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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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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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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

Monogamy is dead: long live monogamy!

15 May Rosie Wilby, photo © Fernando Bagué

Rosie Wilby on monogamy or not,or what’s best for life today.

Yes readers, I have been transfixed by Netflix’s The Crown and ITV’s Victoria. Gloriana!

Aside from the fact that thinking of royalty provides a pleasing titular pun, the latter marriage at least was one utterly unsullied by rumours of liaison dangereuse. Theirs was a monogamous relationship that remained so until the end, with Albert’s untimely early death. They managed twenty-one years and there’s no evidence to suggest that anything would have changed had Albert not shuffled off this mortal coil when he did.

Which brings me to the thrust – if you’ll pardon the expression – of Rosie Wilby’s set at the Spring Festival around her book Is Monogamy dead? I use the term set because Rosie’s entertaining appearance was, in part, a talk and, in part, a stand-up gig. A TIG perhaps? 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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Shapes of everyone – everybody at Swindon Spring Festival

15 May Everybody by Rapport, photo © Fernando Bagué

An expectant hush descended in the Swindon Arts Centre auditorium as Swindon Spring Festival director Matt set us up for mike-drop moments. We were to have a unique opportunity to listen to the unedited words of a team of teenagers, teenagers comfortable in their own skin, bold and beautiful, in Everybody by teen performance group, Rapport (Revolution Performing Arts).

I said ‘unedited’, but I mean that teachers or mainstream media have not massaged and cleansed their messages for popular consumption. The script, lighting, sound, choreography and music – the whole performance – had been produced by the young people themselves. Refreshing to say the least.

Everybody kicked off with, well everybody, the whole cast, school-uniformed up, with the usual personal tweaks for style, fashion and independence eg bomber jacket worn halfway down the back, ties askew and mini skirts at a level of choice. Cartwheels and mickey-taking ‘floss’ dancing animated the stage.

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Take back meal times, says Bee Wilson

14 May

Seasoned food writer, award-winning author and journalist Bee Wilson declared Swindon Spring Festival her favourite of all the literary events she has attended globally, not least because it links words to spring and nature.

Our food speaker, back in Swindon from the Big Apple for a lunchtime festival slot, discussed the demise of mealtimes.

Author of four other food books, Bee Wilson is a foodie passionate about the impact of our modern lifestyles on our eating habits and the so-called food we consume, which she shares in her new book, The Way We Eat Now.

The act of eating, according to Bee, was once an opportunity to stop. Today, meal breaks are seen as a disruption to learning and living. A case in point is China, where chairs were taken out of school canteens to reduce the time spent at lunch and increase the overall periods in the classroom.

However, no matter how busy we feel, we have one thousand hours more free time a year than those of previous generations; we use time differently, said Bee, choosing leisure activities like Twitter and online shopping instead of a long lunch break.

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If only I could write like Eye Can Write – Jonathan Bryan

13 May

Before committing my words to the page on Jonathan Bryan’s Spring Festival appearance, I felt trepidation. After spending an hour in the company of him and his family, I, like many others in the room, including our host, Matt, had been moved from tears to laughter to awe, as a result of his command of language and beauty of his prose.

Jonathan has severe cerebral palsy, a condition that makes him incapable of voluntary movement or speech. This disorder, until recently, blighted Jonathan’s ability to communicate subjecting him to a world of silence, where teachers and alike spoke to him loudly and simply in a tone that, in his words, is usually reserved for babies and foreigners.

It was not until the discovery of a life-changing eye-gaze spelling board that Jonathan was able to unlock the silence and close the void between him and the outside world. His first independently-spelled word was ‘myriad’, a word which ‘heralded the silence of those around him and the ending of his.’ Continue reading