WITH the banners in place down View Street, and the well-prepared staff at The Capital all ready to go, the first session of the inaugural Bendigo Writers Festival was just minutes away.
At last, the moment had arrived.
All those months of deliberations, discussions, plotting and planning, were behind us. This was curtain-up time. Too late now for last-minute nerves.
In a small room at the back of The Capital, volunteer co-ordinator Deborah Blake scrutinised the white-board.
How many school students were we expecting in the Bendigo Bank Theatre to hear La Trobe University’s David Beagley introduce children’s book writer Glenda Millard and illustrator Patricia Mullins?
Out at front of house, Jacoba Kelly, whose role as Capital marketing director stretched elastically further and further as the festival neared, was ticking off last-minute details.
Was the room set up ready to go? How was the sound, the lighting, the seating?
Then, finally, the first audiences arrived, several busloads of young people from all over Bendigo, and within minutes, we were right in the thick of it, a festival about writing, for writers and readers, celebrating ideas, inviting thought and comment, enjoying the shared experience of books, words and good conversation.
Three days later, as the final session came to its close, Bendigo had done it.
From near and far, audiences had come, way beyond expectations, encouraged by a strong and lively campaign initiated through Bendigo Tourism who saw the potential for a new Writers Festival in a city now so well thought of culturally, and backed it.
From near and far too, the writers came. All Bendigo knew the superb and inimitable Ita Buttrose was gracing us with her presence, and she rose magnificently to the occasion.
Despite some confusion caused by a late change of time caused by Ms Buttrose’s need to return to Sydney earlier than originally planned, her lunch in the Bendigo Art Gallery, followed by an interview conducted by Di Dempsey to a packed auditorium, was brilliant.
But it was David Marr, who gave the inaugural keynote address to an equally packed house on Friday evening, who really set the tone for the whole event.
Events such as this, said the journalist and provocateur, will now measure the pulse of a city, its spirit and its soul.In this new era, the coming together of a community to talk about and enjoy books and writing, gives us all a place, and some time, to celebrate the best of ourselves.
Mr Marr’s kind praise of Bendigo made us blush, and we all swelled a little with pride and joy to be part of this city.
Veterans such as Ian Jones and John Flaus, award winners such as Margo Lanagan and Alexis Wright, newcomers such as Sydney Smith and Paul Carter: they all contributed and brilliantly so, bringing such a lively and engaging atmosphere to the festival, it was infectious.
Some sessions across the weekend had small audiences, but they were still attended with warmth and enthusiasm
Others were so packed people were disappointed not to get in.
Next year, if the festival’s presenters and supporters choose to go ahead, as so many people are hoping, there’s plenty of work to do to fine-tune and improve this complex event.
But all across the weekend, the writing was on the wall, so to speak: smiling faces, happy chatter, people browsing in the festival bookshop run by Dymocks Bendigo, people enjoying a break between sessions in one of the View Street cafes: this was a city that had seen an opportunity and embraced it.