Oxford Literary Festival — Day One

It’s the first day of the Oxford Literary festival, and the brooding elephant sky swaddles the main marquee with a dank zeal. It’s not the most encouraging place in which to coax sleepy cerebral cogs to motion, and so I escape to Christ Church college’s defiant antechambers for a gentler introduction — only I select an introduction to Quantum Theory.  Gulp, goes my literary-grad, Luddite self.  But as event Chair Dr Joseph Schwartz repeatedly gales over the course of the next hour, ‘Quantum Physics cannot harm you!’  A US physicist and psychoanalyst you’d be inclined to call zany if it wasn’t such a clichéd way of describing jovial intellectual Americans, the informal and infectious Schwartz soon gains the trust of his predominantly narrative-loving audience.  Making the point that science has its own “literature, with stories”, he sets panel members Marcus Chown and Majit Kumar to divest a brief history of Quantum, ranging from Einstein’s reluctant discovery of a theory he then spent a lifetime trying to disprove, to the relative paucity of progress that has been made in the field since the 1920s (subtly weaving in a few attempts to unravel some of Quantum’s more accessible concepts, such a string theory, along the way).

They do a laudable job of communicating to an educated but largely scientifically-stumped audience by citing tangible physical examples to illustrate their points of immense technicality.  When trying to illustrate the fundamental conflict of quantum and standard physics, for example, (which, as my GCSE-level interpretation oversimplified it, is between the nature of matter, and the theory of light), Chown draws the audience’s attention to the morbid sunshine duly trying its best to stream through the chamber’s back window.  With 95% of the photons streaming through, and 5% escaping to only the cosmos knows where, this, Chown informs us, is proof that we cannot actually know what any atom will do, contrary to conventional Physics.  Still, at least we can ‘predict the unpredictable nature of it all’, he assures us.  While cold comfort for scientists, the paradox is happily assimilated by an audience that could just as readily be entertaining Stanley Well’s talk on Shakespeare and sexuality right now.

While the panel itself sticks to a jargon-free lexicon of unadulterated, unspecialised English, Schwartz suggests, with admirable professional self-deprecation, that the real problem with science is the lack of a critical culture when it comes to scientists positing their hallowed theses — “If you want to slip something past the censors, do it in a language they don’t understand” — before generously suggesting that it’s entirely possible for educated, yet unscientific minds to add to the debate.    They’ve done such a good job of making us feel we know what they’re talking about, you’d almost believe them.  Until, that is, the discussion turns to the nature of ‘twinned’ atoms impacting on each other on opposite sides of the universe, and the fact that at the moment a discovery is made about one atom, it fixes the nature of another, separated by light years, and yet in synchronicity.  Suddenly the atoms don’t seem to be vibrating so happily, and Schwartz is quick to reassure us: “You never understand a new theory, you just get used it”.

And so it’s from complimentary atoms, to, well, complimentary atoms, when Rebecca Abrahms interviews author Kate Figes on her latest book about long-term human relationships.  Touting itself as an interrogational study, Couples: the Truth, aims to dispel some of the most pervasive negative myths that frame our expectations of successful partnering. That sexual passion inevitably wanes as the years do, is the first one Figes tackles, for example, and that, by comparison, single people are having much more sexual fun.  Then it’s myths about online dating (‘terrific!’), the sense of marriage as a trap, and even love at first sight, which I find myself wishing Figes hadn’t rejected, if only for the sake of the older lady in the audience who posits the question and looks so crushed by Figes’ dismissal.

Mostly anecdotally supported, it’s all common sense, with a focus on finding what works for an individual partnership, and delivered in the kind of genial, relaxed manner that would make Figes a delightful guest and deflector of smug married asides from the likes of Richard Madeley.  She fires up slightly when an audience member asks her opinion on David Cameron’s marriage tax break proposals, and points out that, contrary to Conservative Party dictum, it’s mainly a matter of economics, not ignorance or societal malaise, for why couples at the lower end of the social spectrum don’t marry.  Basically, “Politicians need to catch up with the kind of family life that reflects more accurately how people are actually living”, she asserts.  I scan the mainly flat-booted, cambric-shirted brigade members of the audience for pique, but they’re smiling indulgently.  After all, Figes has got such a nice way about her.  And anyway, she deserves credit for managing to speak for a whole hour on the relative strength of relationships without mentioning a single wayward footballer.

In the late afternoon, as most of the festival goers are attempting to soothe their cerebellums with a shot of complimentary, sponsorship whiskey, Nigel Warburton is taking to his soapbox. Punctuating a programme mainly composed of hour-long discussions, Warburton’s talk is one of many fifteen minute, polemical bursts on a range of hot cultural topics scattered throughout the festival, a Speaker’s Corner-style rendering of the OUP’s excellent An Introduction to pocket book series. 

Opening with a reminder of the limits of free speech —  ‘we are not free to post instructions on how to make nerve gas on the internet’ — he then invokes John Stuart Mill’s ‘dead dogma’ argument that we should come to our own truths through action and experience, rather than just accepting the reasoning of others.  Espousing Mill’s assertion that we should all have our beliefs challenged, lest they become superstitions, he then cites Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time and the relative decline in support for the BNP soon after, as evidence that the best way to challenge ignorant casuistry really is via Mill’s ‘collision of truth with error’ dictum.  He concludes by reminding his receptive, spontaneous audience, of that plangent Bertrand Russell aphorism: ‘Some would sooner die than think.  Indeed they do.’

Not so Melvyn Bragg, who at 70, seems as enthusiastic about thinking culture and the arts in Britain as he was at the beginning of his broadcasting career, despite the announcement that ITV’s South Bank Show will be taken off the air this summer. A consummate speaker, Bragg is the archetypal headliner for such a festival, and although most of his anecdotes are just a little too polished, it’s hard not to crack a smile at his recollection of a ‘thin gruel’ lunch with Ingmar Bergman.  ‘Bergman was not one for small talk,’ Bragg divulges, before impersonating the Director — ‘”Have you considered your death?”‘

While expressing a conventional, Intelligent Person’s contempt for our current confessional culture, for example — “it seems to me everyone’s got the same confession to make”,  Bragg does make the rather more unfashionable point that, “What people do in their work, now that’s really important!”  That said, it’s hard not to feel you get a greater insight into his professional motivations when he speaks candidly about the conflict between his desire to write fiction, and his struggle to preserve mental health while doing so.

Listening to Bragg flurry about the golden age of arts programming, you can’t help lamenting the great swathe of celebrity-slick bilge that seems to ooze out of current TV schedules.  Radio, of course, is another land, and one in which Melvyn Bragg is very much still Lord of the Waves, evident from the undulating ‘mmm’s and congratulatory head-noddings of the audience whenever In Our Time is mentioned.  Given what was traditionally known as the Thursday morning ‘death slot’ on radio, this beacon of thinking broadcasting, in which the ivory tower opens up its doors for an hour and very lucidly holds court on topics such as Confucianism, Karl Popper and Genetic Mutation (like “pouring a barrel into a thimble sometimes”, Bragg grimaces), has become the most popularly downloaded podcast on the BBC Radio 4 website.  You can’t deny it’s encouraging, but it would probably be more so if the audience was as diverse as the covered topics.

Despite cuts in government funding for the arts, Bragg upholds the lottery as an example of the Labour government done culturally good for once, while fundamentally believing that politicians still don’t really appreciate the enthusiasm of the British public for theatre, music and books.  Their problem, he roars, is that “They don’t go to stuff like this.”

So, the opening day of the Oxford Literary Festival down, and we’ve had a caveated attempt at a partial unlocking of the universe, an incitement to interrogative greatness, and two serious recommendations for the political parties’ manifestoes in the pre-election voter scrum.  It may not be cutting-edge or controversial, but the cultural calendar would be poorer without this kind of grounded, well-modulated intellectualism.

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