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.

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