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Bemused among the basket weavers

By Chris Golis - posted Monday, 25 May 2015

Last Friday I attended the Sydney Writers Festival. I long learned that the secret of attending a writers' festival is to give the free sessions a miss and book yourself into the ticketed sessions way before the festival begins. I went to five sessions.

Culture Shock: A panel session comprising Kim Thúy, Sami Shah and Marie Le Moel hosted by Benjamin Law on an outsider's perspective of Australia. I was interested in this session because I was born in England in 1944 but lived on US Air Force bases until I was 13, then returned to England. In 1973 I immigrated to Australia as one of the last 10 pound poms.

On Exile and Home:Another panel session comprising Dutch author Tommy Wieringa, Israeli novelist Assaf Gavron and British-Bangladeshi writer Zia Haider Rahman and hosted by Michaela Kalowski.


The Stories Behind the Science: A panel session comprising science writers John Pickrell (birds are evolved dinosaurs), Christine Kenneally (archaeology) and Karen Hitchcock (gerontology) talk words and science with Ashley Hay. I read Natural Sciences at Cambridge and have always been interested in science and the scientific method.

Understanding the Criminal Mind: Three crime writers B. Michael Radburn (The Crossing), Melanie Casey (Craven) and Matt McGuire (When Sorrows Come) talk to true crime author and the forensic criminologist Xanthé Mallett about how to get inside characters' heads and create realistic perpetrators, suspects and victims. I write about emotional intelligence and one of my specialities is recognising and dealing with corporate psychopaths.

Michael Frayn: On Fiction: This was discussion between Michael Frayn and Jonathan Lethem, one of America's most acclaimed novelists. My attendance here was an afterthought. The Sydney Theatre Company sent out a 50% discount offer several weeks ago and I thought as I was already there I would go.

It was during the first two sessions as many of the speakers who made statements about how we must allow the boat people into Australia was met with rapturous applause that I realised I was not in a room of Abbott admirers. Poems about the Statue of Liberty were read out and disparaging comments about front doors and back doors were made with ease. No facts of course, such as in the last year of the Labor Government 20,000 boat people and 300 boats arrived in Australia and there were at least 1200 deaths at sea.

Last year we were able to secure General Angus Campbell, then head of Operation Sovereign Borders to speak at the Annual Winterfeast of the Cambridge Society of NSW. Some statistics from him were revealing.

  • Australia accepts over 200,000 immigrants a year and government believes a 1% population increase by immigration will be assimilated and tolerated by the Australian population.
  • Over 5 million people are seeking to migrate to Australia.
  • The average profit to a people smuggler of a boat was over $1 million and there was no after-sales service.

What was interesting were the comments by the two people living in Europe. Marie Le Moel said nothing while when Tommy Wieringa tried to argue that the boat people crossing the Mediterranean needed to be stopped boarding the boats the silence was deafening. I doubt if he will be attending another Sydney Writers Festival.

That night I took a taxi home. The driver was a Pakistani who legally immigrated to Australia in 2007. I asked him about the boat people and his reply was one I have never heard before. They must not be allowed in because if they are successful they will begin their life here by breaking the rules. To him the great strengths of Australia were the rule of Law and that the low amount of government corruption compared to other countries. You will destroy this zeitgeist if you allow in people who begin their new life breaking the rules.

The third session warmed up (excuse the pun) when someone in the audience asked about man-made global warming. John Pickrell proffered the opinion that the public was suffering from fatigue about the topic – he did not dare suggest that the public was becoming increasingly sceptical. However Christine Kenneally nearly got a standing ovation when she attacked the politicians for being beholden to oil and gas interests. I thought to myself that only yesterday the Federal Government and Labor Opposition had just agreed to renewable energy target of 33,000 GWh. According to Origin Energy managing director Grant King (who should know if anybody) this that Australia have build $10 billion to $15bn of new capacity in about four years which will be largely wasted as demand is falling. Of course it will not be nuclear or hydroelectric power but wind farms which as the Europeans have demonstrated is a totally useless and very expensive form of power generation. Germany's wind turbines have 29GW of capacity, equivalent to a quarter of Germany's average electricity demand. But the actual average output is only 5GW (no wind or too much) so the rest has to come from coal fired power stations, ready to supply up to 29GW at any time and then switch off as the wind returns.

Inside the Criminal Mind is worth a separate blog but there was one mistake made by the forensic criminologist Xanthé Mallett. She said that if 1% of the population were psychopaths and that at least 100 people were in the audience that there must be one psychopath among us. This is looking at the problem the wrong way. If the percentage of psychopaths is 1% then the percentage who are not psychopaths is 99%. The chance of having an audience of no psychopaths is 0.99 raised to the 100th power or 0.37. Thus the probability of having at least one psychopath in the audience is 63% not 100%.

Finally let me say that Michael Frayn was brilliant. He was very funny, self-deprecating and had a reservoir of wonderful stories. If there was a message in his session it was that to be a writer you had accept that there would be a lot of rejections. Also he freely admitted that his writing had improved. For example his first manuscript was rejected with the following note: 'The first 30 pages are good, the next 300 are awful.' He said the reviewer was being much too kind. He had re-read the manuscript and all 330 pages were awful. He said his later novels were much better because he now did much more research. This was because he felt guilty when he saw how much work his second wife, the biographer Claire Tomalin, put into a book. With luck there will be a podcast of the talk. It is well worth a listen.

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About the Author

Chris Golis is Australia's expert on practical emotional intelligence. He is an author, professional speaker and workshop leader. His site is

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