central character, Manon, is torn between love and riches. Initially she chooses love, deserts it for riches, is seduced again by love and then sentenced to exile (in the USA!) for her choice. She perishes in her lover's arms in the deserts of Louisiana (Puccini's geography leaves much to be desired). Cheryl Barker was brilliant as Manon - able to convince you that she was simultaneously ditzy and passionate. Despite its geographical and physical impossibility, the final scene, in which she suffers and dies, is completely emotionally convincing because of the power of Cheryl Barker's performance.
Interestingly, this opera is of the same period as the paintings I saw in the Queensland Art Gallery, and Puccini as an artist shares some things in common with the 'Realists' of the exhibition - most notably the intention of presenting life in its grubby as well as more elevated aspects.
So, my brain, and my eyes, and my ears have been shaken and jolted so that (I hope) they are better able to see, hear and think about things in new ways. I need this every so often.