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A bookseller invites Adelaide to ponder the big questions

Greg Mackie OAM was responsible for me reading William Burroughs’ Junkie. I spent many hours in my twenties leafing through books in his Imprints Bookshop on Hindley Street while avoiding my university readings.

Mackie is the founder and chairperson of the annual Adelaide Festival of Ideas, (AFOI)

The theme of this year’s festival ‘Who’s at the Wheel?’ is a fair question given the populists, authoritarians, the humourless and incompetents who appear to have taken over the wheel across much of the world.

AFOI has been running since 1999. “This was a time long before social media, a time when the mobile phone was mobile, not smart,” Mackie says.

“In many ways the Festival of Ideas is old-fashioned. It is like a town hall meeting where people can come to learn, to talk and to exchange.”

“We have been overwhelmed by the hundred and forty word tweet, the vicious arguments and the lack of depth on social media.

“In many ways the Festival of Ideas is old-fashioned. It is like a town hall meeting where people can come to learn, to talk and to exchange as they did in Athens’ agora thousands of years ago,” he says.

Adelaide’s colonial founder, Colonel William Light, a planner with years in India, the Mediterranean and a close friend of the founder of modern Egypt, Mohamed Ali, had a vision of creating the ‘Athens of the South’.

Light died impoverished in Thebarton, the Adelaide neighbourhood that by the 1970s had become the immigrant enclave in which I was raised. Thebarton is again a prosperous, middle-class ‘burb, but it wasn’t then, when we were ‘wogs’.

The Festival kicks off tonight at Adelaide Town Hall with a keynote address by Robyn Archer AO, the Adelaide-born artist who began by entertaining her school friends with her interpretations of Elvis’ Jailhouse Rock and who rose to prominence as a performer and interpreter of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.

At the festival, she will explore what a singer can do to change the world. Archer has been a force majeure in the arts since the 1970s.  She led the Adelaide and Melbourne festivals, founded the Ten Days on the Island festival in Tasmania, and is the winner of The Dame Elisabeth Murdoch Cultural Leadership Award, the International Society of Performing Arts International Citation of Merit and the SA Premier’s Lifetime Achievement Award. She’s a formidable polymath.

“I am thrilled that Robyn Archer is delivering the keynote address. Her history, her knowledge and her deeper understanding set the scene for the whole festival,” says Mackie.

Mackie’s Imprints Bookshop was a haven for the offbeat and seekers of new ideas. Booksellers since the 1500s have been the conduits of ideas that are important, and even dangerous. If not for entrepreneurial printers and booksellers, Martin Luther’s protests against the Catholic autocracy may not have gained currency.

Mackie the former bookseller and curator of ideas and his team have brought together a large, broad and eclectic series of speakers.

He points to the diversity of the program and sees it as a “smorgasbord that will take people from inner to outer space, from inner life to exploring the state of democracy”.

The speakers include Pamela A Melroy, astronaut and director of space technology and policy; Jane Caro, author, social activist and journalist; Dr Jennifer Caruso, an Eastern Arrente woman an expert on Aboriginal cultures and histories; Benjamin Law, author of The family law, and the Quarterly essay, moral panic 101; Professor Tom Griffiths AO, prize-winning author of Forests of ash: an environmental history who will talk on the history of ecological crisis; and Michael David QC, senior defence counsel in Australia’s only war crimes trials who will look at war crimes trials, in particular the Nuremberg trials.

“We not bound to have oppositional ideas, these are not debates, rather ideas and expressions”.

One of the more provocative speakers is Noura Erakat, who will deliver the Edward Said Memorial Lecture on Palestine’s ‘anti-colonial struggle’.

When asked about an opposing position given the anti-colonial struggle mounted by the Jewish founders of Israel, Mackie said: “We are co-presenting the lecture under the Edward Said series, and we’re not at all ideologically driven.

“We would be open to partnerships with a range of bodies, so I see no challenge in having different views expressed.”

In keeping with the agora, or the Town Hall meeting, Mackie says, “We not bound to have oppositional ideas, these are not debates, rather ideas and expressions”.

Mackie sees the Festival of Ideas as very traditional “placing the public conversation at the centre of a civil society”.

More importantly for Mackie, most of the program is free. Like Colonel Light’s vision of an Athens of the South, Mackie sees Adelaide’s scarcity of population as “fertile ground for innovation”.

“What we lack population we make up in ways in cultural sphere and in inventiveness.”

For information on speakers, panels and bookings for the Adelaide Festival of Ideas July 12-15, click here 

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