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 I was a little disappointed with the line up for the Bath Literary Festival this year, as I couldn't find very many events I wanted, and was able, to attend. However, one I did like the look of was an interview with Dominic Dromgoole, former Artistic Director of the Globe Theatre, talking about his book about the 'Hamlet: Globe to Globe' tour.

For those who don't know, the tour marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death by trying to take a production of 'Hamlet' to every country in the world.

Dominic Dromgoole, 20.05.17


It was very interesting. Dominic started by explaining that he is a local boy; he was brought up in Wedmore, so coming to Bath feels like coming home. He also pointed out that the parents of one of the Hamlet cast, another local boy, were in the audience!

He explained that the idea of the tour came about in a 'louche bar' where he and other members of the Globe team were drinking cocktails at the end of an away day (he commented that the Globe doesn't get any government support, and very little sponsorship, so the money comes from the box office and they felt, therefore, able to spend it on such things!). They were unsure, at first, whether it would even be possible, but (he claims) decided to go ahead anyway! It followed on from the season they had had at the Globe, where they performed all of Shakespeare's plays, with companies from around the world performing in a wide variety of languages, so they were able, to some extent, to build on the relationships built with various international theatres and companies.

He explained that they then had to decide which play to take on tour, and decided on Hamlet on the basis that it has iconic appeal, and unlike other plays (such as Romeo and Juliet) it is elusive; there is always more or the actors to discover, so they are less likely to get bored and stale over a long run.

He was asked about how well the play was understood, in non-English speaking countries, particularly as there were no sur-titles, and in some of the countries visited the play would not be (well) known.  He explained that, as at the Globe, they performed in natural light or with the audience, as well as the players, lit, which allows cast and audience to make eye contact with one another, and that key parts of the play 'read' clearly even of you don't understand the words -the opening scene, on the battlements, is a readily understandable scenario,  Claudius can be recognised as an authority figure, ghosts are well known in most cultures, and so on. 

Over all it was an interesting conversation, I was glad to have gone. And it left me really wanting to see a version of Hamlet at the Globe! 

After the event, I had a chance to buy a book (although I bought an older one rather than Globe to Globe, to start with!) and say hello. 

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On Wednesday evening (2nd March - I'm falling behind in my blogging)  I was back in Bath's Guildhall to see (and hear) the incomparable BRIAN BLESSED.

He was utterly superb. The festival had, wisely, decided against giving him a mike, and despite a spirited attempt to get him up onto the stage, he chose instead to bound out into the aisle, explaining that he 'hates stages' (which might, one would think, be a slight disadvantage to an actor, but maybe theatre stages are different!)

He roared "GORDON'S ALIVE", which met with great enthusiasm from the audience, before starting to talk to us about himself and (very briefly) his book.

He told us that he has recently completed Cosmonaut training with the Russians, at the age of 79, and that we should ask him about Space. And Yetis.

He then complimented various members of the audience and  spoke briefly about other actors, and the normal sort of actor's biography which is all about which other actors they know. (He then mentioned Kenneth Branagh, saying that they have a father/son relations where Ken is the father, before deciding to give us a bit of Shakespeare, so declaimed the glorious Chorus's speech from Henry V, which starts "O for a muse of fire..."

It was superb, and  made me regret again that I didn't learn that he was performing King Lear, last year, until after the entire run was sold out. I've never seen him perform live - although his performance as Exeter in the Ken Branagh Henry V is memorable (Even if the sight of Brian Blessed in full armour on a war horse makes the outcome of battle of Agincourt seem more like a foregone conclusion and less like a forlorn hope)

And then... there were anecdotes about the different places and circumstances in which he has been asked to do the 'GORDON'S ALIVE' thing.. I'm sure that normal actors get asked to quote from their most famous performances, probably in the street, or at restaurants. BRIAN BLESSED, it seems, gets asked in slightly different situations. You know, by Masai warriors half way up Kilimanjaro, by the Queen, at Buckingham Palace, by the Prime Minister, in the Cabinet Room, or (my personal favourite) by the captain of the Russian submarine which has unexpectedly surfaced through the ice near the North Pole!

Then he spoke about his background - he was the son of a coal-miner, and left school at 14 after his father was injured. He spoke several times about having not been to grammar school, and having been in a 'C Class' (I assume as opposed to an 'A', top stream), and seemed to have a great sense of astonishment and appreciation that he has come so far, and had such an interesting life.

He talked about having been friendly, as a young man, with Patrick Stewart - they were both involved with amateur theatre before turning professional, and about how they both applied to go to Drama School, but that he did not expect to be able to attend, being just a 'class C' lad, who had left school at 14 and had no scholarships.

He did, of course, get into Bristol Old Vic theatre school, and they provided him with a scholarship, so (after a stint of National Service, in the parachute regiment (74 jumps)) he arrived in Bristol.. where, among other things, he went jogging naked with Peter O'Toole. (no, we didn't get an explanation as to *why* they were jogging naked..

A little later he talked about his time at the National Theatre (not, I think, a fan of the building. He described it as being 'like Colditz'.) And about hiding in a cupboard and jumping out at John Geilgud. As one does.

And about filming the Flash Gordon, and playing Vultan, and being told, gently, by the director that it was not necessary to add one's own *pew* *pew* *pew* sound effects during attack scenes with the Hawkmen. . .

He described how his work on 'Peppa Pig' is just as popular as his more classical work..

An talked with huge enthusiasm about his involvement in the Mars project (He has been training with astronauts and other scientists), his optimism and enthusiasm for space exploration, and for the human race, and his admiration and love for Shakespeare ("The blue planet, our planet, has had it's author. It would be greedy to expect another")

It was such fun. I did have a certain amount of sympathy for the poor festival person who ha the difficult task of interrupting him and persuading him to stop talking (she did a splendid job, the event only over ran by 15 minutes)

And afterwards, he signed books, and posed for photos, and said thank you to us for buying his book.

I'm just disappointed there wasn't time for him to tell us about Yetis, or the time he punched a Polar Bear.

ETA: I just re-read this, and I can't believe I forgot to mention that he finished up the evening by telling us about the time he appeared as Pavarotti on 'Stars in their eyes' and then singing us o sole mio. On top of everything else the man can sing. Glorious!
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It's the Bath Festival of Literature again, and so far, the events I've been to have been excellent.

The first was a talk by Dr Alice Roberts, about the Celts.  I had watched the programme which she and Neil Oliver made for the BBC, which was shown last November - its a fascinating subject; so much is known, but also there are so many things which are not known, and cannot be known.

Prof. Alice Roberts

Dr Roberts is an excellent speaker, and her enthusiasm is infectious. She is not, herself an archaeologist; she is an anatomist, and is currently Professor of Public Engagement in Science, at Birmingham University.

She explained the uncertainties about the origins of the Celts (hint: not where you thought) , and the fact that certain things we think we know (such as druids and human sacrifice, and Celtic warriors taking heads) seem to come from just one (Roman) source, with no confirmation..

She talked about some recent discoveries in Germany, and the quality of the work being done there, and waxed enthusiastic about proofs of decapitation.!

It was very interesting, and although I didn't buy a copy of her current book then and there,(It's a big glossy, *heavy* bardback.) I may yet succumb!

After this event, my friend T and I indulged in tea and cakes, and a visit to Mr B's Emporium of reading Delights, where I was very restrained about the number of books I bought, then, after a little more shopping, I headed to the Masonic Hall, to hear Neil Jordan interviewed about his most recent novel, The Drowned Detective.

Neil Jordan.

I have to admit that I have not read any of his books, I was aware of him as the director of films such as The Crying Game, Michael Collins, and Interview with the Vampire. However, I enjoyed hearing him talk about the new book, which is a detective story about relationships, and memories, and a touch of the supernatural, set in an unidentified eastern European country.. it sounds intriguing.

He also spoke about the respect writers have in Ireland, about how he 'drifted' into becoming a director, a little about Interview with the Vampire. I'd have loved the chance to sit down with him for a chat - he's the sort of person who it would be interesting to get to know him better. And I have bought one of the earlier books to get started!

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One of the things  enjoy about living here is the proximity to Bath, and the chance to enjoy the Bath festival of Literature every March, and the Bath Festival of Children's Literature every September.

This years BathLitFest started on Friday, and Saturday morning saw me heading into the city to see Jennifer Saunders, talking about her autobiography, 'Bonkers'.

As might be expected of a comedian, she was a very funny and entertaining speaker. She talked about her background, growing up as an air-force child, moving around the country, and of her childhood ambitions to become a three-day eventer.

She dismissed the suggestion that she and Dawn French didn't initially get on, commenting that they simply didn't know one another to start with, when they first met at college.

She spoke a good deal about her habit of procrastinating, describing the increasingly implausible excuses she and Ruby Wax sent to Goldie Hawn when they were supposed to be writing a film script for her - Saunders described how she was, eventually, flown to New York to finish the script, and planned to write on the lane, except, as she explains, one of the effects of having been in Absolutely Fabulous is that flight attendants all assume that she wants to be drunk on champagne all the time, and appear with glasses of champagne on every flight (and of course, she commented, they're right..!), so she arrived with the script still unwritten..

She claimed to have been effectively locked into Hawn's apartment to finish writing, and then to have been taken to see The Lion King afterwards "like a good child".

In response to questions from the audience, Saunders confirmed that she would like to do some panel shows "They have to have women on them now, it's the law!" and that she was less scared as she got older "Once you're past the menopause, you don't care. You just see them all as little boys" And that she will be hosting 'Have I Got News for You'. I shall look forward to that!

She also confirmed that she'd like to be involved in writing another musical, except for the music parts, which are tricky, that there is to be ab Fab movie, and that she feels lucky to have worked with so many friends, and to have become friends with so many people she's worked with.

It was a highly entertaining hour, (and at the end, Jennifer's whippet, Olive, came on stage with her while she signed copies of her book)

I'm not in a position to attend any other Bath Lit Fest events this year, but if I could only see one this year, I'm glad it was this one!
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This year's Bath Literature Festival ends tonight, and the last event I attended (possibly the last event of the Festival) was a talk by Jon Ronson, about his most recent book, 'Lost at Sea', and the one before that, 'The Psychopath Test'.

I've long enjoyed Jon Ronson's work - he used to have a column in the weekend Guardian, and is the author of 'The Men Who Stare at Goats' and 'Them'. In fact, I blogged about his last Bath Literature Festival appearance, 4 years ago.

Having heard him speak before, I was confident that I was in for an entertaining evening, and I was not disappointed.

Jon started with reading a story which hasn't (yet) made it into a book, about his son, Joel, at the age of 8, wanting to know whether there was a worse swear-word than 'fuck', and if so, what it was., which rapidly caused Ronson, in an attempt to avoid teaching his son anything inappropriate,  to become mired in a swamp of lies, an 8-year old temporarily convinced he has learned the Worst Swear Word in the World, and, increasing guilt "I'd rather he was foul mouthed and accurate than this"

After this light-hearted anecdote Ronson spoke about the starting point for his book, 'The Psychopath Test'.

He described started out by leafing through the DSM ( Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and determining that he has 12 different mental disorders, including general anxiety and malingering, which led to thoughts about the dangers of self-diagnoses, and then, by a series of steps which all sounded very logical when described, via Scientologists to a prisoner names Tony, who spent 14 years in Broadmoor after faking madness in the hope of avoiding a prison sentence (of 5-7 years) for assault, to the worrying knowledge that around 1% of the population is believed to be a psychopath, but the figure rises to around 4% if you look at CEOs and other people in positions of power...

We also learned that if you have been on a course to become a certified psychopath spotter, and wish to interview important  people to work out whether they are psychopaths, it's best not to write and ask them whether you can interview them to test for psychopathic traits. Asking if you can interview them to ascertain whether they have a specific brain anomaly which may be linked to business success, works rather better..

Ronson then moved on to talk about some of the articles in 'Lost at Sea', such as what happens when you borrow a car from Aston Martin in order to recreate James Bond's drive in 'Goldfinger' (flatulence and dislike, mostly), about debt and credit cards, and who they are offered to, and about rich and poor in America.

The evening ended with a Q and A session, and discussion about the NHS and differences between US and UK attitudes, after which I was able to get my copy of 'Lost at Sea' signed, and to have a quick word with Jon. He's a nice man.

It was a very entertaining evening. Despite the cold, and the snow.
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After Friday night's soiree with J.K. Rowling, last night's treat was an event with Hilary Mantel, author of 'Wolf Hall' and 'Bring up the Bodies' and twice winner of the booker Prize.


I have to confess that I have only read a couple of her books, but they (particularly the historical ones) are high on my reading list, and I was also interested to hear her speak, based on her reputation.

Read more... )

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Bath Lit. Fest. ends today, and the last two events I had tickets for were yesterday, with Richard Fortey and Jeremy Paxman.

I’d booked the ticket for Richard Fortey’s event having enjoyed his book, ‘Dry Store Room No.1’ about his time at the Natural History Museum, and his recent TV series, 'Survivors' (which has an accompanying book, of course!)

Richard Fortey

Fortey is a Palaeontologist, with a special interest in trilobites, but his theme today was to look at the range of organisms which have succeeded in surviving one or more of the great extinctions, and to speculate a little on how and why they succeeded in doing so.

Horseshoe Crabs, for instance (which can still be found in large numbers, coming to Delaware Bay to spawn) are found in the fossil record over 150 million years ago, Stromatolites, now found in Western Australia are over 2.5 billion years old, and there are anaerobic bacteria in hot springs in Yellowstone, (among other places), which are even older. Some of the other survivors are Magnolia Trees, which were around with the dinosaurs, Nauteloids (which were contemporaneous with Ammonites) and the Echindna, whose babies delight in the glorious name of 'puggles', and which interests scientists both as its milk is so nutritious that it is being studied by researchers interested in anorexia, and as it has no nipples, just a slightly modifies sweat-gland which 'oozes' milk, so it represents an evolutionary step on the way towards true mammary glands. (of course, it also looks very cute, like an overgrown hedgehog, and lays eggs, just to confuse)

Fortey pointed out that most of the survivors have certain attributes in common: enduring habitat (often tidal), a willingness to eat a wide variety of foods and/or the ability to go long periods without food, good defence mechanisms such as being difficult to eat, (Apparently the only part of a horseshoe crab which is edible is its eggs, and they taste pretty nasty!) a little counter intuitively, many of the survivors also have relatively few offspring or (like the Echidna) have slow-growing young needing a relatively high level of parental care.

It was fascinating, and afterwards, when I went to get my slightly battered copy of 'Dry Store Room No 1' signed, by Fortey, (rather than having spent £20 on the new hardback 'Survivors' book) he was charming about it, and commented that he liked signing books which had been read, which was very nice of him, whether it was true, or simply to put me at ease!

The second event I had a ticket for was Jeremy Paxman, talking about his new book,Empire (What Ruling the World Did to the British). However, as this didn't start until 4 hours after Richard Fortey's event finished, I had plenty of time to treat myself to a delicious pie and a pint in the The Raven, and still had time to visit Mr B's to drink coffee and buy books, and then to the Guildhall where, having some time to spare, I wandered around a little to admire the empty corridors, and the many splendid pictures of all of the majors of Bath, going back to about 1870. (The first clean-shaven Mayor appeared in 1899, but was clearly an aberration, as there wasn't another until 1913) Women took rather longer, there wasn't one until the 1960s.

After that little diversion, I settled in to listen to Mr Paxman. He has a ferocious reputation for his political interviews, and for his sometimes scathing comments to contestants on 'University Challenge', so the warnings, before his talk, not to annoy him by letting your phone go off during the presentation were particularly effective!

The presentation was more of a potted history of the Empire (mainly, but not exclusively, in India) than a discussion of how it affected the British and as such most of the information was not new, but it was very well presented (despite Mr. Paxman's difficulties with the remote control for his slideshow!) and entertaining, particularly his somewhat caustic asides; In describing the Privateer Henry Morgan he explained that Morgan, seeing the Spanish exploiting indigenous people in South America, worked out that it was much less effort to wait and then steal the goods from the Spanish, became immensely wealthy so was, in the fine British tradition, rewarded with a knighthood..

He also commented on Gordon of Khartoum's decision to disobey orders and try to hold, rather than evacuate Khartoum, describing Gordon as "Brave but deranged" - Gordon apparently believed that he was in direct communication with the Prophet Isaiah, who, understandably, he considered outranked the Prime Minister..

Part of his theme was that the British Empire was not in any way planned, it grew as a result of a lot of opportunistic people trying to get rich, although the Victorians, in particular, liked to see it as a benevolent way of bringing Christianity and civilisation to the 'less advanced' parts of the world.

While acknowledging the many negative issues in the Empire (referencing the atrocities committed during the Indian Mutiny (1st War of Indian Independence), for instance) he did also flag up some of what he saw as positives; the introduction of in theory and principal, at least, a largely non-corrupt cadre of public servants, the abolition of slavery, including the fact that around 150,000 people were liberated due to the Royal Navy being used to enforce Britain's anti-slavery laws. He also commented that without defending colonisation, if you were going to be colonised, it was probably better to be colonised by the British than by many of the other colonial powers - Belgium and Portugal being particularly bad examples.

The American questioner had a rather rambling comment, resulting in saying "we got rid of them (the British monarchy)
Paxman; "Yes, you did. What's your point?"
American Questioner; "DO you have any comment?"
Paxman; "I wouldn't dream of intruding on your private grief"...

The Canadian Questioner spoke about the issue of Quebec and the odd partnership of the French and English;
Q "I don't know how the English ever expected that to work"
A "They probably took the view that it's your problem now. What do you want me to do?"

Perhaps not terribly serious responses to serious (if poorly constructed) questions, but most entertaining. I shall continue to watch the rest of the TV series, and will probably buy the book once it is out in paperback.

A very interesting finish to my Bath Lit. Fest.
It will be interesting to see what next year has to offer.

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If Sunday was all about history, on Monday I was expecting to be entertained, more than informed. I had a ticket to see Sandi Toksvig. I love her dry humour, and thoroughly enjoy her as host of ' Radio 4's News Quiz. I also missed seeing her when she was due to appear in Bath a couple of years ago, as she was ill and had to cancel, so was particularly pleased to see she was going to be at the Lit. Fest. this year.

Sandi is possibly Denmark's best known import to this country, (after bacon) - I am most familiar with her radio work, but she's also a regular columnist and has written a number of books. She admitted, when asked, that her upcoming book, Valentine Grey, has communalities with her other books "I used a lot of the same words. But in a different order". It's a novel set during the 2nd Boer War (1899). The eponymous heroine disguises herself as a man and joins a bicycle regiment and goes to war. Toksvig explained that she got the original idea to set a book in a bicycle regiment in the Boer War after seeing a memorial in (I think) Canterbury Cathedral. It fired her imagination, she wrote the novel, and then went back and found that the memorial which started the whole thing was, in fact, in remembrance of members of a bicycle regiment in a different war, and a diferent country....

She read a short extract from the book, about the first occasion Valentine tries on male clothes, and talked a little about the way clothes change the world - Pockets! Trousers!

the conversation wasn't limited to the book (which isn't out yet) but also encompassed comedy (and the terrible scandal of the 'cuts' joke she made on R4 last year.."It's the Tories who have put the "n" into cuts" which led on to talking about politics and politicians more generally, to Sandi’s childhood and her family.

When we got to the Q&A section she was asked about the Great Marmite Scandal (last year there were a lot of news headlines about marmite being banned in Denmark) Sandi explained that the Danes are not interested in Marmite because they have real food, like herring…

More than any of the other events I’ve attended this one felt like a conversation we were lucky enough to have joined, rather than a scripted ‘talk’.

After the event, I got Sandi to sign my copy of ‘Hitler’s Canary’, and she definitely wins the ‘friendliest author of the festival’ prize, too!

Two days later I was back at the Guildhall to listen to physicist Professor Jim Al-Khalili, talking about the “Golden Age of Arabic Science”.

He started by explaining that the “Dark Ages” between the fall of the Roman Empire and the start of the Renaissance, were really only ‘Dark’ in western Europe, and that during this time, and in particular during the period from the 8th to 10th Centuries, Arabic was the language of Science, and Baghdad was the centre of the scientific world. Harun al-Rashid, the Caliph, was tolerant and encouraged scholars within his empire.

This wasn’t a solely Islamic phenomenon; although Islam did feed into a great deal of the science; for instance, the need to be able to accurately locate Mecca was one of the motives for work on astronomy, cartography and geometry, but the Caliphate welcomed scholars from other countries and religions, and extensive work was done to translate earlier scientific writings such as those of Aristotle, Euclid and Galen.

I think it’s fairly well known that the word algebra comes from the Arabic. Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi wrote a book ; Kitab al-jebra, which set out the principals of solving algebraic equations, and which ultimately became Latinised to ‘algebra’, but what we learned was that the word ‘algorithm’ comes from the latinisation of al – Khwarizmi’s name – he was known as Algorithmus!

There was also Ibn Sina (980-1037) whose name was Latinised as Avicenna, and whose ‘Canon of Medicine’ and ‘Book of Healing’ became the standard medical texts for the next 700 years, and, like other Arabic texts, spread into the west as Arabic texts were translated into Latin.

Al-Khalili is clearly enthusiastic about the subject, and his interest comes over very clearly, and he managed to make what could be a dry subject accessible and interesting even to a non-physicist such as myself.
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This is a slightly belated blog - having been going out to lots of events, I've been short of time to then write about them.

On Sunday I was in Bath again, for two very different history events. The first was (Sir) Simon Jenkins, talking about the entire history of England, and his new book (imaginatively titled 'A Short history of England' and the second was Faramerz Dabhoiwala, discussing his book, ''The Origins of Sex'

Simon Jenkins is a journalist and Chairman of the National Trust, and is unimpressed with the current habit of teaching history in unconnected chunks. He argues that it is necessary, in order to understand history, including current events, to understand their causes. (which seems fairly reasonable, although I am not 100% convinced that it necessary to understand the entirety of English history to achieve this in respect on a single part of it)
Simon Jenkins
Having set out his stall, Jenkins then proceeded to gallop through the whole of English History, from 410AD to 2012, in around half an hour (although to be fair there was a rather large leap from 410 to 1066).

He has a gift for picking out interesting and unobvious nuggets of information. I realised, afterwards, that only one of these was actually new to me (I hadn't appreciated that the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688 was a proper, armed invasion, even of it didn't lead to a bloody civil war, at least in England. I just thought we just sent out for a mail order King.)

I was aware that Magna Carta was not a success at the time, and was then virtually forgotten until the 17th C, that Agincourt was a PR success but a practical disaster and that we ended up losing that war (Shakespeare spun it a little...) he suggested that when you have a monarchy, what you need for political progress is a really incompetent King - the examples he gave were King John, Richard III, the Stuarts and George III. You can see his point.

It was a fascinating lecture, and his conclusion, that we're seeing a return to an elite executive - back to the old Norman pattern, which was a chilling thought to leave us on...

The second event was also about history, albeit of a different kind. Faramerz Dabhoiwala discussing his book about what he describes as the 1st Sexual Revolution - the change, in the 17th - 18th C of attitudes towards sex and sexuality - specifically, that in around 1650 attitudes were similar to those we associate with modern day extremist theocracies - extra-marital sex could, and often did, lead to severe punishment; public shaming, whipping and banishment for life from the parish, and even to execution. Dabhoiwala (in response to an audience question) siad that this applied across the social spectrum, but I did wonder whether this were true - I am sure that there were wealthy and powerful people who faced punishment after accusations os sexual impropriety, but can't help but feeling that such accusations would be awfully handy as a way of controlling political emenies, for instance, and that it may be that among the upper echelons of society we only ever hear of those who were punished, not those who were not.

Faramerz Dabhoiwala
The prevailing view, according to Dr Dabhoiwala, was that such behaviour was a risk to society as a whole, not merely to the individuals concerned. There was also an assumption that women were naturally weaker than men, and therefore more lustful.

By the 1750s the philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment extended to the sexual sphere; ideas that sex outside marriage were 'unnatural' or intrinsically wrong were challenged, and surprisingly, Dr Dabhoiwala had even found evidence of such arguments being put forward by at least one gay man.

The idea developed that there was a difference between public and private, and that private life was, well, private, and not the concern of the state.

Courtesan Kitty Fisher become, arguably, the first sexual celebrity and pin-up girl (She commissioned Joshua Reynolds to paint her portrait, for instance, and was written about extensively. We are far from having invented celebrity gossip! ), and the first 'homes' for 'fallen women' were established, with people starting to see them (up to a point) as victims in need of help rather than as criminals in need of punishment, although this appears to have been somewhat patchy, and of course there tended still to be a strong impulse to evangalize to such fallen women.

Interesting stuff. Not least for the reminder of how recently our society changed. I think I shall see about getting a copy of the book from the library. The discussion certainly piqued my interest.
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This year's Bath Lit. Fest. opened yesterday, and I had tickets for two of today's events.
The first was a talk by Alain de Botton whose most recent book, 'Religion for Atheists' has just come out. He is an excellent and engaging speaker. His theme was the many positive things which religions offer, and what these can still offer a secular society.

He began by disclosing that he is not, himself, a believer (to give anyone who might be offended the opportunity to leave), and went on to explain how he felt this allowed him, and other atheists to take a 'pick'n'mix' approach to religion and it's trappings, starting from a view of religions as part of our cultural heritage, in a similar way that art, literature and music are.

It seems a far more positive and constructive attitude than the more typical religion/atheist divide. (and such a refreshing change from the intolerance often seen from the extremes on both sides of the divide)

He suggests that religions have a lot in common with big business - big groups working towards a common objective, multi-national organisation, logos, uniform, brand messages, they aren't just collections of ideas, and so seeking to convince people by making arguments over those specific doesn't, generally work - the organisations are so much better at propaganda. Secular culture has, in contrast, remained more of a cottage industry; writers, artists and musicians all working independently.

In effect, de Botton's thesis is that rather than arguing with religions or the religious, atheists should steal or borrow the 'best bits' - the good ideas, the community building, the accessible art, the effective education.

He is a fluent, passionate and entertaining speaker, and he left me wanting to read his book! Following the lecture, there was time for a few questions, unfortunately the first of these was that scourge of the Q&A, the person who cannot, or will not ask a question, but instead starts their own mini-lecture, on this occasion, to 'prove' that there's always a fundamental choice between right and wrong (AKA you must believe in some external force really, you just won't admit it) which was a little wearying.

Over all, however, I found de Botton's approach refreshingly different, and was inspired to buy his book, despite my intention to come for the talk alone!

The second event which I had booked was to hear Claire Tomalin interviewed about Charles Dickens, the subject of her most recent biography, but I first had several hours to kill, so took myself to the Wild Cafe for brunch - pancakes with bacon and maple syrup, after which I found the lure of the bookshops too great, and my resolution to buy no books today a further beating.
Back at the Guildhall, I settled in to listen to Claire Tomalin, interviewed by John Walsh.

I found this less gripping than either Alain de Botton, or Simon Callow's Dickens talk last week - partly, I think, this was down to presentation; Walsh had clearly prepared for the interview, but was reading from notes, which did mean that the interview didn't flow as well as it might have done, and it was very much geared to the Dickens aficionado.

Tomalin clearly knows her stuff, but I didn't feel that her enthusiasm for the subject quite came over to the audience - I wasn't left feeling either that I'd learned anything new about Dickens (which as I'm by no means a Dickens expert, is saying something) or that I wanted to go on to buy the book and read more. I think I shall continue to read Mr Callow, and Mr Dickens himself, instead.

Tomorrow, I shall be back in Bath for further events. Watch this space.


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