It’s now a year since I moved from Sydney to a rural village outside Canberra, a city of great natural beauty where violent crime is rare, the traffic works, and people are still courteous and return your phone calls. I love the place but, be warned Australia, you will soon be exposed to a year of chest-thumping events to mark Canberra’s 100th birthday. The organisers say their ‘promise is that after 2013, people will never look at Canberra in the same way again’. Centenary creative director Robyn Archer AO said she could have blown the $30 million budget on one concert by the Rolling Stones but chose instead to stage a series of events that would have a lasting legacy. Hundreds of Stones fans immediately tweeted urging her to reconsider. I hope at least one lasting legacy might be a greater recognition of the many splendid national treasures to be found here. One event I will attend is the launch of a new book, Treasures of Canberra by Betty Churcher AO, former director of the National Gallery in which the best of these cultural riches will be documented and illustrated.
Book launches are becoming less common in Australia with the closing of more and more bookstores, but surprisingly bookstores are thriving in Germany, principally because German publishers will not permit books to be distributed in discount stores like K-Mart. I learned this over lunch this week with Selwa Anthony, our most powerful literary agent. She’s been busy signing six-figure international publishing deals for Australian female authors including her current star, Kate Morton, our most commercially successful author since Colleen McCullough. Aspiring male novelists, on the other hand, have a much harder time. Despite the availability of e-books, young males are reading less fiction because online media provides too many distractions. Selwa says that, to be published, their novels need to have a strong female character in order to attract women readers. One readership area that is growing quickly is truck drivers and grey nomads, who have become big buyers of audio books. An observation of the late Gore Vidal comes to mind: ‘The world doesn’t need more writers, it needs more readers.’
Getting a novel published, like most other endeavours, depends largely on who you know. Selwa has unlisted numbers and does not accept unsolicited manuscripts. She has always been a champion of Australian writers but she does all her business through networking and personal connections. Because of our friendship of 35 years, I asked her some time ago to take a look at a first novel manuscript by my step-son, screenwriter Steve Worland. It was a thriller called Velocity about a hijacked space shuttle landing in the Australian desert. Steve’s original screenplay of the story was rejected in Hollywood as being too expensive to make, but ironically that might now change since Selwa persuaded Michael Joseph to publish it and it has become a bestseller. This use of personal connections was exactly how the first James Bond thriller came into being. The publisher, Jonathan Cape, hated Ian Fleming’s manuscript for Casino Royale and he only agreed to put it out as a favour to Fleming’s brother, who was one of Cape’s travel writers. This week I see the boosters for the latest James Bond movie, Skyfall, have predicted it will become the highest-grossing movie of all time. I hope, for Steve’s sake, the pattern continues when Velocity finally gets filmed.
This year’s Walkley Awards are at Parliament House where I will be presenting a prize on behalf of sponsor Sentia Media. No doubt the main subject for discussion on the evening will be the departure from the industry of so many great writers. As a professional observer of mass media for almost 40 years I am intrigued at how big media companies are struggling to meet the challenges of the new media marketplace. One of my mentors, the great broadcaster Brian White, advised me early in my radio career to make sure that I presented a radio show people would feel they must not miss. More recently, the former News Limited Australian CEO, John Hartigan, said that to survive newspapers need to continually surprise and delight. While the major newspapers still dominate the ‘town square’ and set the daily news agenda in Australia, dropping so many good writers and sub-editors and syndicating so much content has made much of their copy these days dull and predictable.
I see a Queensland mayor has scrubbed the ‘welcome to country’ acknowledgement to indigenous ‘custodians’ of the local area but I doubt it will be enough to start a movement to end what John Howard so accurately described as ‘the black armband version of our history’. SBS TV’s World News Australia, made up from sources from around the globe, now carries a ludicrous final note giving a nod to the traditional custodians of the land ‘on which this bulletin was produced’.
I once had a great aunt who suggested I might have a land rights claim. She believed our family’s traditional farming estates in England had been taken from us when we backed the wrong side in the Civil War in the 17th century. She used to urge me to claim rights to a large slice of Hampshire and demand an apology from the British government ‘to begin the healing process’. Unfortunately, I wasn’t eligible for the legal aid necessary to lodge the claim. For the benefit of our humourless ‘New Puritans’ who rush to protest, not for themselves but on behalf of those they believe will be offended, let me clearly point out this was a joke.
Ian Parry-Okeden is a journalist and former broadcaster, and a former owner of Media Monitors.