Clunes Back to Booktown Festival

Sherlock Holmes, between Erotica and Cats. I suspect the bookshop is using slash fiction as an indexing model…

I’d heard that Clunes and books were on intimate terms, but I didn’t really know what to expect when I showed up on the first weekend in May for the Clunes Back to Booktown Festival. Well, apart from lots of bookstores and a program of speaking events.

Clunes, north of Melbourne and tucked conveniently between Ballarat and Daylesford, is a lovely little historic town.  It was the first Victorian town in which gold was discovered in the 19th century, and after a lull it was used as a location for both Mad Max and, later, Heath Ledger’s Ned Kelly film.

Now it’s the newest member of the International Organisation of Booktowns, the first in the southern hemisphere.

In its workaday clothes, Clunes boasts a number of second-hand and collectible book dealerships, mainly open on weekends. (It also has a surprisingly interesting bottle museum, a gold museum and a main street that looks like a time warp to 1875.)

During the Back to Booktown Festival, however, Clunes transforms into a bibliophile’s paradise.  This town’s normal population of around 1000 swells to about 15000 over the weekend.  A program of talks presents guest speakers and literary topics for the discerning reader. This year’s guests included Alice Pung (Unpolished Gem) and Gina Perry (Behind the Shock Machine).

Alongside the regular bookshops, shops along the main road and in the town hall throw wide their doors and become temporary bookshops, selling books both new and second hand. Several antiquarian dealers set up shop as well, and vast tents appear in the street filled with tables teetering with tantalising volumes. Of course, there are also food tents, activities for kids, a bandstand with a brass band playing unlikely hits from Abba and costumed folks to entertain the revellers.

Mostly, though, it’s packed to the gills with booklovers. We shuffle together, tightly packed, through the wares on sale (many of which are displayed in no particular order, so we move slowly, picking through the boxes for that one treasure we need to fill a gap in our collection). It’s crowded and bustling, but good natured.  We’re all steeped in the joy of being in a whole town devoted to books.

All of these old books, some of them quite dusty and stained, are strangely exotic. They are musty paper doorways into other times; not just the worlds of the stories they contain, but the worlds in which those books, as objects, were new. These old hardbacks and their dust covers remind me of the scent of my grandparents sun room, which was full of books like these.

I only just restrained myself from buying old copies of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger series, just because the books looked so marvellously old and of their time. (I did succumb and get Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters for only $5 because how could I resist?) That’s certainly the reason I picked up Lola Montez’s Arts of Beauty, a 1982 hardcover reprint of her 1858 guide to the Art of Fascinating.

My favourite buy of the weekend is a 1948 Australian edition of Georgette Heyer’s Beauvallet, not because of the story (I’m yet to decide if I like Heyer) but because of the inscription.

This is an Elizabethan romance set on the high seas, with the fiery Dominica stamping her little foot and attempting to resist the charming advances of the roguish English pirate, Nicholas Beauvallet. Pirates! Bodices! Star-crossed Lovers! Haughty ladies having tantrums! Spanish booty, of all kinds!

The inscription reads: ‘To John, Xmas 1949’.

And so begins a whole mysterious back story! Why did someone buy a romance book for John? Did they not realise it was a bodice-ripper and thought ‘Mmm, pirates, that’ll suit a boy’. Or was John a mad keen Heyer fan? Did that boy love a high adventure romance? Did he rather fancy Beauvallet himself? Was he disappointed with the not-quite-right gift from a family member? Did he secretly love it? Am I being too limited in my interpretation of Heyer readers?

The simple contrast of the style of book with the name of the recipient sets up a dizzying array of potential backstories for this objet de livre.

I can’t help spinning stories, and this simple hardcover has a secret history which I’ll never know. That’s a little sad, but it’s sort of thrilling too. The world is full of small, secret stories.

Whatever the future holds for storytelling formats, maybe these old hardbacks, these mundane yet magical objects, will survive, because there’s more to them than the story printed on the pages.

And thanks go to: Tourism Victoria and VLine who arranged our travel and accommodation for the weekend. Keebles and The Dukes were lovely guest houses, and thanks to the train that now goes to Clunes, I’ll be able to read my booty on the way home.

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  • This sounds like a lovely place to visit in the first week of May.

    I had the good fortune to go to Hay-on-Wye in the UK a few years ago, and that town has just the atmosphere you describe Clunes as having. Magical for a booklover. Thanks for bringing it alive.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’d quite like to go back to Clunes outside of Festival weekend and just read for a week. 🙂

  • naturallydotty

    My first ‘adult’ book, given to me when I was, I don’t know about 9? was a Georgette Heyer. Mum had quite a lot of them and I loved them.

    I think its just as well I couldn’t make it to Clunes…

    • this one is kind of fun, but the language is deliberately Olde Worlde, which is a bit annoying. But she has some lovely turns of phrase, so I’m finding it enjoyable nonetheless. Heyer has been recommended to me over the years, so this is my first.

      • naturallydotty

        I think this is the one I was given… I tried to get to the shelf in the study where the book would be, but it was an impossible task.

        • It’s probably just as well you didn’t make it to the festival, as you say. I have no idea where you’d put the extra books you’d inevitably buy.