A Week Away, Brain-food from Hay

A strange and welcome break in proceedings – a week in a field in Wales. A very special field just 3 minutes walk (scrambling over a barbed wire fence) from the main site of the Hay Festival or a pleasant stroll along a disused railway track beside a river to the Globe, the tented site of ‘How the Light Gets In’, Hay’s fringe festival of philosophy by day, music and comedy in a rickety 18th century hall by night.

Arriving foolishly without a pen I took out the trusted crackberry and wrote myself email notes from the various lectures (though not, you’ll be glad to hear, during Keiran the Mighty at Cabaret Futura!). Here are the fragments of my week, and my attempt to create some coherent lessons from the experience.

First up, Plato and the Myth of Atlantis. The wonderful Angie Hobbs arrived in a fluster of red hair, purple dress and spiky heels, having had to run the last few hundred yards. Her superb scholarship and professionalism deepened the luxury of learning about something completely new. Why are we so fascinated by the story of Atlantis, and did Plato make it up, were the two questions she explored. The answer appeared to be that Plato planted clues throughout the texts to both guide and confound us – we are supposed to be kept guessing. He called the story ‘logos’ (account) not ‘muthos’ (myth). She called it a parable, and showed how it has been continually reinterpreted. The story is used by Plato to explore questions of supreme virtue, the ideal republic, the dangers of imperialism and hubris (Athens held out against the powerful Atlantis) and the frailty of civilisations (both Atlantis and the Athens of that time were wiped out by a Mediterranean tsunami 40,000 times more powerful than anything we have seen in the world since).

Straight back in for ‘Socrates v Jesus’ presented by the Woody Allen-esque character Steve Fuller. Full of entertaining anachronisms (whether Socrates or Jesus had the x-factor, Google maps to trace their different travel patterns, St Paul as Jesus’ press-man), the talk presented a fairly compelling argument that Jesus had ‘more of a mission’ in contrast to Socrates’ general challenge to authority. Socrates “was a Friends man; Jesus was into Strangers”. Socrates saw the human project as a lifelong affair for each man to decipher; Jesus saw it as encompassing all of humanity and stretching through the generations until Judgement Day. The two men were presented as contrasting philosophies; there was no mention of faith at all, although the Q&A acknowledged the persuasiveness of threatening hellfire for non-believers! I liked the questioner who said “if you strip Jesus of the son of god thing and the appalling after-sales service, the message is very modern and brave.” It seemed to revolve around the crucial importance of outreach and celebrating the otherness of ‘others’ – go out, leave your homes, stretch your boundaries, test the message in a range of forums, with people not like yourself. It all rang bells for community organisers.


Next up: Happiness – Richard Layard accompanied by Mark Robinson the new director of Action for Happiness. His 9-week son was in the audience, breast-feeding happily on a comfy sofa amid the packed out tent. Generally I approve of the wellbeing argument – it’s obvious that GDP is an inadequate descriptor for the state of society and a false guide-star for socio-economic policy. However, not unlike the Big Society, ‘happiness’ can quickly become irritating, especially when it descends into lifestyle magazine speak: 10 keys to happier living, 50 practical actions to promote happiness, etc. The key point came right at the end when they recognised that we can’t ignore the bad things and that actually what matters is resilience – the ability to bounce back, or to adapt quickly to major changes.


Later that afternoon, DH and I traipsed back to the Globe for Mary Warnock – ‘Rescuing Morality’. Frail but supremely articulate, she argued the case for a rational, secular morality based on doing good not harm. She said morality pre-exists religion which codifies, explains and enforces it, and it can and must post-exist the bossy tones of religion but only if we focus on what it means to be human in a hostile world. We are fragile and must collaborate to survive. We are all in the same precarious boat on a rough sea. Rocking the boat is bad, helping each other is good. All in the same predicament, sharing the threats, the point of morality is to mitigate these dangers. My worry was that her prescription for rescuing morality relied on an inspirational, charismatic person (I’d say Mr O is probably too busy) and the responsibility landed squarely on parents and teachers to convince children one by one to want to be good. I’d suggest a more collectivist approach – civil society, the citizenry, government, media – whoops here we are back with the Big Society! So Cameron was right to try to place the idea in historical context, though he was pilloried for suggesting Jesus had invented it. He would have benefited from sitting in the same tents as me today, but of course the power dynamics would never let it happen. People in the audience fretted that religious folk think they’re in a different boat; I was more worried about the yachting fraternity, who really are in a different boat!


That night we were entertained by Mark Watson and a couple of lesser comics. The best moment was his jibe about #O2fail which got a roar from this well-connected (in all senses) audience. It touched a nerve for all those struggling with the virtual black-out over Hay. Why has the Telegraph (the festival’s new sponsor) failed to prepare the wifi infrastructure for thousands of smart-phones to arrive? Perhaps they think we should all be sending 140-character telegrams! At least the Telegraph marketing is relatively low-key. I overheard someone mention the Guardian (the much-loved previous sponsor) and be hushed by their companion as if they might be arrested for blasphemy (or, more likely, charged twice as much for a cappuccino).


Next morning, up early for the Lost City of Stoke on Trent. Not sure what I was expecting here but it seemed a good choice for a place-focused person. The story of Emma Bridgewater and Mathew Rice who’ve rescued a derelict factory for hand-crafted pottery, and their emotional, financial and political investment in the city, was heartening. I would have liked to hear more on the failings of vision and governance in the city and what can be done about it. Mathew Rice’s book is beautiful and I bought a signed copy for my Dad, whose first journalist job was with the Sentinel back in 1960.

The Golden Age of Arabic Science presented by Jim Al-Kahlili was a tour of the ‘House of Wisdom’, both the actual Bayt al-Hikma built by Al-Mamun in Bhagdad, and the wider supremacy of Arabic-language science from the 8th to 14th centuries. Al-Kahlili is a very appealing speaker – secular, respectful, humorous and a dab hand at powerpoint. I liked his quote: “He who finds a new path is a pathfinder even if the trail has to be found again by others and he who walks far ahead of his contemporaries is a leader even though centuries pass before he is recognised as such”. This summed up his story, of the ‘translation movement’ that imported scientific knowledge from the Greeks, made some massive leaps forwards and usefully translated it all into Latin in order to be ‘handed over’ to the European renaissance. Despite ignoring the suffering involved in the ‘handing over’ of the baton from civilisation to civilisation, this makes sense from the perspective of global history and human progress, and provides a framework to acknowledge the wonders of Ibn Sina (medicine), Ibn al-Nafis (blood circulation), Al-Khwarizmi (algorithms) and his ‘book of completion’ Al-Jeba (algebra), al-Sijzi (heliocentric model) and Ibn al-Haytham (apparently the greatest scientist between Archimedes and Newton who twice feigned madness so he could be allowed to get on with his scientific endeavours). It was so sad to hear at the end of the talk that a key reason the Islamic world lost its scholarship was the rejection of printing press on religious grounds – for fear that typos in typesetting the Koran would amount to blasphemy.

That afternoon, the wonderful Eric Hobsbawm took me on a sweeping tour of Marx and Marxists. Impossible to summarise, but I bought his book on ‘Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism’ and read it out loud in the car on the way home (in place of the more usual Harry Potter!). I was fascinated by the question of what Marx would have thought of the Big Society, and very frustrated that Tristram Hunt MP who was chairing decided to wrap it up with Gove’s approach to history as Tory bait to be dealt with in one question – “So Eric, what do you think of the current Government?”, getting the answer “I’m against it”. For me, debating Big Society with the beardy one was so exciting I’ve been imagining it ever since. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. One important point Hobsbawm made was that Marx theorised but did not prescribe; the socialists who came to implement his thinking after 1917 had an inspiration but not a guide. So they improvised on the basis of their experience of total war – which is why we ended up seeing totalitarian states. What would have happened if so-called Marxist revolutions had taken their guide from communitarian experience? Perhaps the original Big Society? Every time Labour politicians label the #bigsociety as belonging to Cameron, they fail community activists who might otherwise be natural supporters. It’s ours, all of ours, or it can’t exist at all.


Next day drive to Brecon and the brain-food was Radio 4 about Localism with Philip Blond, Tony Travers and a load of phone-in commentary. Talk-back radio in our car usually means me shouting at the radio and getting into long debates with DH that drown out the ‘experts on air’ and often involve missing the sign-posts and circling roundabouts more thoroughly than necessary. A guy phones in and tells a great story about how he and other local people in Aberdeenshire have put together a wind-farm company whose profits are passed to another company that reinvests them in local community projects. It’s not that difficult to understand but the presenter thinks it sounds very complicated. This is a nation of entrepreneurs, small business people, innovators. We built the railways, piers, docks, bridges – mostly by raising finance from small investors. Wave after wave of immigration has enhanced the entrepreneurial spirit. Why do journalists find it so difficult to understand the basics? They think we all want to be/can be wage-slaves – they like us best as indignant tax-payers with no power and plenty of whinge to fill the air-waves.


Back in Hay, Hugh Thomas managed to bore and infuriate the audience in equal measure – talking about the Spanish conquistadores with no recognition at all of the negative impact on indigenous people in South and Central America. “My story is about the achievements of the Spanish” – imagine a historian who wrote about the marvellous efficiencies of the Nazis… I was glad to find his signing queue absolutely minimal.

The week ended with pure entertainment – a 3-hour horse-riding trek around Offa’s Dike, Jacqueline Wilson, Cerys Matthews, Alexander McCall Smith and Eoin Colfer – and beautiful weather.

Camp dismantled, tents packed up, all over for another year…




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2 Responses to A Week Away, Brain-food from Hay

  1. sneintonfestival says:

    Hi, enjoyed this post, partly becasue I am a big fan of Plato and Socrates, and I think I would like to go to the Hay festival one day.

    But actually I cam to this blog because of my interest in the Community organisers programme. I am a Director of Renewal Trust in Nottingham so no doubt we will be involved in the programme soon. However I just wanted to ask you if you have considered the work of Ray Oldenburg on Third Places? I think it fits nicely with your other inspirational principles i.e. Alinksy & Freire and certainly this……

    “Power involves creating spaces where ideas, energy and people are connected together from within all sections of the community and local government to create positive communities” This involves careful facilitation and creating safe spaces where everyone can share their opinions and contribute positively. There is no enemy in a community.

    David Jones

    • jesssteele says:

      Hi David. I’m sure you’d love Hay. It’s a bit strange but well worth it!
      Thanks for the pointer to Ray Oldenburg. In the next couple of weeks we’re going live with the Community Organisers Collaborative knowledge hub which will be a useful space to share all these links to inspirational thinkers, debates and articles, other projects going on around the country etc, as well as a space for Q&A about the programme and, eventually, for profiles of the Community Organisers and the hosts. I’ll blog about it once it’s ready and hope that you and many others share and comment on the resources that are scattered throughout communities and all over the web.
      Best wishes


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