Saturday, November 02, 2013

Ubud 2013

The Bali flight from Perth was full of screaming children and parents trying to look cool and be cool. Some made it. Other didn’t. Me? Can’t remember. I was so tired it was all a blur. All that remains in memory are the screams.

Denpassar Airport is new, very new. We got off the plane and gathered in a huge barn and lined up in long queues that seemed to take a week to reach the immigration desk, where I received a smile, which was nice.

Outside in the flurry of names held up by eager taxi drivers I could see no name that looked like mine, so I chose one at random and finished up in Kuta with a group of chartered accountants attending an international conference on global money transfers. 

Sorry, I made that up. What happened was someone up the back yelled at me because they remembered me from last year and because they once had a farm in Denmark, just down the road from Albany, and they knew me by face.

There were other faces in the Ubud cluster and one of them belonged to Julian Burnside, so I told him the name of my face and he told me the name of his. I reminded him we were in a session together, People of Letters. He asked me if I knew what it was about. I pretended I had no idea because he said he didn’t and I didn’t want to embarrass him in front of the others. Later, I realised I had no idea too, but the realisation helped me to discover the secret, to adapt, and make a good fist of it. Something similar must have happened to Julian because his fist turned out all right too.

That sorted I got in a taxi with Ian Burnett and his delightful partner whose name sits in my memory as a sound but I have no way of knowing how it looks as a word and so will not write it as a word in order to save embarrassing both of us. Mainly me. Ian wrote a book about the spice trade with all its murder, mayhem and romance and called it Spice Islands.

The long drive up the hill to Ubud with Wayan (first born man) was a lot of fun and full of lively discussion, most of which I can no longer remember because of the floating cloud in my brain and the constant battering from the lack of sleep drums and the residual screams.

On arrival in Ubud we drove around for what couldn’t have been a day but felt like it, trying to find a way through the road works to Ian’s resort. I never saw him again. But I did get to Honeymoon Guest House No 1, owned by the wondrous Janet DeNeefe, Festival Founder and Director and the master of cool, Ketut Suardana, Chair of the Mudra Swari Saraswati Foundation, the not-for-profit organisation behind the festival.

And so it all began, one mad rush through sumptuous feasting, thrilling panelling, intense, lively and intimate conversations with people you know, people you never met, then did, and loved in an instant, and people you have admired for decades who suddenly appear in front of you with your book in their hand asking for your signature and you want to refuse because they don’t seem to understand that you are not worthy because of the image you hold of them in your mind’s memory of fine and great people.


Here are a very small collection of highlights. The true and honest list is too long and I would have to live it all again and not sleep again and my doctor has given me instructions I must obey if I am to live longer than my father.

Catching half of the David Vann – Legend of a Suicide - and Jennifer Byrne conversation. David was funny, sad and behaved like an American who has left his country for New Zealand, which he has. If he talks in a place near you, go listen.

The Richard Flanagan – The Narrow Road to the Deep North - Michael Cathcart chat was engaging and insightful. All about war and love and family and fragility.

Laki Laki Yang Lucu was a session all about comedy and a pleasure to be sitting beside Tom Doig, Morris Gleitzman and Ernest Prakasa and the hilarious Khairani Barokka. If you look them all up you will notice they all carry credentials and I’m pretty sure each and every one of them hit me with theirs at least once during the discussion.

Jalan Jalan meant a long walk on a wonky ankle but I met others worse off and the lush paddy fields filled our souls with hope and when we arrived at Sari Organik we were tired but ready for another sumptuous feast and travel tales and who better to yarn with than two seasoned walkers and talkers, Jan Cornall and Claire Scobie. 

The Second Sex Debate was full of lies and cons and featured a stand up stoush between the champion on my team, on any team, Olin Monteiro, and a woman in the audience. It was a thrilling encounter and reminded us all that Indonesia is, in practise, a democracy. Others on the team were Wayan Juniatha, who last year took me to West Timor and left me there, Florence Williams, a rare American presence, Tom Doig, an insane and funny New Zealander, and Clementine Ford, an hilarious feminist from Adelaide. We were all chaired with charm and wit by Chip Rolley, once director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

My personal highlight was a gripping session with Ben Quilty and Augustinus Wibowo. Both men spoke with quiet intensity about their experiences in Afghanistan. Ben won the 2011 Archibald with his painting of Margaret Olley and was in Kandahar as the Official War Artist for the Australian War Memorial. Augustinus is an Indonesian travel writer with a fascination for the Afghanistan most of us know nothing of. Both men spoke from deep places about their experiences but what struck me was the startling revelation that rape was an issue on both sides of the security fence. Augustinus spoke about the local tradition of Playboys, these are young men older men buy, or hire, or win over, for their sexual peasure. Augustinus told of being sexually harassed as he travelled through the country. When Ben arrived at the Kandahar base he was handed a “rape whistle” by the camp commandant because a few days before a young Dutch soldier had been raped by five American soldiers and that rape was a constant problem at the base. I, like many others in the audience, sat dumb with horror in our minds, hearts and souls.

Do you mind if I finish on a happy note? Thank you.

I had the pleasure of working with the fabulous People of Letters team – Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire. These two wonders arrived in Ubud from Jakarta where they had presented a Women of Letters. In Ubud they presented another mob of Women with their notes and then us, the people. On the team and reading were Julian Burnside, Cate Kennedy, Claire Bowditch, Ketut Yuliarsa and Morris Gleitzman. Our instructions were to write to the thing which we wished we had written. And we did. And the laughs came thick and fast. Eventually, it is possible, rumour has it, these letters may appear in a book.

Now, to the conversational highlights. To be fair, there were many, because if there is something I love, it is an intense and intimate conversation. I won’t name names, except one, Bob Connolly, that great Australian documentary film maker. Here’s how it happened.

I join a cluster at the Australian Embassy cocktail party. There is a flurry and I am in the middle and running four conversations at the same time. Someone says Bob Connolly would like you to sign your book for him, the one you wrote about boarding school, Boy on a Wire. I stop them and ask, who did you say? They repeat and I turn to see the great man standing there with my book in his hands and I go down on a knee and refuse to sign until he recognises that I have long admired his work and that I am but a boy and naive and innocent in the wilderness of artistic endeavour. He takes pity on me and helps me to my feet, saying he can feel my pain because his knees aren’t too good either and then he introduces me to his partner Sophie Raymond and it is she who has told me who he is as though I don’t know but I do and the next day Bob and me huddle together like two old men who have known each other forever and talk a talk that belongs to him and me.

Just in case you have forgotten Bob’s work: Mrs Carey’s Concert, Rats in the Ranks, Facing the Music, First Contact, Black Harvest, Joe Leahy’s Neighbours.

Did I mention where I stayed? I think I did, the Honeymoon Guesthouse No 1. And, yes, it was a hot-bed of conversation. Will I name names? No. But I remember them all. (I’m writer, I keep notes.)

Finally, the big question: Do I love the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival? What a dumb question. It fills me, enriches me, I come home changed.

Jon Doust's passage to Ubud was made possible by a grant from the Department of Culture and the Arts through it's Artflight program.