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Lighting Up the Dark: Jim Al-Khlalili on The World According to Physics

12 May

Jim Al-Khalili’s presentation for the Swindon Spring Festival (online) was a bit of a tease; a clever and fabulously clear description of all that’s currently wrong with Physics but without telling us what needs to be done about it.

For that you need to buy his new book, The World According to Physics.

That won’t be a burden for me. I already own three or four Al-Khalili’s and admire his clear writing, his innovative TV explanations and his inspiring Life Scientific on the radio. I’m a bit of a fan and so hearing him almost tell me what was in his new book was a genuine treat.

What we got was ‘an exploration of the shoreline of our island of knowledge in the ocean of our ignorance’. Exhibit 1 was dark energy. I well remember reading about this myself, for the first time, in the late 1990s and thinking (in Rabi’s famous words concerning an earlier discovery) ‘who ordered that?’

So what is dark energy?

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There has to be an alternative

8 May

Rob Hopkins is on the warpath. Perhaps warpath is the wrong word because it’s difficult to imagine Rob being angry and because he wants everyone to get on in a lovely community.

At the Swindon Spring Festival online tonight, Rob told us he wants a national imagination act.

When we say ‘imagination’ we don’t mean the commodified creativity, blue sky thinking that sells stuff. Like Dr Curry said on earlier on today, this is the kind of unbidden stuff that requires the right conditions. A society that creates values happiness over pleasure. Money can’t buy you happiness?

Was it like this, before, back then? Rob isn’t interested in rosy-tinted glasses. When we come out of Coronalockdown, he doesn’t want things to go back to the way they were, he wants a new future, because business as usual is an ecological ‘suicide pact’.

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Enchantment and concrete magic

8 May Patrick Curry

What is enchantment? Is Dr Patrick Curry (Swindon Spring Festival online) talking about fairies at the bottom of the garden? Probably not with a Dr in front of his name. Though the Godfather of modern detective procedurals who had Sir as a title, Arthur Conan Doyle, believed in tiny winged pixes and mediums.

Dr Curry means ‘concrete magic’, as coined by philosopher Max Weber.

Ok so is he talking about Brutalist architecture or the M6 spaghetti junction?

“There are many mysteries here,” Patrick says. “You are not in charge; it is a gift. If you are lucky to be graced with its presence, you can learn from it.” Interviewer Matt comments, “It is unbidden….A balance between the unbidden and making it happen.”

Like what?

Falling deeply in love for one. Hallucinogenic drug taking, illustrated by the mescaline imbument of the author Aldous Huxley for another (though I think Dr Pat undermines his enchantment point by saying Huxley took it for purely academic reasons).

Ah here we go. Fairies or: elves. Lothlaurien is the ‘heart of enchantment’ in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The elf Galadriel is ‘present and yet remote’. “Fairy is where you find yourself when you are enchanted.” but “We can’t stay there because we are not fairies.”

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Swindon Sainthood Found on Ferndale Road

8 May
Writer Alice Jolly

Tony Hillier writes about the prologue event of Swindon Spring Festival, with Alice Jolly, which, given these unpres-(stop!) times and that it has gone online, he has renamed the ‘Lockdown’ festival.

In these Virus Days, no book could be more timely. In these corporate days, no book could be more community; community in the making and community in its people-powered storyline.

But it’s a story with characters and clues, suspense and reveals; it is not a standard community activity with agenda items and AOB:

“Just because some committee says so? They’re not the government.”
“They are now.”

Award-winning writer and creative writing tutor at Oxford University, Alice Jolly, was brave enough to mix it with long-established book reading group members in Swindon. You know – that Swindon with its 25 year Festival of Literature and its thriving poetry and writing groups as well.

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From the top with a lump or two

21 May From the Top, photo © Fernando Bagué

As the dancers wrapped themselves around each other, the disembodied voice of the choreographer demanded, ‘…more organic-y…like a squirrel…like a cobra…with a whip at the end…’

From the Top, choreographed by Victor Fung and the first dance of an evening jointly curated by Swindon Dance and Swindon Spring Festival, was a hoot. A hilarious insight into the sometimes deliciously unfathomable world of contemporary dance, it began as I expected – two male dancers, Michael Barnes and Jack Sergison, moving in beautiful if mysterious ways – until, it emerged, the pair were actually in a ‘rehearsal’, devising the performance to the ever exacting demands of Victor, their director, for such things as ‘neutral hips’ and an ‘echo’. As the voice wanted more and more, the thoughts running through the (mostly) implacable performers were projected in words onto the screen behind them.

“…thread yourself under his arm and linger there…” said Victor. “…his armpit is not somewhere I want to chill,” came the Michael’s projected reply.

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Beauty without the beast – Heather Widdows

21 May Heather Widdows, photo © Fernando Bagué

Back in my early thirties, a male friend poo-pooed the idea of plastic surgery. I might do it, I replied, when I age, if it looked real (and like me) and I could afford it. He was aghast. I wear make up, after all. What’s the difference?

Now I’m in my late forties, I look in the mirror and wonder. Could I get back to how I used to look? But, back then, was I so happy?

The point is moot. I don’t have the money and, even if I did, couldn’t justify the expense. But does the fact that it’s possible – and that some women do (and look good on it) – does this make me unhappy? Or dissatisfied?

Beauty is an incredibly complicated thing. At Swindon Spring Festival, Professor Heather Widdows shared the findings in her latest book, Perfect Me.

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The Creativity Code—Marcus du Sautoy

16 May Marcus du Sautoy. Photo © Fernando Bagué

For me, it’s all about socks. I’m obsessive about wearing a matching pair—unlike my eldest son who just grabs the first two in the drawer. I find that behaviour even odder than his socks but, then, he finds my sock-matching fetish equally peculiar.

Obsessions can, of course, be debilitating. My socks are in various shades of washing machine-faded black and precision-pairing is time consuming. But, one wonderful day, a fabulous time-saving thought came to me in a flash; if I can’t see the difference then it actually doesn’t matter! Now I just grab the first two darkish items in the sock drawer and put them on. Like son like father.

This marvellous new way of seeing the world was truly liberating. Corn Flakes need not be Kellogg’s and my British gas is no longer supplied by British Gas. My next vacuum cleaner purchase could be something other than a Hoover whilst a broad vista of yeast-extract options has opened out before me.

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Hamlet (My Experience)

16 May Milo at Hamlet, photo © Fernando Bagué

As I walked into the Theatre I noticed somebody sitting centre stage. Their hoodie was pulled up over their face. They sat cross-legged and had their arms out stretched. Every now and again they would screw their hands into tiny balls and release them again.

The strange figure had a horseshoe-shape of chairs around them. I presumed other actors were going to come on and occupy these chairs, but nobody came. Eventually Festival director Matt Holland gave us a helpful hint: “You are supposed to sit in the chairs.” My Mum and I had heard there was audience participation, but I hadn’t even thought of being on stage so close to the performance. Someone had the right idea and was already up there, so I followed after, getting the best seat I could.

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Hi diddly dee – a single life for me

15 May Catherine Grey (right) photo © Fernando Bagué

Hi diddly dee – a single life for me

Catherine Gray – on the unexpected joys of being single!

This one had me at the strapline. I’ll expand. Following a longish (16 yrs) marriage, a follow-on semi-detached relationship of a similar length and a small number of dalliances, I’m now contentedly single and absolutely not looking. But it’s taken me time to get to this stage. When my marriage ended, I so wanted to be a couple again. Then I slowly realised that I didn’t want marriage/co-habitation so much as a person. And now? I have no real interest in any of it. That said, were a gentleman caller with a healthy bank balance, a generous nature and a weak heart to rock up … that might be a nice thing. But it really doesn’t matter if he doesn’t. I’ve got Netflix! It’s a lot less bother I can tell you.

So! I related to much of what self-confessed love addict Catherine said in conversation with her interviewer on stage at the Swindon Arts Centre. Having already given up the demon drink and written about it in the Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, she decided to tackle her addiction to the love drug and set out to stay single for a year. The notes she made during her non-dating sojourn formed the basis of the new book. Continue reading

On dresses, wigs and still being human

15 May Leslie Tate and Sue Hampton, photo © Fernando Bagué

Every time I drag myself away from social media and engage with real human beings, I feel a buzz. With community events over the years, and especially with the Literature – turned Spring – Festival the buzz of attending events is palpable.

Even if, or often especially if, the speaker is not a ‘celebrity’, listening to a person who is knowledgeable and passionate about their subject is almost universally rewarding – heart-warming, brain-stimulating, thought-provoking and fun. I can make a comment or ask a question afterwards. What’s not to like?

No more so was this illustrated than at Sunday night’s event, Ways to be Equally Human. We were privileged to hear two people who, from the start, exuded that they were ‘comfortable in their own skin’ – no pun intended – as one speaker spoke of her alopecia and the other of his ‘cross-dressing’.

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