I have been letting the experience of this festival of ‘words and ideas’ infuse. As you will see below, I have a lot to think about.
Words by the Water arrives, almost overnight, like a pop-up delicatessen for the mind. Visitors may come for just a single event, or perhaps a whole day. Some – the stalwarts – come for the duration. Dr Alwyn Marriage is one such – a regular attender of the festival with her husband, Hugh. Alwyn has been keeping a super blog of her activities:
The launch evening was the usual warm and friendly affair we have come to associate with Ways With Words. I had the chance to catch up with friends, including the poet, novelist and biographer, Kathleen Jones, who appeared at the festival, and whose event is reported extensively by Alwyn. Sadly, I was unable to attend but have reviewed her biography of Norman Nicholson in Tears in the Fence due out in April. Also Angela Locke, a writer and a founder of The Juniper Trust, who chaired several events at the festival. There were witty and apt short speeches from Kay Dunbar, Patric Gilchrist and Melvyn Bragg with topical references to arts funding, budgets, building and babies.
I attended a number of events, several covered by Alwyn, but I have picked out a few of my favourites – by no means a comprehensive list. So, here is my pick’n’mix of events:
Science and the Bible with the sparkily astute Steve Jones, who on realising that he had the wrong PowerPoint presentation segued into an alternative, but fascinating, talk about why there isn’t a gene for everything under the sun. The connection of disease and behaviour to expression in genetics is a much more complex story than the popular press would have us believe. My take away message was is that human potential is always present in a population, no matter how impoverished – it needs to be nurtured in a caring and supportive environment.
Melvyn Bragg – Grace and Mary. With such grace and eloquence we were introduced to loss – of memory and of a birth mother, and what is lost from future generations. And why writing from life is not the same as autobiography. Wonderful!
Michael Rosen – Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story. Michael Rosen makes language into magic both in his writing and in his delightfully funny explication of how the alphabet is used. Superb.
Philippa Gregory – Tudor Fiction. How history can be fictionalised with honesty and authenticity. Insights into her writing and how use of the first person present tense is effective. Also, how a TV dramatisation can go astray.
Tom Holland – Herodotus and the Ancient World. Hugely engaging talk on his approach to translating the writings of a long-dead observer and chronicler to produce a most excellent new translation in a beautiful book.
Philippa Langley – The Search for Richard III. Screenwriter Philippa Langley coped with aplomb when she was left to fly solo for this event. A serendipitous discovery of the lost bones of a maligned king. How a woman’s extraordinary intuition triumphed in unlikely circumstances.
George Monbiot – The Case for Rewilding. Stunning talk to a packed theatre by a man who had not enamoured himself to the local farming community with his remarks on sheep as ‘maggots’ and hill farming in Cumbria. He explained in detail what he meant with reference to man’s influence on biodiversity and landscape, and expounded the deleterious effects of the EU subsidy regulations that require the removal of all extraneous herbage – including trees – from subsidised farmland that reduces available habitats and encourages flooding. He also asked some searching questions on the maintenance of low diversity eco-systems on the basis that they supported a few named species, declaring the regime of land scouring/species maintenance as a circular argument. His ideas on re-wilding were well-considered and deeply compassionate. The open discussion with the audience – including representatives of the farming community – was a mixture of support and contention, but was not long enough to satisfy. I hope that he was able to reassure some of those in opposition that he was not advocating wholesale abandonment of fellside sheep husbandry, but a much gentler approach that allowed room for a wider range of species. His book, Feral, is recommended.
Julian Baggini – The Virtues of the Table. Philosopher Baggini expounded the ‘quotidian at the heart of ethics’. A farm to table ethical discussion about the food we eat. Julian Baggini is an excellent speaker who, with great wit and humanity, gets to the heart of an argument. He also showed us he is the ragged-trousered philosopher by arriving in Keswick clad, inadvertently, in trousers with a large hole that necessitated a quick trip to the local shops supporting our local economy – but that is another story! His ideas are explained in his book The Virtues of the Table.
Barbara Graziosi – Rebranding the Greek Gods. A vibrant talk on the cultural and moral context of Greek deities in different societies by a leading academic. New ground for me, who had never considered this subject deeply. Her book, The Gods of Olympus: A History, took a decade to write around the demands of academe and raising a family.
Science : New Discoveries
I chaired two sessions on ‘science day’. Speaking earlier in the week to a lady in the foyer café I’d recognised from last year, she told me that she always came for science day – an affirmation of science in the literary festival context. I am still getting good feedback on the one the year before.
This year, I got my wish for some physics, and chaired Pedro Ferreira, a cosmologist from Oxford, on the subject of Einstein, Relativity and Perfection. His book, The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses and the Battle Over General Relativity is a biography of general relativity, and deeply engaging. Indeed I got more than I – or indeed the audience could have bargained for – an advance notice of the announcement of the possible discovery of gravitational waves in the polarisation data from the cosmic microwave background that hit the media the following day – 17th March. Arguably, this is a discovery to rival the Higgs, and will help corral some of the possibilities for the origin of the universe, and thus draw together some of the fundamental strands of physics. ‘New Discoveries’ indeed! Despite the magnitude of this impending news, Pedro took himself away from the university and delivered a magnificent lecture on the history of general relativity, bringing us up to date with modern cosmological ideas and the implications for the discovery. His book is a wonderful read and packed with resources for further study. Alwyn has also included Pedro’s talk in her write-up.
Valerie Curtis with The Science Behind Revulsion followed immediately afterwards, and she stunned the audience with a spectacular talk on her work as an anthropologist . Her opener was to get the audience to spit into plastic cups and then to swallow their saliva. Some did, and some didn’t… but it got the audience’s attention well and truly focussed upon the fundamentals of disgust, which she argues is a fundamental driver of behaviour, deeply embedded into our brains. Valerie Curtis is an evolutionary anthropologist, and is director of the Hygiene Centre at the London School for Tropical Medicine, where her research aims to improve public health by improving hygiene. She has developed a theory of parasite avoidance as a driver for evolutionary success. She explained how an understanding of the disgust mechanism can be used for the benefit of mankind, and showed examples of how it can motivate hygiene and improve health. Her book Don’t Look, Don’t Touch is an eye-opener, and also well-referenced. There are a number of internet references to her work.