Culture

From Brian Cox to burnout: six things we learned at Melbourne writers’ festival

Brian Cox: ‘You don’t embellish with Logan Roy’

Brian Cox said that with Logan Roy, the menacing patriarch he plays in hit HBO series Succession, it’s not just about the words in the script, but the pauses and the looks. “It’s as much about what he doesn’t say as what he does … you don’t embellish with Logan.”

Cox says he doesn’t think Logan is evil, but says the pain in the character’s life that formed him is “great fodder for an actor … There are depths to him. You realise he’s an abused person so he develops this persona. It’s the thing that makes this hard skin of Logan.”

Logan is not based on Rupert Murdoch, he says, noting Logan is a self-made man. Cox reflected that there might be similarities in the children – but then caused the room to erupt into laughter when adding: “I think Rupert is an angel.”

There had been disagreement among the cast as to whether the show is a comedy or a drama; Cox believes Succession has a comedic sensibility, but he doesn’t play it for laughs. On which of Logan’s children he should leave his company to, Cox gave the only answer he could: a long pause followed by the trademark “fuck off!” – Josh Taylor

Individual ambition is out; collective ambition is in

The word ambition is normally used for personal or career aspirations, but the current moment calls for something much bigger. On the festival’s opening night, both Jennifer Down and Aileen Moreton-Robinson demanded action for a better world.

Down didn’t mince words. Her wishlist: abolishing racist police, justice and prison systems and replacing them with community care, early intervention and rehabilitation programs (rather than just “pastel Instagram infographics”); investment in healthcare, housing, education and the arts; compassion for asylum seekers. She also expressed solidarity to workers fighting for better wages and conditions at Readings, the festival’s official bookseller – a theme that continued through the weekend.

From the Readings rally in support of the union-negotiated EBA this morning – Sally (union delegate and Readings worker):
“All we ask is for a wage that reflects how hard we all work to make a profit for Readings.” ❤️✊ pic.twitter.com/7sUey3czvs

— Beth Patch (@beth_a_patch) September 10, 2022

Moreton-Robinson focused on the ecological crisis caused by colonial and patriarchal forces. Spanning history, from the slave trades to the industrial revolution, the Talking Up to the White Woman author pointed out the follies of humans along the way, and called for an abolition of ego.

Aileen Moreton-Robinson speaks from a lectern to an audience at the Melbourne writers' festival
Talking Up to the White Woman author Aileen Moreton-Robinson. Photograph: MWF

“We must ambitiously cultivate empathy for the earth who provides the lifeforce that sustains everything. This requires accepting that humans are worth no more or no less than any other living things,” she said.

Down put it succinctly: “It’s fine – healthy, even – for our personal ambitions to remain modest. Our collective ambition, however, should be boundless.” – Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

‘Burnout’ was coined about healthcare workers

At a session discussing the Great Resignation – an ongoing global trend of workers quitting their jobs – doctor and author Melanie Cheng told us the term “burnout” originally specifically referred to the plight faced by healthcare workers. American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined the term in the 1970s to describe the stresses faced by those in “helping” professions before it came into the everyday lexicon for general worker exhaustion. Fellow panellist Emma Fulu shared that she didn’t have the language to name burnout when she experienced it in 2015 – she just knew she felt “broken”.

The brutal experiences of medical workers during the pandemic “exposed the fault lines that were there to begin with”, Cheng said. One in ten healthcare workers now experience suicidal thoughts; during the vaccination rollout, she saw a poster of a noose with the words “easy and effective” plastered on a doctor’s office wall, and for the first time considered leaving the profession.

The pandemic has worsened burnout for everyone, healthcare workers in particular. Cheng encouraged nurturing creativity and spending quality time with loved ones as two balms, but underlined the need for structural changes to better support workers. – GN

The internet is radicalising all of us

“I got Twitter for a few months and it was a horrific experience,” said Mohsin Hamid. The author of the Last White Man now avoids social media, likening the platform to a digital drug. “Its purpose is to make us into performative versions of ourselves,” he said. “What I began to become was somebody performing Mohsin, and ideally performing Mohsin for likes … It felt like I was this addicted, shamelessly self-promoting and also bizarrely rigid person.

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“When we think things in a non-performative environment, we are iterating our way through,” he continued. “You aren’t defined by the position you’ve taken. The position you’ve taken is part of the inquiry you’re engaged in as an organism.”

Mohsin Hamid speaks to a seated audience from the stage at Melbourne writers’ festival
‘I was this addicted, shamelessly self-promoting and also bizarrely rigid person’: Mohsin Hamid at Melbourne writers’ festival Photograph: MWF

On social media, he said, it’s different: “You take a position and then in a sense you must defend that position – which is a real change.”

Technological algorithms have encouraged the essentialist categorisation of people, bringing “intolerable differences” to the fore, Hamid said. “Fifteen years ago they were talking about how young Muslim men were being radicalised by the internet. Now they’re talking about how old white pensioners in America or Australia are being radicalised by the internet. We’re all being radicalised.” – Donna Lu

Young people can’t solve gendered violence alone

Almost 31 years after US attorney and educator Prof Anita Hill testified about her allegations of sexual harassment against then-supreme court justice nominee (and now judge) Clarence Thomas, not much seems to have changed – and public confidence in the supreme court of the United States is at an all time low. The court’s recent decision to abolish constitutional protection for legal abortion has paved the way for other civil rights to be diminished, including same-sex marriage – but, Hill said, there’s reason to have hope. “The court is only one branch of government. We have Congress, we have presidencies, we have elected officials … and we need to be attentive to those to balance out what the court is doing.”

Hill watched in awe as a new generation started the #MeToo movement, decades after women inspired by her own testimony had sent telegrams to Washington DC with their own stories of sexual abuse. But asked by writer Sarah Krasnostein why gender violence persists among Generation Z and millennials, she said nothing would change as long as powerful institutions and society accepted it as normal.

“It’s not just a behavioural problem. It’s not just a mindset problem,” she said. “Millennials are coming and going into systems and institutions where the problem is accepted, where people are still … not being taken seriously in [their] workplaces; where people’s claims are not being investigated in schools, where powerful people are being protected,” she said. “And as long as those systems exist, there is no one generation that will be able to overcome this problem.” – Jane Lee

Older women need rent reform

“I actually really like being invisible,” said Michelle de Kretser, in a discussion about women and ageing. “I think for a lot of migrants of colour, invisibility is something that we appreciate, not … standing out in the crowd for the wrong reasons. For writers, invisibility is a fantastic thing. Don’t look at me; I’ll be watching you.”

Women over 55 are the fastest growing group of people experiencing homelessness, Jane Caro pointed out. “These women have … put their duty to care for others ahead of their right to earn an income,” she said. “The way our society rewards [these women] is to put them at very great danger, at the end of their life, of living out of their car and worse.”

De Kretser went on to call for stronger protections for tenants, citing rental laws in Germany and France. “How wonderful to be able to grow old, if you haven’t been able to afford property, and know that your rent is not going to go up and you’re going to be chucked out into the street.

“It just drives me mad that every day in … media outlet there will be a piece about the unaffordability of housing … but no one talks about rent reform.” – DL

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