Born in a Gospel Tent


Leading international author Jeanette Winterson was on fire last week at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and if the job of the writer is to make us feel uncomfortable, then her sojourn here was a success.

Winterson, winner of various awards for her fiction and adaptations, and an OBE for services to literature, used forums at the Festival to tell us this was the most critical time in history for taking action on global warming.

In her opening address at the Sydney Opera House, Winterson, standing only five foot tall and dressed in casual black top and slacks, somehow managed to take over the entire Concert Hall stage with her clear and decisive message.

This was a writer on fire and someone who was taking on the role of the crusader and visionary – not the Winterson who in 2004 addressed tidy audiences in the writers’ tent at the Adelaide Festival.

She strutted across the stage like a missionary allowing only a short time to tell us time was running out on the planet and we needed to use our creativity to renew ourselves and that way renew the planet. She reclaimed the famous Bill Clinton quote – telling the audience "it’s not the economy stupid, it’s the environment".

In an interview before her forum at the Festival, Winterson confided that it was her childhood of being brought up as a missionary in country England that gave her such a crusading zeal. "Being brought up in a gospel tent you know you have to get everyone in at 6:00 and converted by 8:00 pm."

And during our interview set against a winter’s sun and the backdrop of Sydney Harbour, Winterson took on subjects from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, global warming, the madness of British politics, and writers going for corporate sponsorship.

Fresh from coffee with environmentalist Tim Flannery, Winterson stressed that the scientific evidence was there that the planet will be in serious trouble within five years. She believes it is the responsibility of writers to take a stand on environmental matters.
"It’s like a wake-up call, that’s all. You’re not telling people anything they don’t know – you’re telling them something that gets buried under the accumulating emergencies of modern life," she said.

The fate of the planet is her theme of her latest novel, The Stone Gods, which conjures a terrible yet quirky vision of what awaits us as we hurtle towards the end point of a warming planet.

Winterson believes we are not condemned to repeating the same mistakes of greed as our forefathers – but that this is the time for commitment, not a time for fence sitters.

I got the extinct impression Winterson does not think the answers lie with our political leaders. On Tony Blair she said, "It’s like putting a mosquito in charge of malaria", and she does not like Labour’s chances under Gordon Brown.

"Brown is not the right person for the job. It is a Government that has run out of ideas and Labour is about to make itself unelectable." she says.

Winterson has a timely warning for the Rudd Government. She says Rudd is the new boy on the block and still has the shiny new gloss on him. "He has lots of personal power and is charming, but I hope he does not go the way all politicians go – slightly mad and drunk on his own ideas."

"When they lose touch we are all in trouble," she warned.

Winterson believes the cycle of madness begins in the third term in power. "In the first term things get done, in the second term agendas get diluted and by the third term they lose the plot and go slightly mad."

Winterson’s crusade did not stop with the political landscape. She also had timely advice to budding writers on the ills of corporate sponsorship.

"Sponsorship and corporate endorsement is okay but do not compromise to the point where the work suffers – it is better to drop the project than end up with a distorted version," she says.

She warned writers to be careful who they went to bed with.

But while Winterson was on fire with her charm and wit and crusading zeal at this year’s Festival, she seems to have lost the arrogance of the A-list British writer that she had in the 1990s.

Winterson had nominated herself for a major literary prize and held court in London for many adoring women. She has had famous brushes with the press, including door-stopping a journalist who wrote a critical article on her.

In Sydney we saw this outgoing advocate, but Winterson said she can go months at home on her farm outside Oxford, not talking to anyone but her hens and cats.

She is a gregarious hermit, happy entertaining a packed house at the Sydney Opera House and then planting vegetables at her farm in England, alone for months on end.

As Winterson says, this is a critical time in history – "If we all do our part, however small, we can turn this planet around." I sensed it also Winterson’s time. At 48, her best writing is ahead of, not behind, her.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.