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Catching the festival of ideas fever

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Ideas – they’re pretty important. Not a lot would happen without them, and humans certainly wouldn’t get very much done; all of humanity’s greatest accomplishments have started life as nothing more than a notion in someone’s head.

As students, we’re pretty well-placed to notice this: we see the importance of ideas, one way or another, every day. In lectures, seminars and labs all over the country, ideas have a habit of being demonstrated, and turning into things.

But there’s a new recognition of the importance of ideas outside our sheltered academic world, and it’s gaining ground fast: it’s called the festival of ideas.

Springing up in a handful of cities around England and originating in Bristol, the festival of ideas (or, rather, the idea of the festival of ideas) has only in recent years started to become popular. But what are these new festivals, and how do they work?

As yet, there’s no unifying body behind the festivals of ideas; there are annual festivals in Cambridge, Bristol, York and Leicester, but they’re all independent and follow no hard-and-fast rules. Nonetheless, they all call themselves ‘the festival of ideas’ and they all enjoy close links with the universities based in their cities. They also all provide the public with an opportunity to attend lectures given by some of the leading lights of the academic world – a chance that will be of particular interest to students.

As a York student, I was already pretty well placed to find out about the city’s first ever festival of ideas in 2011. Not satisfied with this, however, I got a closer insight by volunteering as a steward for the festival – and I got to see most of the stuff that went on. As anyone familiar with York will know, we have a bit of a ‘friendly competition’ thing going on with Leicester – so between you and me, it’s no surprise that after the success of York’s first two festivals of ideas, Leicester decided that they would have one too. Anyway, the theme of the first York festival of ideas was meant to be ‘Beckett, Bodies and The Bible’ – and if you think that sounds pretty general, you’d be right.

York’s inaugural festival of ideas was basically an amazing week-long mess. I spent a whole day minding a gallery of photos of Samuel Beckett produced by celebrated photographer John Minihan – but I also ended up at lectures, plays, musical performances and a reading by Nobel-Prize-winning novelist J.M. Coetzee. One evening ended with some sort of soiree in the spacious Ron Cooke building on campus, where the floor had been covered in actual turf – I can’t remember why, and I don’t think anyone knew at the time.

In fairness, York’s first attempt at a festival of ideas was bound to be a little chaotic – but what I really took away from the festival was a sense of confused excitement, and the knowledge that an academic community did exist beyond dusty journals and campus lecture theatres.

Bristol, on the other hand, is on its ninth festival of ideas this year – it’s had plenty of practice. Over time, the festival has expanded to include not just a week’s worth of events, but events throughout the year – although they are focused particularly in May. With such an illustrious history, the Bristol festival of ideas attracts some of the world’s best-recognised thinkers in a number of fields – take A.C. Grayling, for example, who spoke at the Bristol Science Museum ‘At Bristol’ recently.

Coincidentally, I had quite a Beckettian experience when I attended the lecture, because I was sat behind the audio bank; when Grayling spoke, all I could see was a disembodied mouth moving between two speakers.

A.C. Grayling is one of the foremost voices on humanism of our time, and the chance to not only hear him speak (in a science museum, no less), but also to engage him in dialogue is just incredible – especially for a student. He gave a brilliant speech on what he called ‘humanism with a small H’, and his wit had the audience laughing at various points in the lecture, as well as considering the points that he raised. At the end, as with most festival of ideas events, there was a signing – and an opportunity to meet the philosopher face to face.

But it’s not all philosophy and science museums – Bristol’s festival of ideas also featured former Python and world traveller Michael Palin, who sold out concert venue St. George’s. Used to orchestral arrangements, St. George’s will also see Margaret Atwood giving another festival of ideas talk later in the year. The venue isn’t a small one – but there was not an empty seat in the house as Palin arrived onstage to be interviewed by biographer Christopher Stevens. The subject was his life, his work, and – most importantly – his diaries. Another evening of hilarity, gentle wit and elucidation, the Palin interview was a great success – and I could see that the audience was made up of a huge variety of people from all age groups.

The whirlwind chaos of York’s festival was gone, but the Bristol festival was no less exciting for being very well-organised; after running the festival for eight years, the organisers clearly know what they’re doing, and it’s a truly amazing thing to see the public involved in the kind of learning that I had previously only seen on a university campus. As students, it is perhaps easy for us to forget that many people were students once, too – and remembering that fact, and celebrating the enlightened community that our cities embody, is not only very important, but very rewarding.

So, the festival of ideas in York and Bristol, although they have the same name, are very different beasts – and I have no doubt that this applies to Leicester and Cambridge, too. But they do share some very important features: the meeting of academic and everyday life, the opportunity to speak with some of the greatest contemporary thinkers in many fields, and a heady mix of academia and prestige. If it sounds like the sort of thing you’d like to be part of (even though you don’t go to a uni in any of those cities) then don’t despair: the festival of ideas can spring up very quickly, and I have no doubt we’ll be seeing more each year. Of the four current festivals, Bristol is the oldest, founded in 2005. Then Cambridge in 2008, York in 2011, and Leicester this year – and all four are proving very successful. It’s only a matter of time before other cities start catching the ideas fever.

Photographs by Jennifer Hooton.

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