A Little thought-provoking thought – Think Slam! at the Swindon Festival of Literature

19 May

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A little thought provokes and a little thought at the Swindon Festival of Literature provokes an event called ‘The Think Slam’ which is now in its sixth year.

Festival Director Matt Holland has often championed Swindon’s Literature extravaganza as a ‘Festival of Thinking’ so it’s easy to think of the ‘Think Slam’ as the thinking man’s cherry on top of the think cake of the festival of thinking (if you think like that).

Seven contestants thought that their thinking could make the judges think enough of their thoughts to crown them ‘Swindon Festival of Literature Think Slam Champion 2015’.

The event itself is less debating society and more poetry slam without the poetry (a nice niche idea I’d have thought), replacing the babbling bards, are of course, the seven ‘thinkers’ who are judged not only by two thoughtful judges, Radio 4’s Matt Harvey and Tedx talker Suzannah Lipscomb but by the reaction of a deeply thinking, thoughtless or thunk out audience.

Split into a First Heat, Semi-Final and Final the slam potentially requires each contestant to have three three minutes thoughts that are thought provoking enough for the festival of thinking.

Compère Sara Jane Arbury and official Scorer and Battled Bell Clanger Matt Holland completed the stage line-up.

The first thinker to face the thankless task of revealing to us what we ought to have thought about, was Designer Ben Reizenstein who hit us with the reversal of thought tune that efficiency is a scourge in modern society.

Arguing that getting instant food and pleasure would have The Jetsons crying into their freeze dried meals, Reizenstein suggested that looking at the meaning of activities has been lost as more and more automation takes over.

We ‘should be skeptical around efficiency and ask who is it more efficient for?’ concluded Reizenstein with a dystopian (more of that later) flourish.

Next up was self-identifying ‘happy go lucky chap’ Kevin Lister who posed and mused the question ‘How long do you want to live for?’

Lister claimed that our dystopian (more of that later – honest) techno-society has produced invasive late in life surgery just to drag out an existence and that instead people should live life to the full.

He cited the non-invasive waiting list-shrinking modus operandi of Innuit women, who, when realising their worth to the community was no longer a positive one, choose to jump off a cliff rather than be a burden to their family.

This particular thought conjured a million more for me but it’s probably best not to expand on icy beaches full of useless women here.

Which seamlessly moves into a topic proffered by a later slammer, but more of that later.

Next, a true change pace came with Rob Stredder doing what only he can do, be Rob Stredder.

His dislocated, passionate, three minutes on nature, told us that ‘nature is not sentimental’ and that a pigeon faces no mercy from a stooping peregrine falcon.

Stredder believes that the fluffy, cuddly, portrayal of the natural world as entertainment prevents humans learning valuable lessons from animals.

We ‘live in a plastic society’, never more graphically portrayed than by photographs of the man-made debris in the Pacific gyre.

Man needs to have ‘the wisdom to live alongside nature’ concluded the drum beating, bonhomie bringing former Groundwell Farmer.

Christine Tipper brought the horror and joy of Nepal to the Arts Centre for 180 seconds or so.

Christine fell in love with the country and should be there now but the terrible earthquake and its aftermath have prevented her visit.

The translator and teacher established the Glory School and is now known as its honorary grandmother.

Glory School rejects the traditional bias of Nepalese education in favour of boys and places girls on a equal footing.

The thought to take away for me was visualising Nepalese children discovering Blu-Tack in their workshop for the first time.

That a blue ball of sticky stuff we take for granted can caused consternation in the Himalayas is surely worth thinking now about.

How Mongolians react to Post-its is not known, but I am now thinking about it.

An emotional Christine finished by saying that she was ‘just packing for her next trip when the world changed’, a truly sobering thought and one which immediately conjures up images of the children involved in Christine’s initiative together with the hope that their world has missed the most dramatic of the changes.

Louisa Davison, Festival Chronicler, was next to be handed the baton of brains.

Her parable of capitalism involved a lot of coats in a talk headlined ‘I live in a world of promise’ which built its way to the question ‘When did we forget that money is a promise and let it become the last breath of desire?’

Covering greed, opportunism and philanthropy Louisa’s slow burn tale was very effective in making me think about something I am always thinking/raging about.

Next, back to redundant Innuit women on the cliff paths of Nuuk, well sort of.

Hugo O’Donovan turned the idea of a ‘Crisis of Masculinity’ on its head with an argument centred on the belief that the crisis is actually one of femininity largely because in order to reach the same positions and power as men, women have to use the same masculine model.

Margaret Thatcher is perhaps the most vivid example of this, indeed Barbara Castle once described Thatcher as the ‘best man among them’ when referring to the Tory front bench.

Power, dominance and western male attributes are the current aspirations of women, where within that is femininity? A ponderable left hanging in the air following Hugo’s stealthy delivered presentation.

A bit of consciousness was well overdue by this point and this was provided by John Little who railed against pointless ‘learning’ by rote which seems to bypass meaning in favour of tricks.

Spooky speedy Japanese children with a virtual abacus and the ‘chattering maniacs’ in our heads both put in an appearance as we were left to wonder how we do what once seemed impossible automatically and seemingly without thought once we have the repetition of its execution fixed in our brains.

And where are those brains most of the time? asked Little: in our self-created past and future where we spend most of our time, claimed the final slammer of the first heat.

As a result of their thought provoking, Louisa Davison and John Little made it straight through to the final with Robert Stredder, Hugo O’Donovan and Christine Tipper going out, Christine on the toss of a coin following a three-way tie.

Starting the semi-final Kevin Lister asked the very-of-the-moment question ‘Why do we let politicians lie to us?’ and then followed it up with the more incendiary ‘What would they say if we asked them the truth?’.

In answering Lister said that ‘things are looking grim’ and described mass migration panic caused by global warming, fuel and water shortages and a dystopian (more to come) scene of the common people beating each other to a pulp in the supermarket as they panic bought scarcer and scarcer supplies of food.

His depressing conclusion was that the ‘ballot box’ is a charade but is all that we can do’.

John Little chose to talk on the topic of ‘Why are we such Jekyll and Hyde people?’  His discussion had a remarkable range for the small amount of time allowed him.

Selectively bred Russian foxes, aggressive behaviour, our shrinking brains and social selection all fizzed in his second contribution which concluded that much of our behaviour is a legacy of our tribal past.

We were rapidly jolted back into the present by Louisa Davison and her provocative poser –  ‘What has a bacon sandwich got to do with running the country?’, as we all know it would seem the most important prerequisite, outranking both dancing to Radio 5 Live and boring primary school children into torpor.

But for Louisa, the bacon sandwich fiasco which crushed Ed Miliband is a symptom of our bullying press which deters debate and blurs lines between fact and opinion.

Opinion should be labelled in the same way as advertising; selling a particular viewpoint on the front page of a paper, she argued, is the equal to advertising.

The same bullying press who wonder why the anti-bullying schemes of schools don’t work, conveniently forget their own preference for bullying as a means to fill their pages.

With the election fresh in our minds, Louisa gave a relevant and obviously strongly held opinion an airing and in the process made us think about fact, fiction and opinion in the popular press, a percentage estimate between the three would be interesting reading.

Ben Reizenstein completely changed things around as he decided to tell us that the Emoji was the greatest development in human conversation since the alphabet.

Getting the biggest laugh of the night as he spoke a line of emoji-speak aloud, ‘winking face with tongue sticking out’,  Reizenstein probably provoked the most thought for me with this idea, which, in 50 years time, just might accepted as fact.

’Dubious quizzical face, heart, kiss, halo’.

Two contestants comfortably qualified for the final, John Little and Louisa Davison, the Russian Fox vs. The Bacon Sandwich, Swindon Festival of Literature Think Slam Final 2015.

With all this thought and thinking going on my own brain had started to feel like a tiny walnut segment, but a well provoked walnut for certain.

So, the final started with John Little and a little more on shrinking brains. Our ancient ancestors had brains which were the equivalent of the size of a tennis ball, larger than ours, what’s going on? According to John, medicine is playing God, and a bit of tennis by the sound of it.

Louisa Davison ended proceedings with an assault on large corporations, claiming that in the not to distant future (or maybe now) they employ mindless drones, a step away from total control of their staff.

Quoting Iris Murdoch ‘The only freedom is the freedom of the mind’ Davison found an apt way to describe the Swindon Festival of Literature and its mission to make us think.

Free minds can develop thoughts or be provoked to think.

According to Davison, an extreme conclusion to the mind control of a workforce would be the creation of zombies as society teetered on the very edge of a collapse into a future that could only be described as dystopian.

A mere four points separated the finalists, with John Little emerging victorious.

Judge supreme Suzannah Lipscomb thought that the quality of thought showcased at the Think Slam would not be out of place in the hallowed corridors of Radio 4, where the real thinkers think.

‘Pretty much any of these could be on Thought For The Day’ commented Lipscomb, which says a lot about these seven thinkers if you think about it.

The Think Slam! was at Swindon Arts Centre, 15 May 2015 as part of the Swindon Festival of Literature.

Words by Michael Scott. Photos (c) Calyx Pictures.

Read Kevin Lister’s two pieces at: kevsclimatecolumn.blogspot.co.uk

Read Louisa Davison’s pieces from this year and 2014 at agentlouisa.com

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