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Sunday, 19 May 2013

Feminine energy, farm verse, and fabulous Finale!

At midday on the last day of the Festival, Frances Lewis and Adelina Abad Pedrosa took their audience, with words, pictures, and stillness, on a tour of ley lines, human energies, and sacred landscapes, in a lovely indoor landscape at the Swindon Yoga Centre.

Meanwhile, at Lower Shaw Farm, writers met for a writers’ lunch, to fuel and friendly them up for an afternoon of versifying with poet Jo Bell. Apparently, the good company and farm food did its stuff and writing to write home about happened, happily.

And so it was that we came to the final event on the thirteenth day of the twentieth Swindon Festival of Literature, the Festival Finale in the Swindon Dance Studio at the Town Hall.

Martin and the more muscled members of the fabulous Festival crew moved tables, chairs, heaven and earth to give the Studio a cabaret feel. Festival followers, clutching hot tickets (sold out weeks ago) queued patiently to get to their hot seats.

They were duly rewarded when the night kicked off with a terrific live set from Festival favourites, the Glow Globes, aka Laura and John Holmes. We were transported, immediately, to all the sweet places their music takes you. Or, as one member of the audience, Chris Eddy, put it: ‘Completely magical! They capture perfectly that longing with which, despite every sorrow, we embrace life.’ As philosophical Think Slam champion, he should know.

After the musical entree, we switched to a words warm up from Jason Maverick, doing what he had done so well at first light on a chilly morning at the very start of the Festival. Dextrously, he played with his contact balls, taking care to explain that, though they glittered, they were neither crystal nor gold; and was mischievously playful too. ‘Brontosaurus, you were here before us// Herbivorous.’

Next, newly-published Swindon poet Hilda Sheehan took to the mic and, with perfect intros, delivered perfect poems that perfectly captured her unique take on the world of drudge, domesticity, and the darker places of the human psyche. Via her poet’s eye and sharpened sensibilities, she took us into a world that included seals in bathtubs and lines that spoke of ‘lots of love-making//but no love’. Arresting, her poems bristled with life.

To finish the first half, a young man stepped up, smiled, put his flute to his lips, and blew us away. Well, he made me cry, with joy.
Dan Shao played Debussy’s Syrinx; new composer Kristina Arakelyan’s Window to the Street, based on a Franz Kafka poem; and, his two tours de force, The Great Train Race and Zoom Tube. The last two pieces both used the flute in frolicsome ways, with multiphonics, vocal input, and ‘jet-whistling’. This was terrific train stuff, as if written specially for Swindon. We loved it!

We were also rather partial to Jo Bell, as well as her poems. But she did take some members of the audience by surprise when asking, ‘Anyone here had sex?’, which got no hands up but plenty of English titters. Jo, who claimed to put the fun in dysfunctional, went on to read poems that were . . . . well, terrific, scary, delightful, moving, mischievous, and marvellous. You could take your pick.

The final poetic offerings came from Festival favourite (sorry about the alliterative cliche but, quite simply, he is, an SFL ff) Matt Harvey, who, with a stream of tenderly-raised rhetorical questions and kindly innuendo, took us to both intellectual and emotional places we love to go. - On the question of whether or not it’s wrong or right to steal from your employer, even if it’s only a paper clip, he asked, if the self-employed steal from their employer, is that self-harming?

And the final bit of magic came from musical ffs, the Glow Globes, whose encore saw them sing the last note of Dedicated to the Angels with heads tilted, side by side, in complete musical harmony, a closeness and coming together that felt like it spoke for the Festival as a whole.

It was a perfect and musically-eloquent ending. It spoke volumes, and saved me seeking ‘suitable words’ for an extended peroration. So I was happy, brief, and to the point.

From the moment we glimpsed that first slither of sunlight, the top edge of the rising sun, at dawn on 6th May, to the final note from the Glow Globes, this had been quite the most remarkable festival, full of good thought, good words words, and delightful discoveries. It had brought together so many people, had such a buzz, and been a true communion of words. Truly terrific.

And so we ended as we began, with the lonesome wail of the watering can.

If you were part of the twentieth Swindon Festival of Literature, as author, performer, participant, or member of the audience, thank you. I hope it was as good for you as it was for us, for me and my hard-working, hard-playing, life-loving SFL and LSF crew.

Till we meet again, keep well. With thanks, greetings, and best thoughts.

Matt Holland

PS. If you have any requests, suggestions, or ideas for authors, performers, or events for the next Swindon Festival of Literature, 5th – 17th May 2014, please let us know.

Photo credits: Richard Wintle – Calyx Multimedia

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Death or truth, play centre or placenta, cannibals or animals?

Nell Dunn sat in the front row and watched Liz Rothschild’s Think Aloud Theatre perform a reading of her play Home Death, introduced as ‘Home Truths’ by one fatigued Freudian-slipping Festival organiser.

Thankfully, the actors did not mess up their words, and nor did Nell’s text mince them, as it told of different ways of dying, at home, or elsewhere. East, west, home was best.

After the actors and author took a bow, they returned for a good chat with a good proportion of the lunchtime audience. Wherever possible, it was agreed, our extraordinary lives merit a good death.

The evening’s guest author and performer Alistair McGowan came early to town in order to play the undersigned at tennis. We hit some sweet balls on court and made our endorphins happy in time for the evening’s action on stage.

McGowan was on form in both settings, taking the first set in tennis and then the stage by storm. Well, he certainly made more than one good impression, especially of the Prince of Wales with a Welsh accent. On more than one occasion, he turned, unexpectedly, into Eddie Izzard or Andy Parsons, and was terrific at both.

He was not half bad at word play either, suggesting that (E)epsom might be something between epic and awesome; and there was hilarious punning unclarity between placenta and play centre.

And then, only minutes after his brilliant Shakespearean encore, he slipped into another role, as Think Slam judge. He was called upon to give marks for three-minute talks on, among other things, what it takes to become a cannibal, whether women are animals, and an all-female Houses of Parliament. He, and his fellow judges, rewarded the man with the ponytail who explained what he thought the opposite sex needed to do in order to become proper feminists. Not everyone agreed, with the judging or the winner’s advice to women but it was still an exciting night.

Away from all this, a calmer mood prevailed in the Studio downstairs, where poet Fiona Samson read from her new collection Coleshill, exploring human experience and both the natural and the man-made world that surrounds her eponymous book.

And after that, it was goodbye to the Arts Centre as we took down flags and banners and prepared to decamp for our final day at Lower Shaw Farm, a Yoga Centre, the Central Library, and the Town Hall, for the Festival Finale!

Matt Holland
Photo credits: Richard Wintle – Calyx Multimedia

Friday, 17 May 2013

An enabling state, an apple tree for free, a piece of paper, a party with Mabel, and a life story

On a Thursday midday in Swindon’s Arts Centre, the undersigned wore a tie and Lord Sainsbury of Turville defined capitalism as an economic system in which ‘assets are owned by individuals, not the state, and production is guided and income distributed by the operation of the markets.’

He went on to deride neo-liberals, say that progress is important, and the state must be involved. What we need, apparently, is ‘an enabling state’.

What we need, according to Satish Kumar, is ‘a walk in nature with a loved one as part of our working day’. This would prevent many people suffering Nature Deficiency Syndrome and be part of a Natural Health Service. It would save many £s in health care, he said.

Satish pointed to Nature as offering all things good, insisting that ‘we exist in our relationship with the earth; long live earth worms, working for us without wages; bless the apple tree, that works for us for free and, when we pick its fruit, it never asks for our Visa card; solve your marital problems by walking together in nature, so that you focus on walking, not on your relationship; learn to bake bread; and every school should have a garden!’

With the same passion that Satish eulogised nature, Ian Sansom praised paper but not before he told us that he got his first guitar in Swindon, so associates our town with sweet guitar music.

But back on paper, he told us that, for a while, his near-obsession with it, led him to collect it in the street, as treasure, not refuse.

He pointed out that paper’s success is because it is light, durable, and easily disposed of. In order to make a twenty-first century sheet of paper white, crisp, and pleasing to the touch, it has about 30 chemicals added to the vegetable fibre that make it. Maybe that’s why the the paper-less office has never come about; which is quite unrelated to Ian’s estimate that each of us uses 23 loo rolls a year. (Yes, I know what you’re thinking. More?)

Meanwhile, at Artsite, mischievous Mabel, bad-teeth Barry, and friends frolicked as only they know how and in the Studio, Life Writers presented snippets of their work and produced an event that was one official Festival helper’s highlight.

Habsolutely! Highlights, highlights everywhere, and each one makes you think.

Matt Holland
Photo credits: Richard Wintle – Calyx Multimedia

Temptation, genes, and farting in public

‘Crime rates go down on wet days’ said Nick Ross to the Festival followers who had made their way through the rain to the midday talk at the Swindon Arts Centre.

‘Furthermore, all crime rates have come down in the last thirty years, despite the scarcity of shop counters leading us to temptation, so don’t believe what you read in the papers or see on TV’.

Former television crime-buster was now myth-busting. After Nick’s fascinating and informative talk, rated by many one of the best of the Fest, life on the mean streets of Swindon did not seem so bad. More danger maybe in the town’s theatres, since eighty percent of the notionally law-abiding members of the audience admitted to former crimes.

And then on came geneticist Steve Jones to tell us that nurture has it over nature, or at least that genes can be encouraged or discouraged to take us one way or the other. He began by promising to retell the Bible as science but allowed himself to get side-tracked by racehorse breeding and graphs, and failed to return to the good book. So, in order to discover what he’d intended to tell, we had to buy his good book. A shrewd bit of salesmanship by the passionate prof or merely a mental lapse?

No such gaffs by the terrific Tom Holland, who, after hailing Swindon the cultural capital of Wiltshire, without any discernable irony, swept through the ancient world with a youthful and linguistic delight that never faltered, even for the gory bits.

He got laughs too, for example, when claiming that Sodomites happily farted in public. Not only did his talk finish precisely on time, he also fuelled debate in the Q&A by keeping to his word to ‘leave combustible propositions to the end.’

Meanwhile, in a converted cowshed, Professor Chris Rhodes told members of Swindon Climate Action Network that universities need to re-examine what they are teaching if future generations are to be ready for climate change.

We are certainly ready for the final three days of the twentieth Swindon Festival of Literature.
Matt Holland
Photo credits: Richard Wintle – Calyx Multimedia

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Unusual spellings, awkward truths, and armies in hell

Spelling well is not necessarily a mark of intelligence, whereas spelling badly sometimes is.

Unusual spellings are a reflection of character.

Supersede is not spelt supercede, nor nerve-racking nerve-wracking; and –ize is not an Americanism.

These are a few of the things we learnt in the lunchtime spelling class with Simon Horobin. But we had far more laughs than I ever remember having in spelling lessons at school.

That spelling does matter, if not for meaning, then at least for beauty, was one contribution to discussion, which got nods of approval.

Later in the day, sighs of delight and gasps of approval filled the auditorium as Agnes Agboton and her co-poets presented poems in Gun, the native language of Benin, Spanish, and English. This was pin-drop poetry to write home about.

Rocio Ceron’s style was different but equally transporting. ‘Cortical, cortical, sub-cortical, formas y representaciones.’ – ‘A hand rests on the arc of a kneecap.’

And then, on came Ben, Okri, with his ten ‘rules’ for poetry, and his poems. ‘We need the awkward truth of poetry, a voice that speaks to our doubts and fears. We are born into poetry and breathing. Who can weigh a word against the feather of truth? I wish I could sleep again as a child does at an art show, deep/ with its little drooping head… ' –‘ Let us bring together poetry from all over the world! ‘

We did, and loved it.

Meanwhile, in Highworth Library, Peter Caddick-Adams tackled the grim historic realities of the five-month Monte Cassino campaign, with a title that spoke for itself: ‘ten armies in hell’.

Now we head for day ten of the Festival in much happier circumstances and with much to be thankful for.

Matt Holland
Photo credits: Richard Wintle – Calyx Multimedia

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Story-shaped festival world where man eats dog and comic bounces golf ball

According to biographer Alister McGrath, C S Lewis said that a writer is not a spectacle to be ogled but rather, a pair of specs through which readers are invited to see the world afresh.

The basis for Lewis’ Narnia stories was that we live in a story-shaped world. It’s the stories we tell that help us get nearer to the tricky truths in life. Furthermore, they help us find a way to live a life that is both principled and questioning, even if we do not have everything sorted out.

Adventurer Benedict Allen certainly did not have everything sorted out when, as a blond young Englishman, he headed solo deep into the Amazon jungle, got chased by machete-wielding bandidos, and found himself starving and alone in the jungle’s heart of darkness with only a limping little dog for company. As they both got hungrier and hungrier, they eyed each other up as food, despite being best friends. But in the end, Benedict felt that he owed it to his family more than his four-legged friend to stay alive, so had dog for dinner, and survived.

From the tropics, he went to the Arctic, where once again canine companions were key. Real bonds were created with strong furry creatures that he gave names like Mad Jack, Jeremy, and, of course, Top Dog. They pulled sledges, some working harder than others and, despite their wolf-like looks, loved a cuddle.

Comedian and all-rounder Tony Hawks took us on journey that came as a result of friendly bets, round Ireland with a fridge and to Moldova in search of footballing tennis players. The main part of his story were the adventures of turning books into films without help or hindrance from Hollywood and high-earning actors.

The making of his second film resulted in real and meaningful connections being made in Moldova, where he has helped set up a centre for children with Cerebral Palsy. This was a comic being very serious about his work.

But then he made us laugh again, bouncing a golf ball on a sand wedge, which a member of the audience said she could do equally well. Just as well he didn’t bet on that one.

Across town, in the Central Library, Felicity Aston told how she and a team of novice skiers made it to the South Pole.

And we have made it into the second week of the twentieth Swindon Festival of Literature and are still having a terrific time.
Matt Holland
Photo credits: Richard Wintle – Calyx Multimedia

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Children & Families Day

Like the high-liner, my feet barely touched the ground on Sunday.

And even now, they are still flying, so, no time to write.

But, here are some pictures (click any one to view them all at larger size).

Also, for a Chronicler piece from new Mummy and Daddy chroniclers who beautifully describe the day, see Family Fun at Swindon Festival of Literature.

Sunday ended on a calmer note, with a couple of dozen of us round the woodstove hearing about the history of communal living from Chris Coates, and then raising the sort of questions that remind you how tricky it is to live and work together well, and yet, how we all long to be kind, cooperative, and connected.

Matt Holland
Photo credits: Richard Wintle – Calyx Multimedia

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Slam, draw, slam, and get out of that emotional jam

On one side of town, on the sixth day of the twentieth Swindon Festival of Literature, for some, feelings were shaped into thoughts and thoughts were made into words and words forged into poems and poems put into performances and there was a Slam for the young and a Slam for the not so young; while on the other side of town, life drawing and live poetry readings and lively discussion made the afternoon for others.

The ninth Swindon Youth Slam provided ample evidence that words can be wings, a means of flight to a kind of freedom. Whether the young poets were airing grievances, against siblings or parents, or expressing delights, about fashion or friends, they all seemed to be freed by the process of writing and presenting their thoughts in verse. There was either an air of mischief or deep feeling in almost every poem performed, usually by a team of between two and four poets.

There was a brilliant and moving poem that was a tribute to a much-admired English teacher who had recently died too young but the winning poem, by Glam Girls and Jimmy, was altogether on a different tack. It addressed the question of what’s inside the mind of a teenage boy. The delightfully-talented trio introduced it with with a brief reassurance that had us in stitches. ‘This won’t take long.’ they said.

Later in the day, co-host Sara-Jane Arbury did a sterling job in warming up the grownup audience for the adult Slam, with Mexican waves and all, not stopping until she reached a point when she could confidently say, ‘You are now hot!’

And the poets were hot too. They gave us a night of terrific poetry. In their three minutes on stage, the fifteen contestants tackled more than fifteen topics. These included ladders, cup cakes, crotches, teen speak, mothers, crutches, asteroids, vaginas, and a Glaswegian dominatrix in Amsterdam.

The winner was Brenda Read-Brown from Tewksbury, one point ahead of Dave Viney from Salford, who was two points clear of Stephanie Chan from Singapore.

Life drawing and poetry with Suki was missed by me but seen by Michael, who reports on it thus.

Halfway, going strong, looking forward to more but little time to write.

Matt Holland
Photo credits: Richard Wintle – Calyx Multimedia

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Fits of absolutism, stromatolites, gastric-breeding frogs, poetry, piano,
and a man with a stick

‘Radio 4 represents important strands of Bristish culture, as does the Swindon Festival of Literature’ said former Controller of that station Mark Damazer.

‘Furthermore, you do not relate emotionally to a television channel but you can love Radio 4’. Festival followers nodded approval and murmured agreement, to all of that.

But radio lovers are rarely happy, he told us, when, in fits of absolutism, the big Controller makes significant changes, like killing of a key character in The Archers. But, apparently, they always get used to it.

Getting used to the big figures that need to be used when talking about the Universe is just not possible. When Paul Murdin, discoverer of the first Black Hole, which he still remembers with boyish delight, spoke of a million million galaxies and stromatolites formed 3.5 billion years ago, minds boggled on a rainy night in the Swindon Arts Centre.

In setting out to answer the question whether there is life elsewhere, he took us on journeys to planets galore but nowhere could carbon residue be found, nor any dead bodies. Intelligent life is rare, if only because it takes so long to evolve in relatively stable conditions, and such conditions are rare in our turbulating universe. Or something like that.

Paul’s answer to the question posed in the title of his book, Are We Being Watched? was a pretty emphatic no. Oh dear. Some people were disappointed while others were made to feel extra-grateful for the life we have here on Earth.

Special adviser to HRH the P of W, Tony Juniper segued neatly from no life in the cosmos to the natural life on our planet, declaring, not a little angrily, that, ‘regarding Nature as a nuisance is one of the biggest misconceptions made by modern man.’

‘Nature is not an impediment to economic development’ he declared. ‘It’s an aid!’ This is why we must not let anymore species of flora and fauna go extinct. Gastric-breeding frogs were once our friends. But they are gone now.

Also on Friday night but across town, Swindon poet Hilda Sheehan drew a huge crowd for the launch of her first collection, The Night My Sister Went to Hollywood. For one Festival Chronicler’s take on her fabulous night of poems, people, and piano playing at The Platform, see

And to find out what The Man with the Stick did, you’ll have to find someone who was at the sell-out gig at Swindon’s prize-winning Central Library.

Though I try my best, I have not yet mastered omnipresence.

Matt Holland
Photo credits: Richard Wintle – Calyx Multimedia

Friday, 10 May 2013

Light, local, and heavy

‘It’s very exposing to write, very self-revelatory’ said a nice if nervous Judy to a vocally-rampant Richard, addressing a real live day-time audience in the intimate auditorium that is the Swindon Arts Centre.

Then they chatted about Judy’s first book, set in Cornwall, with ghostly bits in it. On cue, a gust of good old Wiltshire wind whistled through the back stage window, with a great moaning and whining that almost upstaged the famous duo.

Richard was at pains to declare their writing (he has a book due out in July) ‘not intellectual or literary, like that Orange Prize stuff’.

There was the occasional Richard and Judy moment, when she would chide him with ‘Oh God Richard’. It was fun, I think.

The author and speaker to follow them on stage could not have been more different. A C Grayling may have been questioning much that R & J hold dear. He certainly thought it right to challenge and question, with intellectual rigour, all religious beliefs. ‘Even children should be encouraged to question these things’ he said.

He observed that most inventors of religions or religious movements were men who proceeded to have multiple wives, except for St Paul, founder of Christianity, who was reckoned to travel with a band of boys.

But beliefs are strong, as evidenced by the reply from the Irish woman who, when asked if she believed in fairies, replied, ‘No, I do not but they are there anyway.’

The day got even more challenging when George Monbiot proposed bringing elephants, wolves, and tigers back into our lives and countryside. Re-wilding it’s called and he reckons these and other wild animals can reverse the cycle of ecological degradation.

He went on to slam sheep, for the ‘eco-destruction’ they cause, calling them the scourge of the hillsides, woolly maggots, and the white plague. He did however, in his well-thought out way, explain that getting rid of roaming sheep would not necessarily mean the end of mutton meals.

There is a lot to like about ideas of re-wilding.

There was a lot to like about the other five events on day four of the twentieth Swindon Festival of Literature.

Local writers produced another fabulous edition of their Swindon Heritage Magazine, as did Mum’s the Word for their second edition. And Alison Brackenbury brought fine poems to BlueGate Open Mic night, which had an array of other poets and fine music too. At West Library, Shackleton crossing of the Antarctic was described by Stephen Haddelsey, while at Lydiard House, Dr Hickman enlightened a full house on plants as medicine.

The litfest team’s meal and de-brief at the end of the day left us with more than simply supper to digest. Mmmm.

Matt Holland
Photo credits: Richard Wintle – Calyx Multimedia

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Austen home life, animal wildlife, sacred lands, and comic books

‘The writers I know have always said how wonderful this festival is’ said P D James to a packed Swindon Arts Centre. ‘And I am delighted to be here today.’

‘In fact, I shall have a useful reminder of my visit to Swindon. I have bought a Zimmer frame from the mobility shop across the road’

PDJ not only gave a sparkling talk on her admiration of the work of Jane Austen, answering questions on mother and father characters but was also a splendid example of growing old actively both in mind and body. At the end of her hour on stage, she made her way down the steps, one by one, and on reaching the bottom, got a standing ovation. There was a twinkle in her almost-93 year old eyes as she thanked her fans.

‘That’s the most relaxed I have seen her with an audience’ said Joann, who had flown in for the Festival from Boston, USA.

Another completely relaxed but engaging and informative speaker was Kate Humble, who, though taken by surprise, went for a cuddle with the on-stage caged ducklings as if they were life-long friends. She handled them with the ease of a true lover of wildlife.

And she spoke with passion and in detail about everything from rhinos to badgers, education to farming, and conservation to connecting with poetry.

Across town, in Swindon’s prize-winning Central Library, Martin Palmer had a near full house for his talk on Britain’s history through its rural and urban landscape but not enough of his books as Watertsones had underestimated the popularity of a good speaker with a good book at a groovy festival.

But back at the Arts Centre, Jimmy Pearson, all the way from Oz, was the victim of laptop compatibility equipment failure but manfully proceeded to present his Comic world, sans visuals, describing the process whereby teams of writers and artist produce comic books with words and pictures that ‘deal with serious and important issues.’

Thankfully, he had enough books, even for the select if small audience, sixty percent of whom bought one.

Yet another surprise at the SFL: a little event, an informative talk, and big book sales.
Matt Holland
Photo credits: Richard Wintle – Calyx Multimedia

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Ken, Esther, Stella, and Jon tell some of their secrets in sunny Swindon

‘I fell in love with local government’ Ken Livingstone told a packed lunchtime Arts Centre audience ‘even though they kept telling me, you can’t say that!’

My reply always was, ‘Why not, if it’s true?

And, here in Swindon, he also used what one local government officer called ‘Shakespearean language’. He uttered 7 bloodys, 3 craps, and one pissed off, and got plenty of laughs.

At tea time, Esther Rantzen, in pretty pink, was worried that her underwear might be visible, so asked for a crossed-knees monitor. She then spoke movingly about serious matters of crimes against children but also, on occasions, having the audience in stitches, showed that you do not have to be solemn to be serious.

Stella Rimington, the first author to sell out, weeks ago, was enigmatic, intriguing, intelligent, and enlightening but did not give away a single state secret. When she broke into a smile she lit up the stage but still did not give away any secrets. And yet, she told us plenty and more than hinted at the important work done by the intelligence service in ‘keeping people safe’. But she also sounded a bit like M or Bond when she said, ‘Yes, of course, when you meet people, you size them up.’

For Jon Cannon’s talk on cathedrals, the Christ Church bells rang loud and clear over Swindon and Festival followers filled the pews.

The ducklings are now two days old and thriving, as is the twentieth Swindon Festival of Literature.

Matt Holland
Photo credits: Richard Wintle – Calyx Multimedia