An interview with Southbank Centre Literature Festival’s Ted Hodgkinson

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Artwork by Harriet Cheney, Southbank Centre

This October, Southbank Centre will host its 10th Literature Festival, ‘Living in Future Times’. Beginning with a reading of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, the Festival will trace paths of thought from the worlds of sci-fi, scientific research, philosophy, music, poetry and contemporary fiction in a series of workshops, talks, and shows exploring questions about time and the future of humanity. “I guess it’s natural that when you’re reaching a milestone like 10 years, you’re both looking back and looking forwards” says Ted Hodgkinson, Senior Programmer for Literature and Spoken Word at Southbank Centre. As Hodgkinson and the Festival’s diverse programme suggest, “looking to the future is always a way of reflecting as well”.

Timely within the Literature Festival’s own history, ‘Living in Future Times’ is a theme with a clearly urgent relevance to pretty much every field of life at the moment (post-Brexit we are all unsure, if not unhopeful, about the future). But the ways in which the literary might be brought to bear on these pressing issues is what Hodgkinson brings it all back to: “it’s a great time for literature”, he says, adding that, in a world fraught by social conflict and insecure about its future, there are works of fiction offering an inkling of what might be to come. Its timely entrance comes as 2016, the year of literary commemoration (Shakespeare everywhere and anywhere), enters its final stages, and starts to look forwards as well as backwards. It comes, too, as we commemorate futuristic visions from the past: 150 years of H. G. Wells (who will feature in at least two of the Festival’s events), and 500 years since the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia, in The British Library’s current display Visions of Utopia.

‘Living in Future Times’ will encompass the future of literature’s own temporality, too — time as experienced by a reader. ‘The Future of the Short Story’ will consider form and length at a time when there is both a growing desire for brevity in what we read, and a counter-pull back to long form writing. The Festival is concerned with the future of literature as well as the futures created by literature.

For Hodgkinson, the Festival is not so much a celebration of science fiction as of all great literature’s ability to project a reader into a possible future. “It seemed to me that in the literary world at the moment, the writers who I keep coming back to — as a reader and as a programmer — are those who are looking really intently at the present, and in so doing giving us a glimpse of the world yet to come.”

The writers he cites are giants of contemporary fiction: Don DeLillo, Naomi Klein, Kazuo Ishiguro, David Mitchell. “These people are giving us a sense of the present with such intensity that it has the feeling of insight into what might be happening next”.

I am reminded of Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, in which he posits that any movement forward — in time, or on the various byways that book traces throughout the British Isles and beyond — must also be, by necessity, an acknowledgement and retracing of what has come before. Past tracks make the walker’s present passage a possibility.

Hodgkinson courteously thanks me for weaving Macfarlane into the conversation. “That is a beautiful book that deals with physical byways which are themselves narrative stories that get passed down.” (Hodgkinson’s own way of expressing these thoughts has something of this double-movement to it, progressing through reflection.)

“There is a sense in which any kind of story is a form of time travel”. Or perhaps a literal journey, as Macfarlane suggests. Beyond futuristic writings, Hodgkinson suggests the Festival will reflect most meaningfully on literature itself, and its inbuilt potential to uncover glimpses of the past and future through a heightened attentiveness to the present. It is a medium alive to the inevitable interconnectedness of those three categories which we like to think of as discrete.

The programme of events reflects this broader focus: stories and talks from far and wide — refugees, academics, scientists, playwrights, mathematicians, journalists, economists, mythologists, and cultural theorists — which touch on the present and future condition of humanity. Will those stories give us reason to feel sanguine? “It’s not about presenting a rosy view of the future. Simply saying what happens next doesn’t relieve the burden. The act itself is hopeful — even if the work is dystopian”.

Look at H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine. Wells was responding to something latent in his own times, says Hodgkinson: growing inequality in Victorian England. But the hopeful ability of the writer is an imaginative leap beyond this state of affairs, a projection into the distant future which enables not fanciful invention, but an exploration of what the present might develop into.

There is something superhuman about this ability, not unlike the possibilities science fiction excites us with (time travel, bodily transformation, cloning). Atwood, too, had that hyperawareness to “subtle shifts in language and tone in the present” that allows The Handmaid’s Tale to feel, in Hodgkinson’s opinion, incredibly prescient. “Particularly regarding the [American] election which we have on the horizon. She was ahead of the curve.” To write about the future you have to be an excellent reader of the present, attuned to its tremors that might become seismic in the future. That imaginative leap can occur in both directions, past and future; on 6th October, Atwood will speak at the Southbank Centre on her new novel Hag-Seed, which re-imagines The Tempest.

Returning to Wells, Hodgkinson draws a line from The Time Machine to “the divided world in which we’re living now — it’s a future warped by inequality, a species so divided it takes on different physical characteristics”. Like these writers, the Festival will ask questions of the future through talks exploring the here and now. ‘The Good Immigrant’ will ask ‘What it means to be a person of colour in Britain right now?’

Known for his imaginative projections of the future, Wells was also interested in folklore and its attachment to place. Reading ‘Mr Skelmesdale in Fairyland’, originally published in The London Magazine in 1903, it is striking how the transformative power of the landscape — and its legendary past — brings Wells closer to Macfarlane’s view of time and place than that of science fiction. It is a story that takes the mythical tales of a real place seriously (Wells wrote it after visiting Aldington Knoll, and suggested in ‘Mr Skelmesdale’ that the place harbours an entrance to fairyland). The mind is both spiritual and physical for Macfarlane – at once capable of transcendental imaginative leaps, but dictated by its physical surroundings. Those leaps are provoked by, indeed within, the landscape itself. In ‘Mr Skelmesdale in Fairyland’ it matters where the vision happens, and the place itself anchors the narrative.

We are talking about Macfarlane again, and his interest in the dawn of the so-called Anthropocene. Does the term mean anything to Hodgkinson or the Festival? “It does. It’s so interesting that we are now living in an era that has been totally defined by humanity as opposed to nature. We’re kind of creating our own circumstances. Epochs don’t come along very often, as it were. I think it’s an exciting prospect to think that we are now entering a phase in which we are the central defining force in our environmental ecosphere.”

Exciting for literature more than humanity, perhaps? I think on balance I’d say that we are probably living in a great time for literature — and I don’t know whether that means we’re in a great time more generally! Probably not. We need stories in times like these.”

Hodgkinson’s personal enthusiasm has been clear throughout — by the sounds of it, the Festival is his brainchild — but when I ask how he feels about the future, there is a thoughtful silence: “Yeah… interesting.”

“Probably one of the reasons I was keen to look at this theme is because it’s a question that preoccupies me a great deal. We seem to be living through a period of quite dramatic change and I think whatever field you look at — whether it’s politics or the arts — is seems that we are reaching points where people are saying ‘the old system isn’t working’.”

“You don’t necessarily come to literature for answers. But you come to share in asking questions, and to be in a space in which you’re given permission to ask those questions. I think it is about the action of collectively asking together.”

He has a wonderful faith, if not that all will be well in the future, at least in literature’s ability to show us what might be coming up.

“The thing that makes me hopeful is that even in these very dark imaginings there’s something quite beautiful about the writer’s ability to project us further forward than we think we can go.”

Perhaps, too, it’s about being rooted in a deeper time than the immediate past and future. There’s something assuring about Macfarlane’s acquaintance with geological time, his unimpeachable sense of being accompanied as a path-finder — by people, both dead and alive, old stories, rumours, and marks of endless geological change. I am left pondering whether literature has that special capacity, like paths, to take a reader down a way connecting past, present, and future times. If the future is a foreign land, strange and unexpected, we may take hope from literature’s ability to retrace a path back to our starting point.

By Alice Troy-Donovan


Artwork by Harriet Cheney, Southbank Centre

‘Living in Future Times’
Southbank Centre
5 – 16 October 2016