In grand style

A full house. It was clear as soon as I walked into the Melbourne Town Hall, that I was not alone in wanting to see in a new year of literary endeavours in grand style.

As I found my seat amongst at least two thousand fellow bibliophiles, I marvelled at just how many people had been so quick and keen to hear a little from the minds of eleven creative individuals.

Becoming something of a tradition, this year’s Wheeler Centre Gala came with a little twist in it tail. Gala 2012: Stories to Believe In gave a voice to eleven different stories of belief from an impressive literary ensemble.

I was thrilled that the evening began with the delightful Gillian Mears. She brought with her a calmness and a simplicity and began proceedings by sharing a little of her latest novel Foal’s Bread.

It seemed fitting that a little piece of what Gillian believed in had already been captured, recorded in her poetic novel. I’ll admit, I had goosebumps as she read her prologue, a little overwhelmed by Mears’ sentiment and delivery.

Next up was Bob Franklin, changing the tone. of course, if you thought he’d be predictable and deliver us humour (his usual fare), you’d be wrong. Instead, he shared a gothic tale of angelic romance, mysterious and etherial: “I won’t ever open my eyes again, if that’s what it takes.” This short love story was haunting and enchanting, with just the slightest hint of punchline.

Randa Abdet-Fattah was next on stage, and she came out swinging. Her beliefs were bold, a story of defiance, atrocity and conflict. Her recount was strong, frightening and violent as she told of the devastation of a terrorised but resolute woman in the streets of urban Egypt. Her honesty made many in the audience uneasy, and it become clear just what it was to share belief in it’s purest, often most harrowing, form.

Next came Alice Pung, whimsical, suburban and humourous. Alice’s stories of childhood, parenthood and Mars Bars brought us back to the Australian school yard – a lovely revisit.

Kaz Cooke was, for me, a highlight of the evening’s line-up. Irreverent yet insightful, Kaz always manages to be witty as well as thoughtful. Her story somehow managed to fuse religion, mythology and Captain Cook, old age, botox and scrotums, all into one neat little, tongue in cheek package.

The evening was moving along at a cracking pace, each story short and revealing.

Next up was Elliot Perlman, who picked up on a fairly common theme of the evening, that of race. Perlman used his skills as a proficient storyteller to highlight the everyday discrimination that lives, quite at home  in our suburban streets – a sad story, with a hopeful resolution, as new generations look at each other with less apprehension and more acceptance.

Carrie Tiffany‘s story was beautifully personal, her recollection of migration from England to Perth, of adjusting to living in houses ‘built on sand’ and sleeping through nights that didn’t cool down. As over time, everything that was once so new because commonplace, she developed a habit, a steadfast belief – in books. Her passion for reading, for stories and books was devine: “I don’t care what reading does for the mind, I just care that it softens the heart.” It’ll be no surprise, that this is a belief that I share whole-heartedly.

Now of course, not everything we believe in turns out to be solid, as Andy Griffiths reminded us with his Nine Dumb Things I Used to Believe: ‘LMNOP’ is not in fact a letter in its own right and toothpaste isn’t just a conspiracy invented by companies to sell more toothpaste. I’m sure that most of use were listing at least a couple of ‘dumb things’ of our own by the end of his list.

Lally Katz told a twisty writer’s tale of Cookie the Psychic and her uncanny ability to see, and remove personal curses. Cookie, brash and bold, with her New York brogue surprised us all by turning out to be rather quite shy when it came to crunch.

Although it could be said that all the Gala guests touched us emotionally, it was physical touch that was at the centre of Tony Birch’s premise. The importance of touch, between child and parent, friend and friend, man and woman – be it two feet touching, a friendly embrace or a single kiss, Tony’s message to the audience this evening was that it is physical touch that brings us peace and connection, in a way that nothing else can.

Finally, the night was drawn to a close, musically by Casey Bennetto. Expecting something profound, imagine my surprise when I was meet with more the larrikin than the lyrical. Casey kindly reminded us that for all our country’s beauty, and all our earnest endeavours – it’s the big things that speak loudest of all…he rounded up the evening on a delightfully humorous note.

And so, for another year, the Gala concluded and we all were left a little wiser, a little more reflective, and thoroughly entertained. I was rapt by the evening, by the venue and the guests. It bodes incredibly well for an amazing series of events from the Wheeler Centre this year…keep an eye on their program, I know I will.

Check out the stories for yourself, videos are now available at the Wheeler Centre’s website.


As an aside, don’t forget that our February discussions kick off next week at the TBYL Book Club. We’ll be discussing Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, with a new question being posted each day, starting on Monday, 27.2.12.

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