Melissa Sweet, health journalist and Croakey moderator, writes:

OK, some Croakey readers might be thinking, what on earth has the Sydney Writer’s Festival got to do with health?

Personally, I find some of the most useful insights into health matters come from books not directly related to health.  Besides, I spent three days queuing at the festival, so I thought I may as well write about it.

And some of my reflections are pertinent to the Crikey article by Dr Ruth Armstrong, deputy editor of the Medical Journal of Australia, lamenting the lack of media interest in Indigenous health issues.

So here are some random recollections of the festival..

The most thought-provoking session: US security analyst George Friedman (The Next 100 Years) predicts: the GFC will strengthen the relative power of the US (it will survive the crash much better than many other countries); the rise of Turkey and Poland as major geopolitical powers because of their strategic value to the US; expectations of China’s rising economic and military might will prove to have been over-inflated; solutions to climate change will not come from changing consumer or politicians’ behaviour (too difficult) but from technological advances, such as space-generated solar energy, driven by departments of defence.

The most irritating moment: It came, oddly enough, in what was also the most poignant session – the tribute to the late, great poet Dorothy Porter, where friends and loved ones read a selection of her favourite poems. As we settled into our seats, Mme Snoot, behind me, complained to her companion about the large crowds attending the festival. I bet none of them even read books, she miffed. No, I’m sure they’re just here to be in the swim, sniffed the friend. They, of course, were only there because someone they knew was doing a reading. The exchange was particularly grating as I’d just whiled away a pleasant hour or more in the queue (determined not to miss this session, after missing a seat at so many others) chatting to strangers. The communal experience is one of the festival’s many pleasures – along with eavesdropping, and celebrity-spotting.

The most quirky sight: Bob Ellis, looking quite homeless with his handfuls of carry bags, pulling out binoculars for a closer view of the four women talking sex (described earlier this week by Margot Saville). It was the most interesting observation of this session, which, apart from some tame jokes, didn’t yield much else of note – apart from the thought that someone like Bettina Arndt (The Sex Diaries) should know better than to draw broad generalisations from personal history. She extrapolated from the experience of her own children and their circle to conclude that young women today are assertive and well equipped to handle sexual negotiations. The problem with such anecdotes is that, rather than yield any universal truths, they more often say something specific to the teller: ie that Arndt’s children and their circle are more privileged than many others.

The most illuminating session: After a large crowd filed out from listening to middle class, middle aged women ruminate about sex in a very middle-of-the-road kind of way, a far smaller group gathered to hear Sarah Maddison (Black Politics) and Larissa Behrendt discuss why Aboriginal communities still struggle so hard to be heard in mainstream politics. Didn’t the festival organisers realise the irony of scheduling this event from 5.30-6.30pm on Sunday, when Richard Flanagan was closing the festival at 6pm?  Maybe they were just trying to help the speakers make their point.

The funniest gig: Mohammed Hanif (A Case of Exploding Mangoes) is just hilarious. He already wears many caps – pilot, BBC journalist, and playwright – but has room for another if he chooses, comedian. Also amusing was the comment overheard from one audience member: oh, I thought this was the other Mohamed Haneef.

The “if only” session: Chloe Hooper (The Tall Man) in person gives you the same impression as Chloe Hooper in writing – engaging, thoughtful, honest, and able to wield the steel, if gently, when required. If only Christine Wallace had given Hooper the interview her book deserved. There was too much joksey and folksey, not enough indepth probing. I wished an Indigenous journalist could have been doing the interviewing – not out of political correctness but because this might have produced the challenging questions to make the session sing.

The most sublime moments: Don Walker (Shots) and his mates chatting and making music in a small, intimate room at Glebe Library (thank heavens for the rotten weather which kept away the crowd and sent the event indoors).  He’s a country boy, a physicist who can make quantum mechanics sound interesting, and a natural born story teller.  He read from his book about dancing as a young lad with “some farmgirl already an axe handle across the arse”, and we were right back there in the country town hall with him. Adding to this listener’s bliss were the two women sat right beside me – the Go Betweens girls (as I shall always think of them, no matter how old and grey we all grow) Lindy Morrison and Amanda Brown. It is such fun, this “being in the swim”.

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