Suspicious as always of blinding charm, I passed on Vikram Seth, the crowd for whose talk stretched right up the slope and braved the excessive sun, in favour of a chair in the shade at the back of the comparatively modest but still healthy crowd that turned out for the wonderful Val McDermid.
She was very funny and sensible, chatting (in the world's most beautiful accent, softened Scottish, and a resonant alto-chorister's voice) about her theory that writing crime fiction, with all its blood, gore and aberrant psychology, makes crime writers psychologically very healthy, having let out all the murky stuff and purged it on the page.
When asked a question about the screen adaptations of her books, she said she was glad to have retained a right of veto which meant she could prevent them from killing off Carol Jordan's cat Nelson. She said she'd told them: "You can pretend he's dead and then bring him back triumphantly at the end if you like, but you can't possibly kill off that cat for good. It's the ony functional relationship the woman has."
Under the trees at the tables where people come and go and little groups constantly form, shape-shift and break up as the day wears on, David Malouf ate a salad with lentils in it, talked in a measured way about the history wars, and firmly deflected conversation from himself. Peter Goldsworthy sat under a tree in what I think was an akubra, looking uncharacteristically fragile and quiet despite the rave reviews he's been getting for the stage version of Honk if You are Jesus.
Andrew Taylor (the Australian poet not the British (?) crime (?) writer) was looking fit and exuberant, three years on after a very nasty brush with mortality. Gerard Windsor sat in the shade with Marion Halligan and her sister Rosie Fitzgibbon (ex-UQP) and watched the world go by.
At the Festival Awards presentation in the afternoon, Gail Jones looked exquisite and sharp in a black-and-tealy-blue outfit that did amazing things with and for her own colouring, but seemed a bit remote and distracted as she accepted her festival Award for Sixty Lights and then the overall SA Premier's Award for the same book. Mandy Sayer accepted her non-fiction award for Velocity looking and sounding more upbeat and jumpy in a wonderful hat, and dedicated the award to her late mother.
On Day Two, this time in perfect weather, Gerard Windsor rounded up a bunch of slightly unruly panel participants on the subject of 'Who Needs to Know?', where Sandy McCutcheon talked about the pain of writing memoir, how he would sit at his desk and cry as he wrote, and Helen Garner said 'Memoir? I'm like that when I'm writing a film review!'
Editor Peter Rose and guest editor Luke Morgan launched the latest issue of Australian Book Review, focusing on visual arts criticism, and were joined onstage by novelist James Bradley, the chairman of Copyright Agency Limited, to announce a new essay prize, the Calibre prize, to be administered by ABR and funded by CAL.
And I got to hear Vikram Seth after all, as I was driving home mid-afternoon and he came into the local ABC radio studios, hobbling from freshly-diagnosed gout ('Too much Barossa Valley red wine') to chat with Carol Whitelock and read from Two Lives, which I won't say anything about here except to recommend it as one of the important books about what the 20th century did to the people who lived through it. I think Seth's charm must be located somewhere at the intersection of evasiveness and vulnerability. He was chatting away about his gout and about his horror at the doctor's ban on drinking -- he needed to drink the lovely wine, he said, to help him get through the intensities of being a writer at an event like this, chatting with ardent fans and signing books and putting himself on the line in interviews and so on.
And yet, at the same time, there was a kind of Teflon-like aura, a sense that he was spinning an invisible layer of protective coating around himself that no weapon, question or fragment of someone else's charm could ever penetrate. He was the absolute opposite in this respect of someone like Helen Garner or the UK poet Simon Armitage, both of whom seemed wholly open and fearlessly out there, on the line.
... to be continued ...