Sunday, 29 August 2010

A day at the Melbourne Writers Festival

I didn't think I was going to make it to the Melbourne Writers Festival this year, but I decided to seize upon the occasion of a book launch as an excuse to go in and soak up some atmosphere.

Lucy Sussex's book is called Saltwater in the Ink - Voices from the Australian Seas, and is in fact a collection of sea-diaries and letters written by people emigrating from Victorian England to Australia. It promises to be a fascinating read. We were granted a glimpse during the launch event, which included a reading from one of the entries (a graphic description of a storm that almost sank one of the ships), a choral performance of the navy hymn, and a steampunk contraption that launched the book -- literally -- into the air, to be almost-caught by Lucy.

After a leisurely lunch and a few glasses of wine with some interesting people, I then grabbed a ticket for a MWF event called 'A Wordsmith's Dream'. This featured a panel of David Astle (renowned cryptic crossword writer from The Age), Kate Burridge (Monash Uni linguist who also appears on ABC radio), and Ursula Dubosarsky (author of The Word Spy). Obviously this was a session right up my alley, and it was a delight, featuring such gems as:
> 'bounciness' is an anagram of Ben Cousins (look out for that one in a crossword in the next few weeks)
> 'gymnologise' is a gorgeously useless word, meaning 'to debate while naked'
> 'velleity' means 'slight wish or inclination - but not enough to prompt action . . .'
> A googol is the large number 10^100, that is, the digit 1 followed by one hundred zeros (and the inspiration behind 'google')

The panellists discussed words and their meanings effortlessly, trotting out their personal favourites and commenting on language in general. David Astle said he is constantly harvesting words, and that it is rare for a book to sweep him up to the extent that he forgets to word-harvest. He also said that English is such a great language to play with (ie use for crosswords) because 'it's such a mongrel'. In other words it has words that take many different forms, largely derived from myriad other languages.

I also thought Kate Burridge made an interesting point, saying that when we don't use a word enough, it dies; but if we use a particular word too much, it also dies. DA cited 'process' and 'journey' as words that fall into this category for him. Not sure I necessarily agree -- in my world 'solution' would fall in this category.

Anyway, it was nice to meditate on words and writing for a day.


  1. We were at the same panel! Sorry I didn't see you :)

  2. I should have guessed you'd be there and looked out for you!