From cuneiform to graffiti – Swindon Festival of Literature has all writing bases covered

16 Mar

As Swindon Festival of Literature inches towards its quarter century, different methods of written communication – from the oldest to the very recent – will be celebrated this year.

Unveiling the 2017 programme at Swindon Library today (Thursday, March 16) festival director Matt Holland mused on how the way we use writing to communicate our thoughts is changing.

“In a digital world where the currency of topical commentary can be successfully and powerfully compressed into 140 characters – definitely a great method of instant communication – the book is still doing remarkably well,” he said.

“People still love books: the artefact, with its cover and pages and special feel, not just because of the durable technology by which the book is produced, but because of the slow, careful, and undemonstrative attention to clarity, detail, and depth of thought that you really only find in a book.”

Looking back to the earliest form of writing, developed more than 5,200 years ago, Matt announced that Irving Finkel, cuneiform tablet director at the British Museum, would be coming to Swindon to talk about the first written words, etched into pieces of clay by the ancient Mesopotamians.

And a contemporary form of written communication – graffiti art – will be explored as part of a Hip Hop themed evening at The Tuppenny: a new host venue for the festival. A graffiti writer and cultural historian (and who’d have thought yesterday’s ‘vandals’ would be today’s ‘cultural historians’?), a rapper, a dancer and a musician will be discussing the Four Elements of Hip Hop: graffiti, DJing, MCing, and breakdancing.

Those Four Elements could almost be the (First) Four Elements of Swindon Festival of Literature: writing, talking, music and dance. The festival might be primarily about books, but it’s always a platform for other art forms, as demonstrated by some wonderful storytelling by dancer and musician Bafana Matea who – like hip hop – came to to Swindon via New York, with African roots.

Performing for the festival launch audience, Bafana, with Michael Fergie and dancers from The Wilkes Academy, brought to life the story of three Aboriginal girls and their experiences as members of the ‘stolen generation’, where children were forcibly removed from their families in early 20th century Australia, a story immortalised by Doris Pilkington in her 1996 novel Rabbit Proof Fence.

The festival, of course, has a Fifth Element: thinking. Matt asserts that one of the festival’s ‘hidden agendas’ is the exchange of ideas. And there’s plenty in the programme to provoke deep thinking: Marcus du Sautoy, author of What We Cannot Know, wonders whether it is possible that one day we will know everything, while Brian Clegg, author of The Reality Frame, asks whether science is taking us closer to the essence of being human.

Thirty years after he was captured and held hostage in Lebanon, Terry Waite will seek to shed light on the human condition in a discussion about his latest work, Out of the Silence, while comedian Francesca Martinez, who has cerebral palsy, asks simply: What the *** is Normal?

Politics always plays an important part in the festival, and with Labour currently lurching to the left, the Conservatives veering to the right, and all of us living in Brexit Britain, Mr Centre Ground, David Owen, will discuss Cabinet’s Finest Hour, and explore how close Britain came to seeking a negotiated peace with Nazi Germany.

For some light relief, there’s cookery with Milly’s Real Food writer Nicola ‘Milly’ Millbank, poetry at the Swindon Slam, a 5k Freedom Run around Lydiard Park, and the Children and Families Day on Sunday, May 7 with spoon puppet making, Hilda’s Happy Hut, and child-friendly talks by authors Jack Cooke (The Tree Climber’s Guide) and Rina Mae Acosta (The Happiest Kids in the World).

The festival starts at 5.30am on Monday, May 1 with the Dawn Chorus – singing, storytelling, juggling and music set against a backdrop of the rising sun over Lawn Woods – and ends as it began today, with music from poet-musicians Tongue Fu, and female barbershop singers Barberelle, poetry from Vanessa Kisuule, and stories told by Rachel Rose Reid, at the Festival Finale on Saturday, May 13.

In all, there are 50 events designed to entertain, inspire, and engage the brain over 13 days. For a full programme, visit

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