Seeing Around Corners – Words by the Water 6 – 14 March 2015

WP_20150310_14_04_39_ProAnother Words by the Water – a literature festival in Keswick, Cumbria, run by Ways With Words.

This year, the festival was richer than ever, and  I thoroughly enjoyed it. The speakers were excellent, and the audiences responsive.  Ways With Words is to be congratulated. The excellent staff and facilities of Theatre by the Lake were well and truly up to the mark, and the location provided a stunning backdrop to the festival.

My previous blog ‘Intriguing Offerings’ covered some of the first weekend’s science events in detail. This one is more of a sample of the rest of the festival. There were some superb events that I was unable to attend, and days when I could not be there, so a lack of a mention is by no means significant.

I was fortunate, too, to catch up with writer friends Kathleen Jones and Alwyn Marriage and meet Ellee Seymour, who spoke about her book ‘The Shop Girls’ in a session Friendship and Fashion on 13 March. Left to right below: Ellee Seymour, Alwyn Marriage and Kathleen Jones.


An ‘Ordinary’ Day – Tuesday 10 March

WP_20150310_14_05_14_ProStudio events connecting our everyday lives (see my blog ‘Intriguing Offerings’). A fascinating day with historians, Panikos Panayi, Joe Moran, Judith Flanders and James Ward.

Fish and Chips Unwrapped… Panikos Panayi showed us how fish’n’chips is a dish  more cosmopolitan than we had  imagined. Fried fish was brought to Britain in the 19th century by immigrant Jews, and by the 20th century became a nutritious staple for the British working class, alongside the necessary chip, and perhaps a dollop of mushy peas. A dish once celebrated as a cheap and nutritious family meal, it has become an occasional treat. Each region has its traditions, and different names for the favourite combinations. The audience shared regional preferences for ‘splits’ and ‘fairies’.

TV Times… Joe Moran wanted to explore the solitary and private viewing habits of the British public. How to go about it required meticulous approaches to often unrecorded personal histories. He explained how – using the analytical skill of a social historian –  he managed to see into the living rooms of ordinary folk. Fascinating stuff!

The Invention of Home… Judith Flanders debunked our notions of the family at home, and our false perspectives on the inner spaces of the lives of our antecedents. Privacy is a comparatively modern notion, as is the idea of the ‘family mealtime’, often used as a gauge on family relationships, is unrealistic. From the popularity of corridors to the horrors of open-plan living. A great session.

Stationery Delights… I was unable to attend this event, but am told that James Ward delivered a  very entertaining and lively session.

Trees – 12 March

We should coppice trees and use wood if we are to keep our woodland. What is a native species? And why we should not necessarily rip out those we consider interlopers. Max Adams turned around some hidebound and passive arguments for woodland management to a positive and active framework for mankind’s continued relationship with trees. Use it or lose it! Marvellous stuff.

The Healing Power of Hawks – 12 March

When Helen Macdonald lost her father, she found herself in the grip of a disabling depression. By a seemingly bizarre insight, she was inspired to rear and train a hunting  female goshawk. A very frank and moving session, but delivered with humour and verve. Stunning.

Derwentwater DIscussions – 13 March

Led by Rory Stewart,  Conservative MP for Penrith. An open and lively discussion of contemporary politics, with Dame Shirley Williams, Lord Inglewood and Jo Alberti. The speakers hardly had time to pause for breath.  Very enlightening in the run-up to a general election – a session that could have occupied an entire day! I wonder if politics in Britain has ever been so complicated and the outcome so uncertain. Certainly, there were no easy answers.

Iraq and Afghanistan – Then and Now – 13 March

Rory Stewart again took the stage for an unflinching look at Britain’s involvement in the conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan. No easy answers, or easy morality, but Rory Stewart was able to inject some hope into what might be achieved by respect and understanding of other cultures, and appropriate diplomatic involvement.

Polly Toynbee and David Walker – Radical Conservative Rule – 13 March

No holds barred analysis by the Guardian journalists Polly Toynbee and David Walker on why the current Conservative government is more radical than that of Margaret Thatcher.  Almost too hot to handle – but the audience was up for it! Great discussion whatever one’s  politics.

Francesca Martinez – What the **** is Normal? Evening Event – 13 March

A one-woman comedy show from a self-professed ‘wobbly’ woman. Francesca Martinez was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when she was two and her parents were told that she’d never lead a ‘normal’ life. She defies the notions of ‘normality’ with her comedy. Brave and inspirational, and very funny.

What Maths Can Tell Us About The Arts – 14 March

WP_20150314_10_49_31_ProMathematical physicist John D Barrow gave a superb talk upon how maths can extract a deeper understanding of our world. He showed us fractal geometry, the one-sided world of Möbius and shadows of a  four-dimensional cube, and we saw how clothoid loops are used in the design of roller-coasters and roads. We learned how artists have used mathematical concepts such as perspective and geometry for centuries, and how probability  rules can be applied to determine factors that we cannot observe completely. One of the most intriguing questions from the audience was ‘Can one see round corners in art?’ Prof Barrow responded with a brief explanation of gravitational lensing.








Tehran – Lies and Lives – 14 March

Ramita Naval surprised her audience with her inside stories of life for ordinary people today in Tehran. Naval went under cover inside a city under cover in more ways than one. This was an eye-opener into a world where truth is not to be taken at face value.

Modern Politics, the Coalition and the General Election

The insights and biting wit of John Crace helped put the conundrums of the potential political permutations and combinations in perspective.

Susan Calman – Lady Like – Evening Event – 14 March

The unique comedy of Susan Calman, a woman who has learned to face the world on her own terms. Who else would take her wife to Paris on her honeymoon, only to take her on a tour of the Paris sewers? Great fun!

Heroic Days of Rail – 15 March

Andrew Martin lamented the loss of dining cars and windows that open. Proper timetables and carriages are now replaced by confusing on-line ‘journey planners’ and airline seating. He kept us entertained in his attempts to reproduce the ‘silver age’ of rail when Deltec engines were king. Utterly engaging.

Judas -15 March

Peter Stanford offered alternative perspectives on the conflicting stories of the apostle who came to symbolise evil in a scholarly, humorous and compassionate talk.

The Moor – South to North – 15 March

The moor has a reputation for desolation and danger, a place of beasts and villians.  We learn the difference between fen and moor – it’s do do with the water – fens are soggy from groundwater, moors from rainfall.  William Atkins made his own journey across the moorlands of Britain, exploring ‘lives, landscape and literature’. A wonderful, and, wonderfully convoluted, trudge from  Dartmoor Prison to Wuthering Heights.



Ways With Words runs three festivals  at Dartington, Southwold and Keswick. Also creative writing and painting  holidays. The next festival is in Dartington, Devon, 3-13 July. The brochure will be available in early May.





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