The odds were against Chris Hanley starting the Byron Bay Writer's Festival. Brought up in a non-reading household, he still went on to graduate, succeed in business and open the books on one of Australia's favourite festivals.
When Christopher Hanley OAM (BA ’76 Dip Ed ’77) started a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney in 1973, he hadn’t previously set foot in a university.
“I’d never in my life met someone with a university education, except maybe some of the teachers in my high school,” Hanley says. “I came from a single-parent family and it was unusual in those days. I just wanted to do it and my mother was too busy to tell me I couldn’t do anything.”
Hanley grew up in a household without books. His first job, delivering newspapers, sparked an early interest in reading but he worried that he could not match his more highly educated peers. It took Hanley a few months to find his feet. “I realised that if I worked hard, I could get marks as good as or better than them. Education didn’t mean you were put in a box – that was my first lesson,” he explains.
Studying political science and history as part of his BA gave Hanley the travel bug – the day he finished university he boarded a plane and set off for Europe. He lived in Israel before returning to Sydney to try his hand at an assortment of careers. “I love variety, maybe because I’m a shockingly typical Sagittarius – I don’t like routine,” Hanley says. “I loved surfing, I loved music and sport and I travelled and lived in share houses in Sydney. But I was a bit lost during that period.”
Then Hanley saw a newspaper advertisement for real estate work and it seemed like a good idea. “I moved to Byron Bay,” he says. “I got serious after that – I met my partner, had a child, and I built a large real estate property business. Real estate can be all about being hard, competitive, tough. I liked real estate but I probably didn’t love it – but I’m very proud of building a profitable business.”
A busy career did not curb Hanley’s enthusiasm for reading and writing, which was nurtured during his time studying Australian literature at the University. He wrote and published short stories while in his 30s and helped establish the Northern Rivers Writers’ Centre.
Buoyed by its success, he came up with the idea for the Byron Writers’ Festival just a couple of years later.
Hanley chaired the festival for 20 years and retired last year, although he’s still involved and continues to interview authors. “We have these circus tents by the sea and thousands of visitors and hundreds of writers,” he says.
“We’ve had some of the most famous writers in the world come to the festival. I just interviewed Colm Tóibín. I’ve interviewed Tom Keneally, Michael Rowbotham, who’s a favourite of mine, Annabelle Crabb, DBC Pierre and MJ Hyland – so many interesting writers.”
Hanley currently mentors and coaches chief executives from the property industry as well as leaders from several not-for-profit organisations, and he’s involved with an array of local organisations and initiatives.
“There is a St Vincent de Paul quote, I saw it on a faded old sign while sitting in a taxi. The quote is just two words: ‘Good works’,” Hanley says. “I saw it and I thought, ‘yes’. If you are lucky and good things come to you, it is wonderful if you’re able to give back.”
Just this year, Hanley has been awarded both an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) and Byron Shire’s Citizen of the Year Australia Day Award for his local community work. “I have loved all my community work. You have to find something that nourishes your soul and allows you to put back. You get back more than you give out whether it is toil or money,” he says.
In recent years, Hanley has returned to the University of Sydney, this time presenting lectures to students on business-related subjects. His daughter’s enrolment motivated him to “reach out and see if I could help”, he explains.
“My daughter just finished three degrees at the University of Sydney. She is an extraordinary human being. I admire my daughter more than anyone – she graduated with a degree in law last year and nothing in my life has ever made me prouder than sitting in the Great Hall that day,” Hanley says.
Written by Kat Friel
Photography by Kate Holmes