Byron Writers’ Festival Shines Despite Rain
A STORM smashed into the Byron Writers Festival site a night before the opening last week, shredding two marquees and flooding the beachside lawns of the well-named Elements of Byron Resort.
Next morning the organisers thought they would have to cancel. Nature played a mean trick on director Edwina Johnson and retiring chair and founder Chris Hanley in the festival’s 20th year.
However, staff, volunteers and local companies laboured all day to erect new marquees, pump water and lay gravel, and as sessions began we would never have known.
An outstanding program with 150 writers resulted in a 14 per cent rise in box office takings and a record 70,000 attendances over three days by more than 3000 visitors, many in new gumboots. (Veterans of the 2008 festival flood, like me, brought our own gumboots).
Politics pulled big crowds, with American political satirist P.J. O’Rourke butting heads with Kerry O’Brien and causing a walk-out of women when he personally criticised Hillary Clinton. Stan Grant made people cry (again) with his passionate Thea Astley Address about James Baldwin’s book Go Tell It on the Mountain.
Michael Leunig drew the evolution of Mr Curly and talked about his epiphany after a near-death bang on the head. Memoir shone: there was laughter as Richard Glover, Magda Szubanski and Rosie Waterland spoke about their difficult childhoods; when Elspeth Muir, Luke Williams and Liam Pieper discussed addiction, Wendy Whiteley rose from the audience to warn against glorifying drugs as a gateway into creativity; she and co-author Janet Hawley spoke about their book on her beautiful public garden, which has been protected by the NSW government but awaits a trust to maintain it.
Important conversations were had on- and offstage, and though it rained all weekend we hardly noticed. The festival bestsellers were Szubanski’s Reckoning, Penguin Bloom by Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Greive, Barbarian Days by William Finnegan, Ghost Empire by Richard Fidler, Good Muslim Boy by Osamah Sami, Glover’s Flesh Wounds and The Turner House by Angela Tournoy.