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The other thing I did this weekend. And on friday. I had a fantastic two days; one of those breaks where you stop making sure you're enjoying yourself, and just relax and realise later on that you have enjoyed yourself. Thanks to tinyjo for providing parking space, gagravarr for organising the trip up the tower, and of course to Naomi for going with me.


There's just no way I can write everything that happened down, because it was a busy two days. Never mind the events themselves, there was the aforementioned trip up the tower, explorations of some of the quirky shops on the Cowley Road, visits to various colleges, and plenty of other things to keep us occupied. So I'm quite tired now, but satisfied.

What I liked best, perhaps, was the variety of events we managed to see. For instance, we went to two poetry-related events: A reading by Frieda Hughes, and a panel discussion about the popularity (or lack thereof) of poetry, featuring Neil Astley, Helen Dunmore, James Fenton and Craig Raine. Now, I'm not a poetry fan. I've read very little, and I rarely feel the urge to expand my repertoire. These two events, though, at least made me think about why.

I mean, I can watch an episode of Angel and spend hours dissecting it on usenet (hell, I'm doing it right now). I can read a book, and pick out themes and ideas - analyse it. I can't do that with poetry. I think it's something to do with the density of the medium; there are a lot of ideas packed into a good poem, and I'm not sure that I have the temperament to sit and unpack the ideas for hours at a time. With TV and books, the enjoyment I get from the act of watching or reading is in and of itself enough to make me quite happy to revisit my favourites; for poetry, it isn't.

Then again, it may be true to say that I lack the conceptual architecture to enjoy poetry just because I haven't been exposed to enough of it.

We also went to two science-related events: Mary Warnock (incidentally, apparently also an anthropomorphised building) talking about the ethics and morality of genetic engineering, euthanasia and similar with regard to society, and Paul Nurse describing the work that earned him the 2001 Nobel prize in Medicine and Physiology, and the reasons he became a scientist at all. Both were good, but I didn't feel either was entirely successful. The subjects Warnock was talking about were fascinating, but she wasn't the best speaker in the world (although it didn't help that we arrived a couple of minutes late). On the other hand, Nurse's initial talk only served to make it clear how hard the communication of science to a general audience can be. From my point of view, the explanations he gave of the mechanisms involved in cell cycle regulation was incredibly simplistic - and yet I could see that it was still incomprehensible to the non-scientist. Too much jargon: Cyclin dependent kinase, phosphorylation, differentiation, and so on.

By far the best part of the Nurse event was when he was discussing his early interest in science (in fact, it was generally true that the question sessions, or the events where an author was in conversation with someone - as opposed to simply giving a talk - were the most successful). He had a wonderful story about his interest in astronomy, talking about watching one of the first satellites race across the sky when he was nine. We're so used to moving lights up there now that we hardly give them a second thought; to Paul Nurse the child, it was magical and wonderful. He chased it down the street as though he could catch up with it when it fell to earth, shouting about it to everyone he saw.

Other events? A retrospective of unseen British Vogue photography; Melanie Philips being her typically hard-nosed self, discussing the origins and development of radical feminism; Yann Martel talking about last year's Booker-winning Life of Pi. Part-way through this event, it became apparent that his earlier novel Self also featured a fantastical element, specifically the fact that the protagonist changed gender for seven years and then back again, simply as a natural process. I wanted to ask a question on the topic; something like "both Life of Pi and Self feature fantastical excursions into reality. Were these just a necessary result of the particular stories you chose to tell, or do you feel that the use of such elements offers you benefits over and above strictly realist fiction?" Unfortunately, it took me a while to decide on a wording I was reasonably sure wouldn't make me look like an idiot, by which point there was only time for one more question - and it wasn't me.

(Another interesting thing that came out of that discussion was that I'd completely missed the point of Life of Pi, and I've been kicking myself for it, because it's a fascinating idea. It's intended as a kind of meta-commentary on belief: Two stories are offered covering the same events, one progressively more fantastical, one featuring hard-edged and brutal humanity. The intent is to ask the reader which version he prefers, and thereby provoke thought about what it takes to make us believe in a story. This passed me by completely; I just accepted the fantastic, and looked for meanings and metaphors in the construction of that story. This may or may not be because I've read so much speculative fiction that I suspend my disbelief at the drop of a hat. Martel's larger point is that we would want to believe the better story - and given the religious underpinnings of the novel, the implication is that we should ask ourselves why we wouldn't want to believe in God. The answer to which, of course, is to point out that the unspoken assumption - God is the better story - is not necessarily valid. But I digress...)

Perhaps the one disappointment was a panel on the friday evening organised by the Institute of Ideas. The advertised topic was described as follows: "To be a child today entails being constantly watched. Have the ills of the world multiplied to the extent that children must be so shielded? Should fiction flesh out these dangers and realities, or is there a role for fantasy worlds that simply provoke the imagination?" We went expecting some kind of debate about the relative merits of realistic and fantastic children's fiction; what we got was much more a debate about child safety in general, and the things that should be done about it. Not unintelligent, but a little disappointing (although Helen Cresswell was good value for money).


Conclusion: I want to go to more of these things.
 
 
 
 
 
 
I can read a book, and pick out themes and ideas - analyse it. I can't do that with poetry. I think it's something to do with the density of the medium; there are a lot of ideas packed into a good poem, and I'm not sure that I have the temperament to sit and unpack the ideas for hours at a time.

I had to read quite a bit of poetry in English, especially seamus heaney - bleh, and you could often write more than double a poem's wordcount about that particular poem? It's amazing how so much packed in to so few words. e.g. "Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage, against the dying of the light". Sums up a lot about the human spirit in just two lines. :)

I wanted to ask a question on the topic.......Unfortunately, it took me a while to decide on a wording I was reasonably sure wouldn't make me look like an idiot, by which point there was only time for one more question - and it wasn't me.

I've done that a couple of times, too. Had to get the wording just right, dammit.

An extension of the poetry thing, maybe, explains why I'm not much bothered by lyrics. Oh, I'm sometimes impressed by the odd nice bit of imagery, but by and large the tune of a song is far more important to me than lyrics are.
Legion of Casual Superheroes....ASSEMBLE!
I marvel at the existence of a photograph of myself that I don't hate.
(Another interesting thing that came out of that discussion was that I'd completely missed the point of Life of Pi, and I've been kicking myself for it, because it's a fascinating idea. It's intended as a kind of meta-commentary on belief: Two stories are offered covering the same events, one progressively more fantastical, one featuring hard-edged and brutal humanity.

That's precisely the thing I most liked about Life of Pi. When I got to the end I felt almost that Martel had been toying with me, daring me to believe the first story he told, rather than the more realistic one he tosses at you at the end.

Early on in the book it crossed my mind several times that perhaps it was based on a true story, partly because of the semi-biographical set-up, and partly because the writing was so detailed, so vivid, how could he make this stuff up? My credulity was increasingly stretched as the book progressed, and just at the point when I decided it was all a fantasy he throws in the 'realistic' version that made me believe in the story again, in that even if it wasn't exactly the way things happened, there might still be a grain of truth in there.

I think the trick is that the way he writes makes it seem so immediate and compelling that you desperately want to believe what he's telling you. And the off-hand explanation at the end sounds flat and dull in comparison to what's gone before, so you don't want it to be true.

I agree, it is a fascinating idea, and I loved the way Martel played with it, and with my beliefs as I was reading.

And this all tied in really well with the opening stuff in the book about the main character's multiple faiths and religions. I didn't see the connection at first, until I'd finished the whole story.