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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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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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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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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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