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“I’m sorry for your loss” becomes Swindon’s gain

5 May

We may not all agree why the chicken crossed the road but in his Nine Ways to Conquer Death Zoom talk, Kevin Toolis was very clear that we English cross the road to avoid death and Irish people cross the road to show empathy for death.

Of dual identity, Kevin grew up in Scotland but with a strong Irish tradition that had a different attitude towards social death. By way of vivid example, he described that recently his aunt – aunt had a full-scale Irish wake with an open coffin next to the Christmas tree.

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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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A Bite of the Apple

5 May Lennie Goodings

Swindon Literature Festival’s offering at noon today was Lennie Goodings and very interesting it was too as she discussed her book A Bite of the Apple, on four decades of ground breaking publishing. Here she sets out how Virago began, with its different female personalities, to publish and showcase women’s literature. Virago wanted to give women a voice and bring them, and their writing, out of partial obscurity into central stage but there was also the difficulties in making money from writing.

Lennie came from near Niagara Falls, Canada, but was inspired by 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff and the many bookshops then in London to come to England. She only intended to stay a year, but soon found herself in the world of book publishing, often controlled by men. Eventually she joined Virago, then a very small company comprised of women, where they took it in turns to clean the office amongst other things. Here she came involved, back in the late 1970s, in a new wave of real and powerful publishing; new wave feminism. However, even today, Lennie said, women’s books were only reviewed by other women and the word ‘writer’ is not universal, as when used alone, it usually refers to a man, so attitudes still need to change.

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Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit …

4 May Jasper Fforde

… you’ve got more rabbit than Sainsbury’s. It’s time you got it off your chest’ – sang sang Chas and Dave back in 1980. In that song they alluded to the use of the term ‘rabbit’ in its meaning of talking a lot. ‘You don’t half rabbit on’ And in his conversation with festival organiser Matt Holland, author Jasper Fforde suggested that’s one interpretation we can extract from the title of his latest tome, The Constant Rabbit. The notion being that we talk a lot – but perhaps without ever making any substantial changes.

Mr Fforde is clearly fond of, and has great fun with, parallel universes, anthropomorphic characters and allegory to make social commentary. So he set his Thursday Next series of books in a rather fab sounding alternative Swindon where Swindonians keep Dodos as pets, have a monorail and the Seven Wonders of Swindon – though with the demolition of the Double Helix of Carfax it’s now six and a heap of rubble. Meanwhile Fforde packs his Nursery Crimes series to the rafters with anthropomorphic characters and Shades of Grey is a commentary on class structure and strictures – and colour. In The Constant Rabbit it seems you’ll find all that combined.

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Where do I belong? Here?

4 May

Where indeed do I belong? That’s a question bang on the money that I have personally been asking for all the 70 years of my life! Shortly after Anita Sethi’s talk started, at the Swindon Festival of Literature, the penny dropped that it wasn’t all about me! It actually couldn’t be.

OK, there were several overarching aspects of human existence from which I could learn or be reminded about eg the kindness of strangers, the stunning power of the countryside and the therapeutic value of creating with the written word. 

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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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