Books, News & Commentary

Under a perfect sun, activism arose at the Byron Bay Writers Festival

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There were too many stars at the Byron Bay Writers Festival (August 2 to 4) to mention, but let’s mention Mellissa Lucashenko, for winning the Miles Franklin Prize two days the fest opened, AC Grayling (below) for drawing the biggest crowd while also being a white-haired old white man, and all those African-Australian writers who introduced themselves so eloquently to the rest of us.


Writers festivals are also political festivals; authors and readers leap into debate about the meaning of democracy or how many compromises can the Labor Party make in one week, or we enjoy the thrill of shared outrage (TOSO) over Trump, Morrison, or the newest bloviator on the block Boris Johnson.

But there was a new twist to the vibe this year. Yes, every session still had one punter asking where they could find a morsel of hope – but the word that kept popping up this year as we approach the demise of our species was “activist”, is in we-are-all-activists-now.

Tim Costello, another old white warrior, revealed that whilst writing his autobiography he wrestled with the many labels that have been pinned to his chest, right above the bleeding heart – crusader, politician, human rights champion, Jesus champion – and he concluded that what he is, and always has been, is an activist.

It could be that our recent election stunned jaded leftists into action and more broadly electrified those of us who care and fear for the planet. There’s an old lefty trope about encouraging the election of pro-business anti-social candidates, because it heightens the contradictions, meaning the worse it gets the more likely the masses are to rise up finally.

But my sense is that the shift is more among people who don’t consider themselves “political”. According to Samuel Johnson “nothing concentrates the mind so wonderfully as knowing you are going to die next week”. He said that in 1756. Now, 2019 is shaping up to be the year in which a couple of billion of us realise that the planet could die in a couple of decades. Our minds are concentrated because, whilst it dishonors the Byron Shire motto to say so, I reckon the masses at the Writers Festival don’t believe “this was meant to be”.

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