The Grafton Festival of Philosophy, Science, and Theology was an
annual event that ran in the 2000s, inviting speakers and audiences to come
together in Northern New South Wales town of Grafton.
I’d recently started a new school when I first heard of the
festival. As a new student, I was put through a gamut of tests. One of these
was the WIAT, or Weschler Individual Attainment Test, in which I answered
simple questions of English comprehension. My score was in the 95th
percentile, bringing me to the attention of Miss Paf, the Gifted and Talented
student coordinator. Within her remit, I was invited, along with the other
‘gifted’ students to the Festival.
At the time, my leading concerns in life were “Is there a
G_d and what is His nature?” and “Given Decartes assertion that senses must be
believed due to G_d is a complete handwave and does not solve the problem, how
do we establish what is True, and how do we establish what is Right?”. I was
immediately very interested in attending the festival. No, I didn’t have a
girlfriend, why do you ask?
I arrive at the school very early in the morning, the dawn
sunlight still casting rays across the hills. Miss Paf is there, as are the
motley crew joining us on the trip. Sam, Class-clown Tim, Sam’s mate and
science enthusiast Scott, and Paul, the DJ. No, we didn’t have a DJ for the
trip, it’s mostly incidental that Paul was a DJ. He was from another school and
I’d not met him before.
Miss Paf gets us loaded into a beat-up white van, takes the
driver’s seat, and off we go. It’s about a two hour trip, and it passes
uneventfully, all of us having the morning grogginess of teenagers. I talk to
Sam and Scott and Tim about the science major project due tomorrow. It’s a big
project that takes weeks, we have to perform experiments, get results and write
a report for presentation in front of the class. Sam hasn’t even chosen a
Finally, we arrive at the venue for the festival – the
Grafton Cathedral. It’s a beautiful old building, stonework and stained glass,
that goes entirely unappreciated by us youth. The lawn is perfectly manicured
with clean concrete footpaths; out the front is a fountain with a cast-iron sculpture
of some sort of swans or ducks or herons.
It’s a little while before the event starts, so Scott pulls
out a blue rubber ball and we play handball. The narrow concrete blocks on the
pathways here make the game fast-paced and challenging. After a while we get
bored, and Tim pull out a soft yellow and white ball. He tells us its name is
“Mr. Squishy” and we spend a while throwing it at each other’s heads.
Soon, the festival is due to begin; we look at the programme
and decide which lectures to attend, and head to the first. Inside, a lot of
old people sit on uncomfortable pews. Many take the kneeling cushions from the
pew in front, and use it as a backrest to prevent the sharp corners of the
timber cutting in. Our speaker – a priest- appears and talks for an hour about
quantum physics. It is clear he does not understand quantum physics.
The lecture ends and we head to the room for the next. This
speaker is a young philosophy PhD, and he discusses Plato’s allegory of the
cave, Descarte’s doubting and discusses the reliability of the senses. The old
people in the room nod on approvingly, as if this is the first they’ve ever
heard of these ideas. I thumb through a hymn book to avoid falling asleep, but
it contains neither “In a Gadda Davida” nor any good songs about Smiting, Fire,
It’s lunchtime, and we head over to the refreshments room
for sandwiches, then play some more handball. When it isn’t my turn, I see
Paul, and walk over towards him. He strides purposefully towards me. We place
our palms upon each other’s foreheads, and wobble each other’s heads around
like a washing machine while making groaning noises. We walk away, neither of
us saying a word.
Nothing looks interesting in the next lecture slot, having
been disappointed twice now, so Miss Paf takes us over to the public library,
where there is supposed to be some sort of exhibition of classwork related to the festival.
It’s not really anything interesting, just some science projects from third
graders. Between us, we have the idea that Sam could submit the hypothesis “Can
my teacher tell my work apart from the work of a third grader?” One of the
science projects is written in neat handwriting with drawings of flowers all
over it, bearing a girl’s name. Scott watches lookout while Tim lifts the case and
Sam swipes it.
We head back for the final lecture of the day. This one is
by a cultist who tells us all about the Rael foundation, and his experiences
meeting Nordic aliens. He then solicits donations in order to build an
interplanetary embassy with a flying saucer landing pad. We all decline to
offer money, but Tim puts a condom in the basket.
It’s dinner time, and Miss Paf drives us there, making a
stop at the petrol station to refuel. While waiting, we wonder off in search of
entertainment. Nearby is a train track, elevated above the road, and
a train, just a single engine with no carriages, moves slowly across it. Tim
takes a posture like an ancient Greek Olympian, runs forward and hurls his
javelin – Mr. Squishy – at the train. It bounces off the windscreen, and the
train comes to a stop, reverses a few metres, and starts moving again. Freaking
out, we run towards the McDonalds across the road.
We order our food, and shortly after, two cops come in and
look around the room, asking the staff questions. They seem to leave before finding
us. On our way out, Sam turns around next to the bins and motions to Tim. Tim
slides the McDonalds tray up his shirt, so he can steal that as well.
On the drive out of Grafton, we pass the church again.
Somehow, Tim has managed to put Mr. Squishy in the fountain duck’s mouth,
leaving it there to its fate.
The drive home is long and boring, highway receding into the
distance, a road without streetlights. We abandon our seatbelts and sit facing
backwards on humps facing the back seat so we can socialise better. Miss Paf balks
but we instruct her that it will be fine, just don’t crash.
We arrive at the school at 10pm. The next day, Sam hands in
his assignment; he hasn’t even changed the name on the paper. A week later, he
hands in another paper, “Can my science teacher tell my work from that of a
third grader?”. His science teacher is less than amused.
The next year, I am invited to go to the festival again.
None of the other students in my year want to go, remembering the
disappointment, but I figure it is better than a day of school, and go. It’s
mostly students from younger years this time, but one of my RPG friends from
year nine is among the group.
The chaperone this time is the school chaplain, a young, hip
priest. A few years later, he will leave the church to move in with his
boyfriend in Melbourne. He drives us down, and asks for us the $5 we had
brought understanding it was for lunch – he understood it was for fuel. It
doesn’t make a difference, since he shouts us lunch at Pizza Hut, and the year
nines remark on how much grease is on the pizza.
The lectures this time are entirely forgettable. I discuss
lucid dreaming with a girl named Hannah, who has pretty crinkles in her hair, and she gives me her email address.
She never replies to my email.