Two people failed to turn up at the Byron Bay Writers Festival last weekend. One of them was the poet John Kinsella. He is making a big noise about the reasons for his absence. Sorry John. We didn’t miss you.

The other no-show was Mark Latham, who has retreated further into his shell since the court case resulting from his clash with The Daily Telegraph. His place was taken by Carmen Lawrence promoting her book Fear and Politics. Lawrence said almost as many critical things about Labor as Latham would have done.

We had another replacement for Latham as well. Actor William McInnes, at the festival to talk about his recent novel, revealed that he is often mistaken for Latham and has even signed autographs in his name. McInnes does a good impersonation. So sorry Mark, we didn’t miss you either.

Mungo MacCallum is a fixture at Byron, having retired there some years ago with the words: “the world is not ready for the left, nor is Australia, but Byron Shire just might be”. When he announced that he was backing the local mayor it caused more of a stir than Carmen Lawrence announcing that politics would be well served by the emergence of more independents and small parties – an odd position for the former president of the ALP.

And lots of people were there. Bob Sessions from Penguin. Louise Adler from Melbourne University Press, with husband Max Gillies in tow. Local residents Robert Drewe and David Leser. And we talked about suburbs and national identity and landscape and memory.

At the closing session local luminaries recalled the highs and lows of the previous ten years of festivals: the time Bob Carr accused the organisers of sabotaging him by inviting environmental protesters into the room where he was giving the keynote address. The time George Negus gave such a long and self-referential speech that it felt as though geological ages had passed. The time Tim Winton put noses out of joint by turning up in a limousine. The time Patrick Cook disappeared altogether after landing at the airport, his suitcase endlessly circulating on the carousel. The time Gerard Henderson cleared the bar simply by turning up, so leftish is the population. And the time that Malcolm Fraser arrived and shook Mungo by the hand even though the two men had not talked since The Dismissal, proving the adage “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”.

Byron Bay is the only literary festival where writers have fun, rather than being bulldozed by the publishing and public relations machines. A declaration: I attended as a guest of the festival. Each year I bend over backwards to get invited.

Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide should snap up the services of the organiser, Jill Eddington, who is leaving her job at Byron Bay later this year after a stellar seven years. The Melbourne Writers Festival is only a couple of weeks away.

Kinsella may be there, but he’s missed the best.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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