Swindon’s greatest intellects clash at Think Slam

15 May

Swindon’s greatest intellects clashed on Friday night, at the seventh annual Think Slam.

(Full disclosure: Chronicler Louisa was one of the competitors, and I am contractually obliged to describe her as one of Swindon’s greatest intellects.)

Over three gruelling rounds, seven competitors did mental battle in the Swindon Festival of Literature competition run in association with the Swindon Philosophical Society.

Swindon, by the way, is unique in having this kind of philosophical thrown-down. Until another town or city picks up the gauntlet, the competition winner is, by default, the UK’s – and possibly the planet’s – greatest living philosopher (just think the USA and the baseball World Series).

The first heat saw Irishman John Shee, Swindon’s John Little, and last year’s runner-up Louisa Davison go head-to-head.

Shee explored the nonsense of hereditary rule in a comparison of the United Kingdom and Game of Thrones.

Last year’s winner John Little – in part one of what he hoped would be a two-parter – explored greed, the politics of envy, and whether one should be ashamed to be rich – especially if one has tax-dodged his or her way to riches.

He suggested The Times’ vulgar Rich List should be replaced by a list of those who have contributed the most in income tax, supporting schools and hospitals. I liked this idea.

Louisa Davison wondered whether one of the trappings of wealth – a boarding school education – was breeding psychopaths, traumatised at being removed from their mothers.

She may have picked up points for quoting Kevin Dutton who, just a week before, had addressed the festival on the nature of psychopathy.

In heat two, David Burridge talked about reason vs belief, and how belief directs reason to its destination. We should encourage beliefs to be expressed and discussed, not try to smother them, he argued.

Kevin Lister’s riff on supermarket jam turned into an exploration of choice versus satisfaction. Why is it that when our choices are more limited, we seem more satisfied with our lot, he wondered?

Think Slam founder Chris Eddy looked at the ‘groupishness’ of humans, and explored the benefits of interracial marriage. Groups who opposed interracial marriage, he suggested, were denying common humanity and rejecting our society.

Eliminated at the end of the heats were David Burridge and John Shee.

In the semifinals, John Little picked up his subject of shame. He wondered if feelings of guilt and displays of contrition were evolutionary traits to protect us from more severe punishments: expulsion from the tribe, or corporal or capital punishment.

He also wondered if – given the audacity of the mega-rich – shame had reached the end of its shelf life.

Chris Eddy talked about the guarantee of protection from torture under UN convention, and attempts in the US to water it down.

Torture with utilitarian aims is a subject explored in every series of 24 – inflict pain to find the bomb – but Eddy argued that so low is our individual risk of death from terrorism that chipping away at this universal right should be opposed.

Kevin Lister wondered how we could be sure if we were sane, especially if those around us shared our insanity. He compared the ‘mass hysteria’ of religion to supporters of Trump in America and Putin in Russia.

Louisa Davison explored our desire to ‘do right’. She said those with faith had theological reasons for being good, but what of those with no faith, especially those without children, for whom whatever impact they had on the world would never personally matter after they were gone? She had not, she said, found an unshakeable philosophical argument for atheists to work for the common good beyond their own existence.

Philosophers love it when other philosophers strike a new vein of thought, and Louisa scored the highest points for the round in the entire competition: 269 against Kevin’s 235 and John’s 254. But with a score of 258 to Chris Eddy, it was not to be a repeat of last year’s Little/Davison final.

Louisa’s bid for glory was an exploration of fear. She described how fear of snakes, then kittens, could be induced with association with the infliction of pain, and suggested that government and the media were using these tactics to create a lasting misconception of Muslims (terrorists), women (sex objects) and the disabled (victims).

She urged artists to create works to challenge these stereotypes.

Chris Eddy looked at the age of criminality and the age of consent in developed countries. He wondered why the British had a higher-than-average age of consent along with the lowest age of criminality.

He challenged the wisdom that allowed a child to be convicted of a sex crime at the age of 10, while that child could not consent until the age of 16: He made a plea for the age of criminality to be brought in line with the age of consent, and also demanded 16 year olds be given the vote.

It proved to be a winning argument. The man who created the concept of the Think Slam back in 2009 was crowned Think Slam Champion 2016, while Louisa Davison had to console herself with the honour of being the world’s greatest living female think-slammer.

Chris Eddy

Think Slam 2016 winner Chris Eddy. All pictures courtesy of Clare Green/www.claregreenphotography.com

Report: Peter Davison

6 Responses to “Swindon’s greatest intellects clash at Think Slam”

  1. poemogram 15th May 2016 at 10:47 am #

    excellent unbiased write up – congrats all round

    • Festival Chronicler 15th May 2016 at 11:53 am #


  2. poemogram 15th May 2016 at 10:48 am #

    I think !

  3. christophereddy 19th May 2016 at 1:53 pm #

    Many thanks, Louisa, for your coverage of this event. I’m astonished that, while awaiting your own turn to speak, you were able to focus on other speakers sufficiently to take notes on what they were saying.

    I enjoyed your joke that winning the Swindon Think Slam made me World Think Slam Champion, but I also think the idea behind that joke is one that contestants like you and me take quite seriously. As you know, the Poetry Slam, on which the TS is modeled, isn’t something that happens in just one town: Poetry Slams are staged in many places across the country and in other countries too, so that it’s possible for talented performers, like Matt Harvey, to achieve recognition quite widely and to use that as a springboard to book-publication, performances on radio, etc., – in other words to a career, – and this is what any serious contestant would value.

    You’re clearly ambitious, and I think you’ll agree that no serious performer is content to be merely the cockerel on his local dunghill, so I think it’s something we should be worried about that the TS happens only in Swindon. Indeed, I believe that, if TS doesn’t become a wider Movement, like the Poetry Slam, then it will cease, even in Swindon, to attract serious contestants and, when that happens, it will cease to be an attractive event for audiences.

    We’ve had TS in Swindon for seven years, so, if we want it to become a Movement, I think we need to understand why we’ve so far failed, where TS is concerned, to inspire other Litfests in our region to follow our lead, and I believe the most important reason is that the competitive 3×3-minute talk lacks recognition as a form in which to achieve artistic, political or academic success. It’s not one of those traditional forms, like a poem, essay, lecture or debate-speech, that people have encountered in the course of their education, have an intuitive feel for and are accustomed to turning to when they want to express themselves: you don’t think of entering a Poetry Slam if you’ve never written a poem.

    But, if this is true, the question arises of how I came up with the idea of TS. The answer is that I was already involved (a) in the Swindon Philosophical Society, where I gave usually two or more talks each year, and where there was a confrontation between different philosophical positions which sometimes became quite brutal, and (b) in Poetry Slamming, where, – though it was quite clear to me that the kind of poems I offered had little chance of success, – I found the experience of confronting a popular audience rather bracing: quite different from my working life as a teacher. Putting these two kinds of involvement together, it’s not hard to see how the idea of a TS might present itself to me as the kind of competition I could win.

    TS is a completely new art form that people like you and me are improvising as we go along from year to year, and it isn’t an easy one. As we both know, a winning TS entry requires a great deal of work, and it’s only by trying and failing that you find out what succeeds. Depth, Clarity and Originality are demanding criteria,- and it’s competitive. Not for the faint-hearted. And this raises another point of concern for contestants: it’s difficult to use the same TS entry more than once in the same town, and, given the amount of work that’s involved, every contestant would like to be able to take his successful pieces to other towns in order both to further his TS career and spread his ideas. Otherwise, all that work, if it succeeds only in Swindon and has no further mileage, can come in time to seem wasted.

    The problem then, in a word, is recognition, and the question is how to get TS recognised outside Swindon. I believe there’s only one way to generate that recognition quickly, and that’s by offering really impressive money-prizes and publicizing them in the media. This would draw contestants in the first instance to Swindon, but that would inspire emulation elsewhere. Finding that sort of money isn’t something the Litfest can do, so we need to look elsewhere, but, if we are going to ask individuals or institutions to stump up that sort of cash, we must be able to say exactly why we think TS is worth promoting, and I think there are four main reasons.

    Firstly, TS gives thinkers the chance to achieve recognition through direct contact with a popular audience rather than by impressing editorial gate-keepers in the media, thereby exposing established academic, journalistic, religious and political channels to competition from talented individuals. Secondly, it challenges academics to enter the competition and make their ideas directly accessible to a popular audience. Thirdly, if TS gained recognition, the 3×3-minute talk could become a form in which schoolchildren were encouraged to write with a view to its being read aloud to an audience, which would have a good general effect on prose style. And finally, although it is competitive, TS doesn’t allow the kind of direct confrontation between contestants that happens in a debate or dialogue, and that might make it particularly appealing to women, many of whom are put off by the bare-knuckle aggression that occurs from time to time at the Philo. As evidence, the ratio of women to men participants in the TS has been about 1:5, while at the Philo, despite strenuous efforts to bring in women speakers, it’s about 1:20.

    What I am hoping is that you share my view in this matter and that you can find a way of drumming up the kind of funding I think is needed to gain the recognition that will make it possible for TS to become a Movement in the manner of the Poetry Slam which was its model.

    Very best wishes,


    • Festival Chronicler 19th May 2016 at 8:58 pm #

      Much as I’d like to take credit for this, it was Chronicler Pete who took the notes and wrote the piece. No way would I have been able to do it! Funny you should mention Matt Harvey. He was quite taken by the idea in 2015 and I think would have been happy to work on a way of taking it forward. I love the competition and think it has legs but needs a proper plan for it to catch on. I’m happy to do this, but maybe ask me again in a month or so. I haven’t had time in the last year to look at it.
      As one of those women I’m not intimidated by others expressing their views with agression; usually this means they feel strongly and are probably losing the debate…
      I have been meaning to get along to the SPS for ages but Friday nights are not ameniable to someone with small kids after a long week; I usually want to collapse in front of a decent drama or with a book and a bottle of wine!
      Maybe tomorrow, though.

  4. christophereddy 20th May 2016 at 8:36 am #

    Excellent! Note that my remark about women not enjoying aggressive behaviour in debate was qualified by “many of whom”. I and other members of the Philo have been told explicitly by various women that that is what puts them off, but clearly, you’re made of sterner stuff. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you’d like to discuss ways forward for TS.

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