Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Men of Letters

Sunday was the annual Men of Letters show in Melbourne, which is much like the now iconic Women of Letters but with a cast of men reading letters they have lovingly penned. Having lived away from Melbourne for most of the last two and a half years, which is how long this literary salon has been running, Sunday was my first time at a Men of Letters. I wondered how different it would be with the male counterparts. Would we lose some of the intimacy and trust that has so tenderly formed between the generously spirited and talented women whose public lives we’ve come to admire and their 350-some largely female audience? Would we temporarily swap the warm fuzzy sentimentality for, well, Merv Hughes?

There are just a couple of little changes to the rules at Men of Letters. The afternoon brings together a much larger cast than normal; 10 gentlemen, in fact. And each Men of Letters event has the same topic – a letter to the woman who changed my life – as a way to tie in with the origins of the event.

So what does happen when you gather ten prolific Australian men from various fields of accomplishment? What happens when you ask them to write personally about a woman who has left an imprint on their lives? And what happens when you nudge them onto a stage facing an audience predominantly made up of women? I momentarily wondered if we would be subjected to a string of odes to wives, girlfriends and the occasional ex-wife or ex-girlfriend.

What I look forward to most at these Men (and Women) of Letters events is their capriciousness. The same topic shared by the readers can take you to the most unexpected of places. It’s not uncommon for five readers to make you, in the same afternoon, laugh until snot comes out, weep, hug the person next to you, revisit a suppressed memory from grade two camp, and inspire you to pen your first letter in six years during interval.

Men of Letters didn’t disappoint in this regard. I loved Andy Griffiths’ letter to Margaret, National Customer Relations Manager at Target Australia. Nineteen years ago, Andy wrote a frivolous complaint letter – about an exploding customer salesperson – most likely born out of boredom. Good humoured Margaret indulged Andy’s playful idiocy and for that, we are eternally grateful. For it was Margaret’s letters (yes, there was more than one) that steered Andy towards professional writing and using his much loved imagination for good instead of evil.

The woman who changed Steve Vizard’s life was Shirley Temple, whose good ship lollipop led seven year old Steve to tap dancing lessons and an aspiration for the stage. Frank Woodley and his ukulele performed a brilliant personal tribute to the lady who invented the windscreen wiper. I would be doing a disservice by trying to relay the story. (Frank Woodley, by nature, doesn’t translate to the page.)

The gaiety in the room was punctuated by some more meditative letters. Political writer Robert Manne wrote to another Margaret, a lady he met in the early nineties on the Stolen Generation Taskforce. Manne’s writings on Indigenous Australia informed much of my thinking in year 12 and throughout uni, and here he was talking about the person who played a significant role in shaping his political awareness. Despite lacking in physical comedy and the dropping of any c-bombs – don’t worry, Lawrence Mooney and Sam Pang had that covered – Robert received the longest, most passionate round of applause of the afternoon.

The heroes of the afternoon will always be the brave readers who get up on that stage to share a story from their past or bare a part of their soul. It’s very difficult to detach the first person ‘I’ from letters and that must be daunting for many of the participants. But, the role of the curators should not be understated here. It is much like a well curated art exhibition, where carefully selected works of art, each with their own story and provenance, are brought together to tell a uniquely different narrative about a given history or society, offering an angle that’s never been explored before. So too is the role of co-curators Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire who cleverly bring together every time a distinctive mix of guests, from comedians to musicians, politicians to political writers, novelists to sportspeople, to create a rare dynamic untapped until now.

Men of Letters and Women of Letters have been going for over two and a half years now and, while based in Melbourne, have travelled around the country and played at various writers festivals. This month, their second book of letters written for the events, titled Sincerely, was released. All proceeds from the events and royalties from the books go to Edgar’s Mission animal rescue shelter.

Sunday, October 21, 2012


When Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban’s daughter Sunday Rose was born, Nicole explained to, I think it was Oprah, the idea behind her baby's name: Sunday is her and Keith’s favourite day of the week. There’s something to do with Sundays, she explains, that if you’re lonely, it is a very lonely day. But surrounded by family, then Sunday is a beautiful day. This isn’t a post about celebrity baby names – that would take too long – but it was her observation of this particular day of the week that struck me this afternoon.

So today, I found myself on the wrong kind of Sunday. The weather was lovely, a little bit sunny, a little bit breezy. Staying indoors would have been a crime. I decided to drive myself to Penny Farthing in Northcote for lunch and a coffee, alone, before heading down the road to the Westgarth for a mid-afternoon session of PJ Hogan’s latest, Mental, also alone. Friends were busy; family, out of town.

I’m not normally one to shy from doing things on my own. For most of my life, I have been content, indeed, sought comfort, in being in my own company. Growing up an only child and an introvert, I have, on countless occasions, found myself at a cafe or in the park in the company of Jane Eyre or Cleo, at the cinema with an empty seat on either side, or even at a matinee showing of an MTC production ($33 tickets if you’re under 30 – get onto it!) by myself. I’ve travelled across continents alone, meeting people along the way, building friendships, some fleeting, others that have endured to this day. But then, onwards I go, to the next destination, the solitary traveller on a bus, train or plane, just me and my backpack and the dishevelled copy of Lonely Planet Europe on a Shoestring.

Which is why it threw me that I was suddenly feeling self-conscious today. As I got closer to the cafe, an image entered my head that I couldn’t shake – young, hippy couples clutching their long blacks, recovering from their hangovers, groups of girlfriends laughing loudly and freely, families with their screaming toddlers and babycinos. People with their people. Everyone making the most of the last few hours of the weekend before the ticking of 60 Minutes signals the shift from pants-optional weekend to Monday-itis. Perhaps, also, fine weather demands that you be social, damn it.

I stepped into the busy Penny Farthing and sat down at the seat nearest to me, hoping to attract as little attention as possible. I immediately pulled out my newest copy of Frankie and went to make eye contact with the waitress. That’s when I took in my surroundings. I was on a large communal dining table which sat about eight or ten. Beside me was a girl who appeared to have brought her entire Apple family. There was the Macbook, connected to the iPhone connected to the latest headsets. She was oblivious to the world. Beside her was another girl, looking very cool reading a Penguin classic paperback while picking away at her muffin. To my right, a lady, somewhere in her late 40s, was taking her seat. She was on her way home from doing the shopping and just wanted to have a coffee, she explained to the waitress, as she pulled out the Sunday Life lift-out from her paper to read Chrissie Swan.

None of us talked to each other. No one tried. And that’s how we like it, us going-to-public-places-alone-even-on-a-Sunday types, each content in the company of our respective laptops/books/newspapers/magazines. I needn’t have worried after all.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

'Understanding' Art

One of my favourite works of art is Eugene von Guerard’s North-east view of the northern top of Mount Kosciusko.

It illustrates a beautiful aspect of the Australian landscape in the second half of the nineteenth century, and captures the unrelenting power and magnitude of nature against the tiny human figures in the foreground. It was also one of the first significant works of art presented to me in year seven art. Having just started high school, I was excited to be in an art class that didn’t involve Clag paste and crayons. Staring at the depth of the mountain ranges and the looming dark clouds, I was in complete awe of the scene and the artist who possessed the skill and imagination to capture the emotion of a place so beautifully. That memory, my foray into ‘grown-up’ art, remains with me as the beginning of a love and appreciation for the art world.

Someone I know recently said to me that she doesn’t ‘understand art’. This is interesting as she works in an art gallery, as do I, and this person has taught me so much of what I know about the collection within our institution. Although she’s not one of the curators or conservators that we have the privilege of working with every day, she still knows far more than the average punter. Above all, in front of certain works that appeal to her, she’s a great story teller.

Not everyone who works in an art gallery will have a PhD in art history. Sure, it’s highly advisable that our senior curators have some academic qualifications but for most of us, my colleague and I included, it’s often just what we learn on the job coupled with a personal interest.

But, for her to claim that she doesn’t understand art, and to talk down her authority on the matter, made me think about all the times we feel inept at qualifying or even expressing our views on a topic, particularly within the arts and especially if it’s considered high brow. Fine art certainly carries an air of eminence which can lead to some entire sectors of our society to feel intimidated just stepping into an institution such as an art gallery.

I think it’s quite common to feel at various times that we don’t possess the language, the vocabulary, to describe some of life’s indulgences: fine art; opera; ballet; poetry; heck, even wine. That definitely does not mean we can’t still enjoy them. Especially the wine.  I’m reminded of a tweet Alain de Botton wrote earlier this week, “Most of what makes a book ‘good’ is that we’re reading it at the right moment for us.” Much of what we like, or find pleasurable, in life is naturally informed by our own experiences, memories, background, values and desires. So forget the discourse around composition, aesthetics, brush strokes and eloquence of form. Stuff what the critics say. What feelings does the art evoke in you? What memories does it conjure? If it matters enough to you, then it matters.

The art world would generally agree that Eugene von Guerard was a great painter and he certainly had a significant influence on many other artists after him. However, his North-east view has remained one of my favourites for the simple fact that it brings to life my memories of being 12, staring at an A4 size print of the work and remembering that it made me smile. I also recall visiting the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra several years later and standing in front of the original work for the first time. I still don’t consider myself an expert in art, colonial Australian painters or von Guerard, not even close. But I don’t have to be. My emotional connection to that work is enough. Anyone who has an emotional connection to an artwork is qualified enough to appreciate it, discuss it and share it with others.