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The Gloves Are Off

25 May

Chronicler, Swindon’s community poet and maypole maestro Tony Hillier was inspired to write after poet and dancer Tishani Doshi’s Swindon Festival of Literature readings.

You search for the other glove
You search for cross-continent roots
Wales played India at cricket
Your mother the bowled-over maiden

The Maidan I know in Kolkata
its lung like Hyde Park you know
Indian lungs sleep in trees these days
pawning their time to save lives 

Your poetry is properer than mine
yet each of us dances with the word
to get unheard voices heard

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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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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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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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Will the handshake survive the pandemic?

5 May

Hi, I’m Pete. It’s nice to meet you.

Okay, close your eyes. Imagine we’ve just met and I’m saying that to you. In your mind’s eye what am I doing? Chances are I’m offering you my right hand.

It’s an interesting thing, right, the handshake? The story of our most familiar physical greetings ritual – not as intimate as a kiss, nor as subservient as a bow – would’ve made an interesting read at any time.

But during a pandemic, The Handshake – A Gripping History by Ella Al-Shamahi becomes even more relevant. And poignant.

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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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