Byron Writers Festival celebrated its 21st anniversary this weekend and welcomed over 200 volunteers to put the show on the road. Between us, this was our 6th year of volunteering at the festival and the rewards were great. The best thing about the BWF is that it features writers of Australian stories with a sprinkling of truly outstanding international authors thrown in. The standouts this year were Dava Sobel, a New York Times Science reporter and Christina Lamb, a Sunday Times journalist, who has lived in Pakistan. The Australian collection included Miles Franklin award winners Kate Grenville, Kim Scott, A S Patric, journalists Julia Baird and Tony Jones and that lovable larrikin, Richard Roxburgh.
We turned up for our compulsory briefing last weekend and were treated to a new coordinator Gabby, who introduced us to Meredith and Laughter Yoga. This was designed to help reduce our stress being a volunteer. But how can you be stressed when you get a free T-shirt with the B a Volunteer logo, and free entry on the days you volunteer to one of the best writers festivals in the country! Amazingly we were rostered into marquees as author liaison and usher for two mornings. This involved listening to authors, even if they were not necessarily our chosen ones.
One of the Festival Sponsors was the wonderful Feros Care, who operate three Aged Care facilities in Byron and neighbouring shires. As a reading volunteer for Feros, I was given 2 free tickets to a pre-Festival event featuring Hannah Kent, whose latest novel The Good People is a treasured Christmas present of mine. I took my copy to be signed! Hannah is humble and eloquent and inspired us with tales of her researching in Ireland – and her teenage years playing in an Irish folk band. Handy to understand Irish folklore. Over book signing we talked about Iceland where her first book, Burial Rites is set.
The festival opened to cold but fine and sunny weather. We arrived T-shirted and thermally insulated to get our volunteer wrist bands, coffee voucher and sign in. Changes to the roster meant Mr Charm was allocated to the Information tent. I met my team in the Southern Cross University marquée. SCU has been a major sponsor of the festival since it inception and had a solar powered information booth right next to the marquée.
On Saturday, the treats in the SCU marquée included Julia Baird, who incidentally has a PhD in history, and her biography of Queen Victoria – lots of salacious bits – and Richard Fidler, promoting his Ghost Empire about the 1000 years of Byzantine history. This was followed by Christina Lamb describing her friendship with Benazir Bhutto. Her latest book covers the flight, through the barbed wire between Serbia and Hungary, during the refugee crisis of 2015, of a Syrian wheelchair bound teenager, who wants to become an astronaut. The afternoon highlight was listening to Richard Roxburgh and his friend and Rake series writer Andrew Knight being interviewed by Jennifer Byrne. The tent was packed to the rafters and we collapsed with laughter.
Sunday dawned with temperatures around 6 degrees. August weather in Byron shire is usually cold in the mornings but beautifully sunny and warm during the day. You can hear the the surf at the Writers Festival.
We arrived early and were treated to a volunteer jazz pianist, warming up the ivories for the later event featuring Holly Throsby and Sarah Blasko.
Mr Charm had done such a great job assisting a woman whose scarf had entangled in her wheelchair, that he was asked to stay on at the Info tent! I marched off to be running the microphone in SCU. En route, I passed the local circus troupe for Kids Day Out, specially designed for young book lovers.
Sunday’s treats included Charlie Veron, a marine biologist and scuba diver who told us incredible stories of underwater adventures, meeting a giant groper, who could have swallowed him whole if he had not hidden behind a coral crevasse. Next was a Women in Science panel, with Dava Sobel, who has written about ancient and modern astronomers and astronauts in Longitude and the Glass Lantern; Ashley Hay and Melissa Ashley, whose biography of Elizabeth Gould the artist who drew the lithographs in John Gould’s 7 volumes on birds, The Birdman’s Wife. Disappointingly, this session was moderated by Robyn Williams, reporter for the Science Show, who was unable to help himself speak on behalf of the panellists.
Finally off duty, we collected our volunteer supplied lunch, baguette and macadamia biscuit and adjourned to the Elements cafe – the delightful resort which now hosts the festival – and met a young American aspiring writer – as you do at these events. Signing off, we were asked for feedback. Mr Charm was given a special rap as being very flexible and such a gentleman. Not bad for a couple of retired book lovers. Till next year!