Remembrance of Ceremonies Past

Gonzo Meets the Press #4 29 April 2011

Tom Krause went on a sentimental literary journey this week, and found that you can
go home again, and the Australian/Vogel’s award is still a precious moment to
remember.

A famous American writer of the nineteen twenties and thirties, Thomas Wolfe,
said “You Can’t Go Home Again,” but I did this week.

My “home” was the Allen & Unwin headquarters in the Sydney suburb of
Crows Nest, the scene of many fabulous functions over the years on the
building’s “penthouse” floor, in a room filled with awards and memories, opening
out to a wonderful deck with lovely plants, a great view and on occasions like
this one, a wandering jazz ensemble.

The occasion was the 30th anniversary of the Australian/Vogel’s
Literary Award. I had attended the first award dinner at Len Evans’ restaurant
at Bulletin Place, when the award for writers under 30 was worth $10,000, back
in 1980. Tim Winton was way under 30, as he put it, when he shared the 1981
award with Chris Matthews, and he was the first person I saw at the ceremony,
chatting to Patrick Gallagher, the Executive Chairman of Allen & Unwin. I
worked on the Vogel’s with Patrick when I was literary editor of The
Australian
in the early eighties, and he remains a friend (and still
invites me to A & U parties. He’s that kind of bloke).

Alan Stevns, the steward of the award first proposed by his father, Niels,
the owner of Vogel bread in Australia, said Patrick Gallagher was the lynchpin
of the prize. You wouldn’t get an argument from anyone in the crowded room on
Wednesday night, all of whom were aware of Patrick’s tireless work for
Australian books and Australian writers.

Patrick Gallagher told the several hundred literati
and guests that the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award had handed out a million
dollars in prizes, and launched 100 authors, including Winton, Kate Grenville,
Brian Castro, Mandy Sayer and Andrew McGahan, in its highly successful 30-year
existence. I guess you could call it a million-dollar book baby.
Booksellers love the award so much, Allen & Unwin reported, some of them didn’t come to
the party because they felt it was more important to get the winning books out
to the public. For the first time, the winning novel was published the day after
the award ceremony. And it was so shrouded in secrecy, the winner wasn’t even
allowed to tell his parents, though he knew last September.
But the A & U publicity machine had geared up to spread the word by Twitter and Facebook,
and the Australian literary world learned the news before the party was over.

Tim Winton, a four-time Miles Franklin Award winner, told me he was happy to
come all the way from Perth to present the award because, as he said in his
speech: “No prize has had such an impact on my life and professional prospects.
And now, the Vogel, God Bless it, has been with us for a generation.”
Winton also told the audience it was now young writers versus Old Trout, and he would
tell “tired old anecdotes to prolong the suspense” until he announced the
winner. But it was a different landscape in 1981when he won the award.  He was
“a kid living with Mum and Dad watching the midday movie” when the phone rang.
He had to get to Sydney, and had never been in a plane or a taxi or a hotel, and
hated wearing shoes. They sent a minder to look after him so he didn’t get
lost!
One of his writing heroes was there in 1981, Robert Drewe, and former
South Australian Premier, Don Dunstan, wearing his batik suit. Drewe took the
stayers (yes, I was one) to Arthur’s, the Sydney nightclub, to drink Heineken
and dance. “Imagine that,” said Winton, “Heineken and dancing”. Claudia Karvan
was asleep upstairs but that was because she lived there – her father owned
Arthur’s. It was “a dream — a published novel and five thousand bucks.” That’s
what it meant to him — a precious moment of respect.
And what he loved about the award was: “It was about the work and the work itself … I was
hell-bent on being a professional writer. It still hurts to remember.”
People may say fiction is dying but Winton said: “Just take a look at the Vogel’s short
list.” And then it was somebody else’s precious moment. He announced the
winner,  Rohan Wilson, whose novel, The Roving Party, is already in the
bookshops. The award for writers under 35 is now worth $30,000, making it one of
Australia’s most lucrative and prestigious prizes.
In his acceptance speech, Wilson, who was born and bred in Launceston, said he started writing the book in
Japan when the company he was working for went bankrupt. It’s then that he
turned to Batman, not the mythical comic hero, but the founder of Melbourne,
John Batman. His tale is set in Van Diemen’s Land in the 19th century, and
explores the violence surrounding the battles over land that wiped out the
indigenous tribes of Tasmania. Batman leads the roving party of the title,
seeking to remove Aborigines from the land – and to shoot any who resist.

One of the judges, the distinguished novelist and short-story writer, Cate
Kennedy, spoke next and talked about the difficult job she and her colleagues
had. They complained about authors who weren’t in control of their narratives,
until they came across The Roving Party, “a manuscript unlike any
other. It needed plenty of work but there was a lot of heart and soul in the
book, a story that came boiling to the surface.”
She summed up the judges’ view of a novel with a heart: “It was unmistakably apparent that here was a
great original new voice. It was an astonishing rough cut of a book, full of
stark, compelling imagery and a gruelling forward momentum.”
Then Alan Stevns spoke, saying how his father Niels wanted to give back something to his
adopted country. Originally from Denmark, Niels Stevns was a man of passion, and
his was a family of success, Alan said, who stood the test of time. And he paid
tribute to Bud Mestern, the long-time award ceremony legend dressed in his
Vogel’s green blazer, still handing out show bags of his company’s cereals, and
in a special Allen & Unwin touch, a copy of the just published novel, to the
guests as they left!
The Australian’s literary editor, Stephen Romei, got up to praise A & U for capturing the public’s interest,
sensing that we need shared stories, and for publishing the book as soon as the
award was  announced — not like in Victoria where a winning book still hasn’t
been published six years after the ceremony.
Patrick Gallagher and Allen & Unwin were celebrating at the end of the evening, as was the Stevns family
and The Australian newspaper – a trifecta of literary patrons who have
shared a passion for books and writers and kept an award going that deserves to
last as long as good literature is read and published.
(Here’s a link to Stephen Romei’s piece in The Australian on Thursday http://bit.ly/kyCDVm, which includes a video of
his interview with Rohan Wilson, and I recommend highly his blog, A Pair of
Ragged Claws:
http://blogs.theaustralian.news.com.au/alr/
And if you want still more on Rohan Wilson, here’s a link to an extended
interview with him by the ABC’s David Mark: http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2011/s3202087.htm)
And on a personal note, the night of nostalgia did make me wonder what would have
happened if I had stayed at The Australian in 1983, and not gone into
television. Would my passion for books have spawned one or two of my own, or
would I have been lost in the alcoholic haze that permeated newspapers in those
days? Hmm … that’s another story for another blog and another day.
Tom Krause is the supervising producer of Ten’s Meet the Press program. His views
are his own, always have been.

 

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tomk67
tomk67
29 Apr 2011 1:11 PM
Again, if you feel like commenting, you have to sign in, which is a pain. But
if you do and you want a reply, I will do my best. Cheers, Tom

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