Ways with Words

18Jul11

I was due to go to the Daily Telegraph ‘Ways with Words’ literary festival  at Dartington Hall in Devon over the weekend … I’d been looking forward to it for a while, but, as with many things, plans never quite go as anticipated.

We made it down to Devon and my parent’s house on Friday evening without too much trouble – the train was busy, and it did rather irk me that not one person offered me their seat – or more accurately, offered Bella their seat. I think there’s something terribly wrong when people are looking (and tutting) at an exhausted three year old curled up on the floor of a train corridor but not prepared to do anything about it, but that’s a rant for a different day. The train emptied out enough after half an hour that we were able to sit down, and the rest of the journey went smoothly.

Saturday morning, however, brought trouble of a more serious and frightening nature – my Dad had a (fortunately minor) stroke in the early hours of Saturday morning, so we spent all day in that dreadful limbo of not-knowing – firstly, not-knowing what had happened, and then not-knowing how serious it was and what sort of outlook we could expect. It looks like he (and we) were lucky this time – no lasting or significant damage done, and he’s being discharged from hospital today.

I did manage to make two of the Sunday morning sessions – at my Mum’s insistence – and despite my misgivings about going off gallivanting at a time of crisis (even though the immediate crisis was over), I did very much enjoy the two speakers I saw, and although I was exhausted, I was glad I went.

The first speaker was supposed to be A C Grayling, but due to the recent furore over his plans for a private university, he withdrew. Shame … I was looking forward to hearing his views, and it’s starting to feel like I’m never going to hear him speak – last time I was at WWW we had tickets to hear him speak, and he had to withdraw due to illness. It’s frustrating that someone who advocates free speech should have his freedom to express himself restricted. Still, I bought a copy of ‘The Good Book’ an am looking forward to reading it. I’m not quite sure where it should go on the bookshelf, though!!

Instead, he was replaced by Johnny West, talking about his book ‘Karama – Journeys through the Arab Spring’. Originally a journalist, he’s currently an advisor to the UN on public policy and the oil industry, having spent many years living and working in the Middle East. I wasn’t too disappointed by the change – having lived most of my childhood in the Middle East, it’s a big part of my life and I keep a keen eye on what’s happening there, so it was an exciting prospect to hear the thoughts of such a respected arabist on the current uprisings across the region.

He gave us an immensely knowledgeable tour of the uprising, adding value to conventional journalism by steering clear of the large central protests capturing the headlines and travelling back streets and small towns across Libya, Tunisia and Egypt to bring to life the stories of the people who sparked the Arab Spring, and how it affects them and how they see their future. I found his explanation of the triggers (or ‘sparks’ as he described them) fascinating and compelling, tracing them back over the course of the last year to the explosive climax in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in January this year. His analysis of the influences of social networking (or digital technology in general), political islam and social justice on the uprisings made for interesting listening, and I completely agreed with his view that these popular movements are ‘the worst thing that could have happened to Al-Quaeda’ – these are forward looking movements eager to open up to the rest of the world, rather than backward-looking attempts to close down or to preserve an impossible state of stasis. But there was, too, an acknowledgement that religion is a part of life in the region in a way it no longer is in our secular western democracies, which raises interesting questions about how these movements will play out, and fit into the world order (or change it, in time). Of course, the optimism of the spring is slightly muted, as corresponding movements in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria falter in the face of repression and western political impotence, but there is still hope there that change will, eventually, come. I am very much looking forward to reading the book.

A brief interlude, and then it was on to Julian Baggini, discussing his new book ‘The Ego Trick’

I’ve heard him speak before, and now, as then, he is immensely engaging and makes philosophy completely accessible by using clear, witty examples to lead us down the path of his choosing, taking us in small steps, agreeing with the ‘bleeding obvious’ until we arrive at a conclusion that seems absurd, but is, in fact, perfectly logical. At this time, an exploration of our sense of self. Drawing on Locke and Hume, modern brain science, and ancient buddhist traditions, he asks whether we are indeed a ‘cultured pearl’ sitting in the centre of a body, surrounded by thoughts, memories, connections, intentions – a soul, an unchanging core – and suggests that we might, rather be a ‘bundle’ of sensations, thoughts, intentions, memories and desires that fluctuate and change over time, and that there is no central ‘I’ that governs these. That he supports his theory with case studies taking in the changes from childhood to adulthood to old age, the effects  of personal transformation such as gender reassignment, the impact of changing mental states such as dementia helps to make it convincing – on the surface – though I have to say it’s like seeing a map of the world drawn upside down and to a different scale – it doesn’t look quite right, and is a little bit disturbing. I’ll have to read the book before I make my mind up, I think.

 

I really shouldn’t be allowed into bookshops unaccompanied … but then it is *almost* my birthday, so why shouldn’t I treat myself to a little something that I fancy? OK, I’ll come clean … I can’t help it. It’s a serious character flaw, and I feel properly ashamed of myself afterwards.

 

I think I just about have enough to cover my holiday reading needs, now? Reviews will doubtless follow in due course 🙂

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