Ways With Words Book Festival in Devon has been held annually for about two decades. It is extremely well run by friendly staff and the surroundings are idyllic. I stayed in a comfortable double room to one side of Dartington Hall, overlooking glorious trees and the garden, away from the central, medieval, listed courtyard. My well-attended talk about Lesley Blanch, ‘a bohemian abroad’, was held in the 14th century Barn Cinema.
On the evening I arrived, news reader and war reporter, Michael Buerk, talked about Reality TV. He was engaging, funny and ultimately pretty depressing about the future of ‘quality’ TV. Budgets for ‘traditional’ drama, documentaries and investigative current affairs programmes − Panorama and Dispatches are all we have left − are derisory, whereas around 750 producers were out in the Australian jungle for the particular show in which he featured of I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! Thousands of hours of filming end up on the cutting room floor. Reality TV is more ‘fixed’ now than when it first began and is not as ‘real’ or cutting edge as you might imagine. Watched by 16 to 30 year olds it offers a modern twist on people being tested and mocked as in a morality play, or freak show. People are pushed to their limits in increasingly humiliating ways for fast shock results. Instead of being pelted with rotten eggs and vegetables in the stocks, nowadays contestants grapple with their phobias of creepy crawlies, rodents and serpents. He was honest about the lure of the sum of money he was paid for taking part, (naturally he did not divulge the amount!). Bad behaviour is rewarded and ignorance is cool. Celebrity is a goal in itself, without achievements or virtue being involved in any way. The ultimate punchline from the younger members of his own family was lighten up granddad it’s only a TV show.
Katharine Norbury’s talk about her travelogue-cum-memoir, The Fish Ladder was truly inspiring. The narrative of her journey with her nine-year-old daughter following a river from the sea to its source is intercut with her own family story about finding her birth mother and being diagnosed with breast cancer. Engaging, funny and philosophical, her love of nature resonated like a hymn to the heavens. I have downloaded the ebook on to my kindle for my flight to Beijing then Ulaanbaatar next week, and ordered Alice Oswald’s Dart on the strength of her recommendation.
Martin Bell, former BBC war reporter and Independent MP, served as a soldier in the British army in Cyprus in the late 1950s during the EOKA rebellion against British rule. He recently found the letters he had written home during the conflict and they form the basis of his book, The End of Empire: Cyprus: A Soldier’s Story. He was amusing about how looking back at his twenty-year old-self was like meeting a stranger. The ultimate punchline was that the British need to face up to the fact that they are responsible for the divided Cyprus of today.
Caroline Lucas’ talk was superb. Green Party MP, she is a pragmatic visionary and passionate advocate for reform to achieve a fairer British political system; and gets my vote big time. Her new book Honourable Friends? Parliament and the Fight for Change in which she argues for parliamentary reform and for the interests of her constituents is a must read for anyone concerned about the future of Britain.
Courage is a choice that requires action. As Napoleon put it, “Courage is like love: it must have hope for nourishment.” I got plenty of all three last weekend.
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