Recently I was invited to fly to Sydney to attend the ceremony for the Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship awards, as I had put in an application for the prose category. The Scholarships, valued at $20,000 each, are awarded annually to artists age 35 and under in nine categories, which are offered over alternate years. This year there were applicants for architecture, ballet, instrumental, poetry and prose.
It was, to my delight, a cocktail event held at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I zipped up my long, sweeping Sacha Drake silk halterneck which makes me feel like a heroine in a 1940s black and white film when I gather up the skirts, lashed on some red Dior lipstick, and wrapped my grandmother’s pearls around my wrist. Despite having packed a hairdryer that took up most of my suitcase, I didn’t have time to use it because the plane had been delayed by bad weather, so I still looked bedraggled.
The rain continued, so the view of the Opera House and the bridge from the MCA’s terrace was somewhat grey, but it was a lovely event. As I went on my own I met new people, including Rachel Quigley, who won the prose section a few years ago; Kate Middleton, the Sydney city poet; Bernadette Brennan of the University of Sydney, who was one of the judges for prose (along with Stuart Glover of UQ and Sue Martin of LaTrobe) and who I had passed at ASAL conferences but never met; Michael Barraclough, who won the architecture section and was off to the Architecture Association in London which, being affiliated with the London Consortium where I did my PhD, was where I sometimes passed boozy evenings in the bar; and Emma Schwarcz, an editor who had chucked in her job to write and who, along with myself, was shortlisted in our category. Christopher Currie, author of the extremely polished The Ottoman Motel, was the well-deserved winner. He was currently unavailable, Bernadette explained, because he was on his honeymoon and had no reception. And then more connections emerged: Emma used to work for my publisher when they were at Hamish Hamilton, and I realized I’d had dinner with the wife of the poetry winner, Michelle Dickinoski, one cool evening in Auchenflower when strawberries were in season.
I stayed on at B&T’s in Surry Hills for a few days, looking after their pair of korats while B&T went on some insane bike ride in Canberra. Being seven months old, the cats were still full of kittenish exuberance, which extended to chewing my hairbrush, jumping on my back and defecating in the tools beneath the staircase. However, they were forgiven when I stumbled home extremely intoxicated after dinner with a friend and passed out ill in bed, and one of them curled up against my sore tummy and, when he finally finished his toilette, went to sleep.
I lived in Sydney for four years before I went to London, and was at Wollongong for three years before that and was often travelling up to visit my sister or friends, so I know the place well. This was the city where I first fell in love, then left the man behind to go to London. For years afterwards whenever I flew back, the places where we had been still breathed with memories of him. This time, watching the good-looking men and stylish women in Surry Hills, and walking through Federation Way which I’ve always loved, with sunlight shining starkly through the Port Jackson figs and my forebear Patrick White’s old house just down the road, and being loved by so many good friends who are also overachievers and make me feel normal, I was sorely tempted to move back.
I was also delighted to find that the model for the abovementioned London Consortium has been picked up by the Writing and Society Research Centre of the University of Western Sydney to create The Sydney Consortium. Their MA in Cultural and Creative Practice, taught and overseen by the superlative staff of the Writing and Society Centre, is designed to create a dialogue between writing, the arts, and theoretical approaches to culture. This blend between the creative and critical is also the cornerstone of much of what I produce so I applaud the initiative. It also signals a willingness to use writing to address, and become involved with, Sydney’s culture — an approach which Queensland’s premier clearly considers redundant.
I love Brisbane’s old Queenslanders, the gorgeous blue sky, lush palms and bougainvilleas, and the jacarandas opening in early summer and lining the river. After working like a dog for some fifteen years, this is the city in which I have finally learned to relax and socialise (not something that necessarily comes easily to a deaf person). I’ve always loved the arts scene here too – it seemed to symbolize the brightness and openness of the city, that it was a place that was moving forward. But now the premier, having stripped our writers of their awards and foreboding the promise of more cuts to the arts, has signaled we are to become a cultural backwater again. Of course the writers and artists of Brisbane will not be defeated and already my beloved Avid Reader is rallying to do something about it. And at least, as I said to H., we are not in Stalinist Russia, where Nadezdha Mandelstam memorized her husband Osip Mandelstam’s poetry to preserve it, as to write it down was too dangerous, but still, I am so disheartened.