a short story by ANNE-MARIE SMITH
Dominique and I are standing behind the gates of the police station. We are wearing hoop skirts with a plain knit top, the latest fashion of the time.
‘Here they come! Let’s do it!’
‘Why did you choose to meet here?’ Dominique is asking. She is always the calm and logical one.
‘Because, well, it’s near my home and the cinema is just around the corner.’
A small group of us – two boys, Dominique and me with another two girls – are standing outside the gendarmerie where I live with my parents. Marching out into the street with a group of friends is not something I have done before. On too many occasions I have heard my gendarme father’s warning, ‘Three is a crowd, and you could get arrested.’ But this time I am ready to confront the world and because I live among them, I’m not scared of the police. What’s more, being arrested is tempting. I’m holding on to my home-made placard.
We are in France. It’s the late 1960s. Dominique on my right, the six of us start marching to the local cinema. This is not a big town, and everyone knows each other, but we are on a mission.
‘Why do we call this Le Happening, again?’ Dominique asks.
‘It’s when something just takes place spontaneously.’ Alain speaks up, his long hair waving in the wind. He tells us he knows about the English vocabulary of revolt. Sylvie rolls her eyes. She is critical of his ready-made answers every time a girl asks a question. She puts him right.
‘Well, it’s American actually!’
We are staging what we call in French Le Happening. We have decided that, together with the cine-club members, we will keep this a simple event: we’ll walk out of the cinema and stage a short but loud protest. But a controversial Cuban film is being screened. It’s called ‘Death of a Bureaucrat’ and is an avant-garde revolutionary film that we cannot afford to miss, so we plan for our group to watch that first, then we shall rally everyone out.
As the film finishes, we stand up with resolve and call everyone out of the cinema while chanting
and in answer to: What do we want?
We don’t intend to disturb the traffic or occupy the cinema, we just lead the audience chanting onto the street all the way to the supermarket and back. It is a five hundred metre walk and we know that, in this small town, we will be noticed.
We’ve had enough. Centralisation is stifling the talents of all French youth. It is the issue we care most about as none of us can emerge from country towns to make it as actors or writers. We all feel deprived that we don’t even have a decent theatre for staging the latest play by Harold Pinter or Ionesco! We have had to fight no end of battles with bureaucracies all our lives but now we want to be heard.
I run ahead with my placard to start the chanting.
• • •
In decentralised Australia, Adelaide is not short of theatres and venues, and yet I rejoice in attending outdoors alternative events like the Writers’ Festival, in this great cultural centre of Australia. I sit mesmerised to be in proximity to some of my favourite authors.
Choosing to wear the sort of clothes that would fit in with the 40-degree heat in the free and open-air gardens of Adelaide, I am wearing loose cotton pants, an Amnesty International T-shirt and a cap. In my back pack are a couple of frozen bottles of water. I feel quite relaxed till I notice that many of the women are wearing straw hats with flowery blouses and skirts. I realise then that my looks, not just my accent, will emphasise how different I am!
I don’t have my own group to sit with although there are quite a few people I know. I will talk to them. I have no hesitation in starting conversations and every year there I meet new people. From near the book tent I see many of the most famous authors in our town, some of whom will get on stage. I am dying to speak to JM Coetzee, but I will be lucky to manage to speak to Sean, Jude or Peter Goldsworthy on their way to the green room or to get a coffee. I however show spontaneity when I spot David Malouf and ask him to make a reference to the empty chair that our PEN group has positioned on his stage. I am chuffed by his pleasant response to me and because he does mention the chair!
Over time I have built up a string of great memories. One of them is when sitting on the green lawn under our piercing blue sky, we are all entranced by Ian McEwan reading the first chapter of his new novel, Solar. He paints for us visions of the people in British brick houses while his aircraft is attempting to land over London in slow motion and in several consecutive circles.
The following day brought another amazing scene. Many in the audience holding their cold bottles of water over their napes are sitting in the shade of palm trees on a slope expecting a verbal stoush. Germaine Greer, instead of sparking off an activist’s Mexican wave, triggers a gentle ironic ripple of laughter from the crowd when we realise that she herself doesn’t have the energy to harangue the youth who has just made a stand declaring that she isn’t a feminist. Greer simply calls out ‘Come and see me in a few years!’
This year I feel is a very sedate gathering, although some major crime and historical novelists are having an impact on the crowd. I would not mind having a good debate with any of the authors. I’d love to knock the mono-cultural and post-colonial tone of some presentations. When I get to the microphone the question I meant to be prodding may sound simply like a scatty after-thought rather than a rebellious, anti-bourgeois statement. Still, I offer it as a comment.
I think I might be more popular if I suddenly got up and chanted:
and then with great panache
WE WANT-MORE – NAT’RAL-SHADE!
I reckon that would work quite well and I could even start a conga line on the theme.
But I won’t. This outdoor venue provides me with great enjoyment. I like hearing all the authors, taking notes, talking to the writers whose book I buy each year. Where else can you also, while queuing for coffee, select which author session to attend, simply by eavesdropping on the tone of their voice in their opening comments?
Later in the day, I even enjoy moving my chair from one group to the next even though we, at Adelaide Writers’ Week, know that’s not really done. The marquees are clearly separated and labelled to indicate which one of the groups you’re attending. However, the afternoon sun can lead to soporific discussions and some discreet restlessness.
Not to worry, I have not lost my taste for taking risks! Over a few decades I’ve learnt to negotiate to avoid getting arrested. I contemplate starting a chair revolution next year. I will demand more tables, or better, insist on discussions. The latter thought appeals greatly and I visualise myself walking between the rows of chairs waving my cap shouting:
I will get insistent.
© Anne-Marie Smith, 2018