I got home from Back to Booktown late Sunday night, fortified by a glass or two of Mt Beckworth Cabernet Merlot (a terrific drop, which I sampled on the drive from Clunes) and a pretty horrific ‘meatball panini’, bought at Melbourne airport, toasted yet soggy, tasteless yet capable of leaving a metallic aftertaste on my tongue.
A few random thoughts on Back to Booktown….
First things first: Julia Gillard came to town on Friday in order to smooth troubled waters regarding flood recovery funds. It was quite something to see her walking Fraser Street. She appeared extremely relaxed and friendly, in contrast to the mean-looking dudes in dark suits with wires coming out of their ears who followed her around (I don’t think they were the federal cabinet but you never know). Gillard said and did all the right things, even if it was circus: up and down the street, into a shop, a cup of tea, and gone. Although the personal connections she made were unavoidably superficial, she did achieve something tangible and (shock, horror) maybe even meaningful. And if you’ve got to feed the media chooks, why not do it in the main street of Clunes. I can see why the pollies do these walk arounds, and in Gillard’s case, she’s a hell of a lot more alive in the flesh than she is on the tv or on the radio … which isn’t suprising when you think about it, and maybe we could cut the whole lot of them a bit of slack on the ‘gee, don’t they seem wooden in front of the microphones’ front. If only Gillard could shake off the shackles of her party’s preoccupation with poll-driven policy and with style over substance (bad style at that) … and its preoccupation with having the country serve the ALP rather than the other way around. Anyway, it was fun to see Gillard doing her thing.
Clunes is a beautiful town. Set in a valley, it’s an evocative reminder of its gold-mining past but it is full of interesting and very here-and-now residents. It is also an ideal size for a bookselling/bookchat event: small, easily walkable, plenty of small and mid-sized venues available. This was Booktown’s 5th year, and if it continues to grow in popularity, the organisers’ challenge will become maintaining the wonderfully friendly, community-driven atmosphere while embracing the event’s success and pushing for something even better. That’s a tough gig, but it’s gotter be better to have problems born of success than of failure.
There are a couple of permanent bookshops in town and a number of other shops that include books amongst their stock. This is an interesting challenge, too. From what I heard, the people who come from Melbourne for daytrips or for weekend getaways, are beginning to expect to be able to buy and browse for books all year round. Bookselling – new, secondhand, antiquarian – is a tough industry. The numbers of customers week-in, week-out will need to be consistent. But Clunes seems like the right sort of size for a genuine ‘booktown’ to work in Australia, not least because rents are presumably vastly better than Melbourne, and secondhand booksellers usually have way too much stock. It’s also close enough to Melbourne, especially when the train starts up again soo, without being too close. And it’s also got a stack of locals who work incredibly hard to make it all happen.
The visiting booksellers’ shops and stalls were a mix. Plenty of well-credentialed dealers had brought interesting stock, had put thought into the sorts of books they carried for the weekend, and had fair – sometimes very fair – prices. A few sellers appeared to have taken the opportunity to up their prices in celebration of the country air (and if not, they have a permanently hopeful idea of the worth of their stock). And a few – a very few, really, but enough of them for it to be a little irritating – had brought nothing but the absolute dregs, the sort of stock that a shop ought never, ever bother to put on a shelf. I’m talking about, for example, 25-year-old travel guides to the USA, yellow-paged and literally falling apart, or a Colleen McCulloch novel scarred by multiple library stamps, including multiple lurid purple ‘CANCELLED’ stamps, and with the top of the novel’s last page partially obscured by a glued sheet of paper for recording due dates. Whole tables of this sort of rubbish can dull the joy of book searching. These stalls were in the minority, but they were there.
Unrelated suggestion for all secondhand booksellers: purge and recycle the John Galsworthy. It’s worse than a mouse plague.
The book chat section of Back to Backtown was fun to participate in, and, I hope, good entertainment. I was honoured to be on a panel with the legendary Anne Deveson and with Tara June Winch – I started Tara’s Swallow the Air (UQP) on the plane coming home (despite the lingering effects of the panini): it’s a beautiful and unsettling story. In the panel, ‘The role of the writer in shaping the future’, I got to have a good solid whinge about the state of Australia and the world … and I felt much better afterwards. I also did a couple of workshops with some engaged new writers, and I did a conversational session about my love for Peter Carey’s Illywhacker and the book’s impact on my own development as a writer (more on that in a future post).
The final moment of my Back to Booktown experience happened at Adelaide Airport. I had collected my bag and was in the line waiting for a taxi. A bloke was standing apart from the queue. The airport attendant who was organising the taxi stand (and who, by the way, spoke with an Indian accent) approached the man and said, ‘Do you need a taxi, sir.’
‘I do. But I want one with an Australian driver,’ the man said. He went on to explain to the admirably patient, polite and accommodating attendant that ‘I can’t understand ‘em and they all rip you off.’ He didn’t say how ‘they’ rip you off: perhaps the colour of ‘their’ skin magically makes the taxi meter go at twice the speed. This man had positioned himself away from the queue so that he could eyeball each taxi driver until he saw one he was willing to drive with.
I know that blatant racism is alive and well, but we are also in an era in which, increasingly, racist statements or beliefs seem often to arrive well-disguised or come prefaced with dislaimers like ‘I’m not a racist but …’ or is implicit or accidental. This crude and aggressive posturing by a man certain of his racial superiority was an unpleasant coda to a hugely enjoyable weekend.