Tuesday, 20 September 2011
The Festival - a brief review
The first event was almost thrown out of joint by losing our first venue with less than a week to go. I couldn't even do anything about it because I was out of contact with the Escalator scheme so it was up to other members of the committee to fix it, and they did so, finding another restaurant for the lunch date with Richard Mabey.
This had been a sell-out for a while and having heard Richard speak a few times I knew it would be a good start. We have a full, if not too huge lunch, chat a bit, Richard goes out for ten minutes to compose himself, then returns to speak impromptu for about half an hour. His subject is the loss of children's freedom to move about in nature and get acquainted with it. This is not about lions and tigers but about whatever happens to be inhabiting the nearest piece of common land.
He begins by criticising television's obsession with the exotic and the wild, the use of CGI, and the emphasis on the dangerous. He talks about parental protectiveness and contrasts it with his own childhood - something we know from his books - given the whole day to wander about and do as he will. This strikes a chord with many of the audience, whose average age probably entitles them to a senior railcard, but who remember their own youth as being less hedged about with safeguards than life is today.
Why the older audience? Partly the price and partly the sit-down dinner. I don't think the young attend too many after-dinner speeches - the tradition involves a degree of educated respectability. It is people of a certain station in life who take part in such things. But there is absolutely no reason why the young should not attend a talk by Richard. Richard should by rights be their kind of hero. He is Green, he is a scientist, he is active, he speaks fiercely yet gently from the heart. He is a private man but he is crisply articulate. There is no puffed up rhetoric in him.
But the people who should really be here - the people at whom the talk is actually directed - are the mid-forties to mid-fifties parents who have been bullied and litigated into fear by almost every form of authority. They are easily bullied because they tend to feel guilty, particularly as parents. Contemporary economics doesn't allow for full-time motherhood, nor do many women want it. Fathers feel guilty just for being male: mothers for not being the right kinds of mother. Letting your child roam the fields or streets the whole day will not earn much public approval and may even result in the child being taken into care. There is the fear of bombs, of paedophiles, of cars, of falls from playground apparatus, of falls from trees, of drownings and of accidents of all sorts.
Then there is technology. Richard talks about the enticements of the internet, about the child tucked up in his or her room, wandering the streets, forests, precipices and ditches of an infinite network that continuously merges the real and the virtual. This is a subject touched on in the posts about Sam Riviere's work earlier: here it comes at us not as aesthetics but as loss of contact with nature.
Richard talks about tiny creatures, not dinosaurs. It is what lies to hand, or even in the hand, or even smaller - the kind of life seen most clearly under the microscope that we should respect. So we finish with small things. In response to a question at the end - possibly from me - regarding the notion of anthropomorphism and the old television programmes of Johnny Morris whose work, though very popular (I loved him as a child), was later fiercely criticised for giving animals funny voices, as though they were human, Richard answers that if he had to choose between treating animals like machines or like human beings, he would choose the Johnny Morris way, but that it is probably best to reverse the proposition, and that instead of thinking of animals as substitute humans we should consider ourselves more as animals.
Richard's books are classics of nature writing, but as the title of his second book, back in 1972, The Unofficial Countryside, tells us, they are not about Nature with a capital N, closer in spirit, in some respects, to Ian Sinclair or to Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts's Edgelands. His books do not apostrophise or idealise nature: they study, are humble yet proud, even stern at times, but overflow with warmth.
His talk set a theme that was to be touched on now and then throughout the week. Not so much nature in itself, as what it is like to be in nature, or indeed what it is like to live with our own natures.
In London today for the judging of the Stephen Spender Prize for the translation of poetry. Fellow judges, Susan Basnett, Edith Hall and Patrick McGuinness.
Tomorrow to London again to introduce and talk with Adam LeBor at the Hungarian Cultural Centre in Maiden Lane, about his novel, The Budapest Protocol.