It’s not a drug, it’s not a vaccine. It’s women saving lives.

13 May

I have a real problem with science sometimes. Or is it the scientific approach? I’m not a Trumpist; I don’t believe in alternative facts, I believe in evidence-based decisions and policy, but I have a problem with what is deemed evidence. There’s a snobbery in science, it is rooted after all in a history dominated by men. Anything which doesn’t have carefully formulated methodology is deemed invalid – I’m not talking a validity of crank ideas or a culture of anything-goes, I’m talking about the acceptance of a historical or cultural knowledge.

So I approached Anthony Costello’s talk at the Swindon Festival of Literature 2021 with some resistance. His book, The Social Edge, delves into the power of sympathy groups. On the one hand, the facts and figures were extremely interesting and he has awe-inspiring experience as the director of maternal, child and adolescent health at the World Health Organisation amongst many lauded positions; on the other I felt that society already has the answers, it’s just that it’s women who have had them all along.

And what is a sympathy group?

The sympathy group was formally identified by Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist. Robin observed a ‘tripling hierarchy’ of human groupings – family, sympathy group, affinity band and then active network. You may have heard of the ‘active network’ magic number of 150 – the maximum amount of people in a community one human can cope with – ‘your Christmas card list’? The sympathy group of 15 or so people is one step beyond the immediate family, brought together by shared goals and trust, typically spending a lot of time together to get stuff done. Anthony’s examples include coffee house culture from the eighteenth century as an ‘engine of debate’, a theatre company (such as the Festival’s own Farm Yard Circus), the core group behind Apple, a government cabinet and advisers, the suffragettes.

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Inside Boxing

12 May Paddy and Teach

Could the rules of boxing work in school? Today I watched the interview of Paddy Fitzpatrick and Lee Simpson about their book, Hats, Handwraps and Headaches: A life on the Inside of Boxing for Swindon Festival of Literature 2021.

Lee Simpson, nicknamed ‘teach’, used to box with his dad when he was younger but moved on to focus on words and writing. Then after years something clicked in him and he wanted to return to his previous passion. He rang up Paddy and asked if he could work with him. I find it interesting how after so many years he finally decided to return to something he used to be so interested in, perhaps in the future it may inspire some of us to get back to something we grew out of.

Teach was originally going to write about the Sunderland football team but turned to boxing as he found it more enjoyable. It’s crazy to think that if it wasn’t for his return to boxing the book wouldn’t have even been written. Boxing isn’t about physical skills strength or power but all about the mental power skills and preparation. Now I’d like to try out the sport for myself as it appears I can learn some useful skills in later life for mental training – if you can’t handle boxing mentally, you can’t handle the sport at all.

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Gardens of Mars

11 May

Gardens Of Mars sounds like an incredible book so full of Madagascar life and culture, and in 45 minutes, we get to look into the life behind the book and the author as Matt Holland from the Swindon Festival of Literature interviews John Gimlette, the author, online.

John used to be a family lawyer in Swindon but changed jobs to travel the world and write books. John talks about Madagascar’s neglected culture. Before this interview I didn’t even realise how often Madagascar is forgotten but I came out of the video knowing so much more, and so many more interesting facts about the lively incredible and unique culture of the country.

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Why baking lockdown sourdough bread may taste restless


9 May

Ironically, watching this event on The Art of Rest was not very restful. Of course, I was typing away what I heard as I was committed to reviewing it so that was an important factor.

However, that being said Claudia Hammond knows so much that she wants to share and bases everything in her book (and perhaps her life) and certainly in this talk, on research so she is sure that is evidenced and henceforth ‘right’ or ‘correct’ if such phrases have any meaning for us here.

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Blood and Water

9 May

Born in Nigeria, poet and vicar Catherine Okoronkwo has lived, studied and worked in many places around the globe. Just thirteen months ago, Catherine morphed into the Lockdown Swindon Vicar of All Saints and Saint Barnabas churches – serving some of our multi-cultural communities of our welcoming town.

Early in the session for Swindon Festival of Literature 2021, Catherine mentioned she is driven to tackle social injustices wherever she finds them – so she grabbed my attention straight away, I was hooked the whole forty-five enlightening and lightening-paced, minutes.

I was drawn in, then cast into the unknown when Catherine also opened with her unique perspective of being a “three culture child”, So what was all that? about I murmured to myself. The vicar poet simply and carefully explained that she was born in Nigeria and brought up by Nigerian parents but left the actual country early at three months to live with her father’s UN posting in Israel. Further Westernised influences followed throughout her life including in the USA. Umm a patchwork poet indeed I thought.

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Every town needs a Tony

7 May

As Tony says, ‘every town should have a community poet’.

I first met Tony back on the Domestic Cherry vintage poetry bus at the first Swindon Poetry Festival. He introduced himself as Swindon’s Community Poet and I had no cause to challenge him. He launched himself with that title back at the turn of the century and it has been accepted ever since.

At the start of his event at the Swindon Festival of Literature, fellow poet Sara-Jane Arbury asked him what he meant by ‘community poet’. Tony thanked everyone for coming and then…choked up. This is Tony. He is a heartfelt witness for all manner of social ills because he loves people, especially in his adopted town of Swindon. ‘Scratch the surface and you find diamonds’. This is a metaphor designed for newish towns like Swindon and Slough and a.n.other big towns-which-should-be-cities up and down the UK without a cotswold-beige prettiness or A-list pop band-venues or sophisticated shopping, it is the community which makes it, and Tony has firmly embedded himself in that community – and loves it. Tony is the one who sets up the maypole dancing on the first day of Swindon Festival of Literature. He is the first on the Beehive dance floor, or even jives around to the auditorium music as the Swindon Arts Centre audience waits for the author to begin their talk. Not bad for someone threescore years and ten.

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Did radio help us through the pandemic?

7 May

More than any other media, radio helped us through the pandemic. That’s the view of journalist Miranda Sawyer, audio critic for the Observer newspaper.

Unusually for a Swindon Festival of Literature guest, Miranda doesn’t have a book to promote.

Sure, her book on middle age, Out of Time, is available – but that was published in 2015.

And there’s a new book in the works about long-term relationships, but that – she admits – is overdue. She hopes to finish it by the end of the summer.

Meanwhile, she’s been invited to talk to the Literature Festival – which is as much a festival of ideas as it is a festival of books – about radio.

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How to be a Refugee

7 May

Simon May’s appearance at Swindon’s Festival of Literature on the 6th May posed some interesting questions to those of us watching on our comfortable sofa at home.

Simon’s book, How to be a Refugee – one family’s story of exile and belonging, told an extraordinary story of survival in the days of Hitler’s Nazi Germany and beyond.  He pointed out that in today’s world of migration, although a refugee could, on the surface, integrate into a new country through social adaptation, did they actually assimilate, adapt their soul, shed who they really are?

In the book, Simon looked at his own family who had Jewish ancestry and lived in Germany, and wanted to portray an unknown side of life there.  Even before Nazi Germany they had changed their religion to fit in with German culture and think themselves German first and Jews second.  His grandfather converted from Judaism to Protestantism and Simon’s great uncle was a Catholic priest.  This integration was of no avail when the Nazi Party looked at race not religion.  Simon’s grandfather in 1933 was expelled from his profession as a lawyer because of his ancestry and died of a broken heart.  His mother, Marianne, arrived in the UK in 1934 but later in England from 1938 to 1948, found being German was now a problem to be hidden.  She was deemed a stateless enemy alien and subject to a night time curfew.  This indeed saved her life when one evening she broke her curfew, was put into custody and later that night her home, where she should have been, was destroyed by a bomb.

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Opening Pandora’s Jar

6 May Natalie Haynes

I’m somewhat late to the party apropos Natalie Haynes – and even then, I was in the kitchen.  It’s only of late that I discovered Natalie Haynes Stands up for the Classics on BBC Radio 4. And it’s more recent still that I clocked that Natalie has enjoyed a longstanding, stand-up career. Among other things. Imagine then my delight to see Natalie’s name in the literature festival programme.

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“I’m sorry for your loss” becomes Swindon’s gain

5 May

We may not all agree why the chicken crossed the road but in his Nine Ways to Conquer Death Zoom talk, Kevin Toolis was very clear that we English cross the road to avoid death and Irish people cross the road to show empathy for death.

Of dual identity, Kevin grew up in Scotland but with a strong Irish tradition that had a different attitude towards social death. By way of vivid example, he described that recently his aunt – aunt had a full-scale Irish wake with an open coffin next to the Christmas tree.

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