SMH Young Writer of The Year Awards

(12.30pm 9 September 2011, State Library of NSW)

Thank you, Amanda Wilson, SMH editor, and hello, everyone. I would like firstly to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, and to pay my respects to the Elders, both past and present.

I especially want to congratulate all of our young writers here today. You've faced a big field of able competitors to reach this final stage, and I hope that for all of you, it will mark a further step in your maturing as writers.

You, more than the rest of us here, have landed between two worlds. You're the children of the digital age being feted today in a building devoted to books - those old-fashioned objects!

How wonderful, then, that despite Tweeting and Facebook and all the distractions the internet has to offer, you are writing - and writing at length. You are understanding words, alive to nuance, analysing structure, knowing the rules and knowing how and when to break them.

This library was built in an age when the written word reigned supreme, when it was the very foundation of civilisation. I believe - the digital revolution notwithstanding - that remains true.

The Gospel of St John begins with that famous line: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…"

Words are essential if we are to understand and to communicate. Even the greatest film director needs a script, needs words before he can make his film. Centuries of thought, of exploration and discovery have been inspired by words framed into questions.

We cannot even imagine without words and as the world grows more multifarious and its complexities more challenging, we need more than ever to understand words and how to use them.

Then we can frame the right questions to find the right answers.

In all the acres of newsprint devoted to analysing the causes of the August riots in England, one writer - the Independent newspaper's Dominic Lawson - referred to the dumbing-down of language - to what he called "the degraded patois" of gang culture.

It was, he suggested, not only a lack of opportunity that helped create an underclass of both blacks and whites: it was also a lack of language, of the sort of language that would open the doors of opportunity.

He quoted the American comedian Bill Cosby who in 2004 made an impassioned speech against "gangsta" culture and its language - phrases like "Why you ain't?"

"Everybody knows it's important to speak English except these knuckleheads," Cosby said. "You can't land a plane with 'Why you ain't…' You can't be a doctor with that [sort of language]…"

By taking part in the Herald's Young Writer of the Year awards, you are continuing to assert the value of our written culture, reminding us of the power of words to shape the world, to inspire, provoke or amuse us, to bring us to tears or to show us other ways of being and living.

I also acknowledge the commitment of several Herald staff to encouraging the creativity of young people through the Story Factory project, which my Lord Mayor's Salary Trust is proud to support.

I am sure we are all looking forward to the opening of the Martian Embassy and gift shop later this year, a creative writing centre for children and which will also sell everything a child needs for space travel and inter-galactic exploration. I am sure that the Story Factory will produce many future Young Writers Award entrants.

Congratulations to the Herald for its sponsorship of this important award, and congratulations to all those entrants here today. I hope we will continue to hear about you - and to read you! - in future.

Thank you.