Words in the Park 2012

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    Ways with Words’ first literary festival was a very clever idea. Already known as an opera venue, west London’s Holland Park played host to a very impressive line-up of talks.  Over three days, visitors were offered a broad spectrum of topics, from Jung Chang on Wild Swans twenty years later, through Jeremy Paxman on Empire, sessions with novelists Penelope Lively and A. S. Byatt, to philosophy with Alain de Botton, politics with Tony Benn and food with Sophie Dahl and Mary McCartney.

    While the words were lapped up by swelled audiences, the park provided more a presence than just a setting.  Pigeons flew through the open tent and peacocks could be heard all around – as could children’s lively play.  The size of the venue ensured there were no queues or battles for seats and the atmosphere was entirely convivial.  Following the talks, many of which functioned as book launches, a small neighbouring tent operated by Waterstone’s ensured the punters were able to buy a copy and have it signed.  This space, by contrast, was cramped, confused and full of queue, but people seemed so keen to shake the hand of their favourite writer that it did not seem to matter.

    The series of talks was well planned, each with its own feel.  Sandi Toksvig spoke little – just enough to elicit a few laughs, prompting John McCarthy to relate the extraordinary tales of his tour of Palestine.  He took the time to correct some misconceptions surrounding the creation of the state of Israel and described appalling privations faced by Palestinians living in Israel.  The audience showed their level of engagement with a wide array of questioning, which McCarthy responded to with authority.

    The first day culminated in a ‘Google Key Note Debate’ on the ways the internet is changing traditional power structures.  As with the other sessions, the list of discussants was impressive. (Disappointingly, illness prevented my attendance.)

    Jeremy Paxman took control of his session and gave, with the help of an enormous digital screen, a long presentation on the British Empire.  His thesis was that it shaped the way the British feel about themselves and the rest of the world today.  Following his meaty television series on the subject, it felt a little thin and ill-conceived.  His vague responses to the questions that followed made my companion wonder if his team of BBC researchers had provided the intellectual backbone of the television version.

    The British weather being what it is, the semi-enclosed tented venue did not allow for the removal of coats.  As each session was just an hour, it was entirely bearable.  It was relieving to spot that a hot water bottle and hot-air blower had been provided for the eighty-seven year-old Tony Benn, however.  Questioned by a comparatively child-like Owen Jones, of the New Statesman, Benn had room to ruminate on a life in politics – a business, he said, that revolved around ‘confronting the real argument’.  Puffing on the trademark pipe, he was full of encouragement for the new generation to be politically active, of belief in the Occupy movement, of unwavering determination that the Labour Party must be clung to with both hands.  Asked about the leadership of Ed Miliband, he stated that while he may not be ‘an instrument’ for a Labour win, he certainly isn’t ‘an obstacle’. Benn was full of praise for Jones’s book, Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class, while discussing his own, Letters to my Grandchildren.  It was a perfect ‘handing on of the baton’, although, as Jones pointed out, ‘I may look thirteen but actually I’m twenty-seven’ and, as Benn pointed out, ‘I may be a national treasure but I’m still dangerous’.

    Andrew Marr, John Bercow, Maureen Lipman, Bettany Hughes, P. D. James, Evan Davis…  Words in the Park was a very special weekend and a beautifully broad-ranging festival of literature. From fiction to politics, from history to food, anyone who wandered through the leafy corner of west London would find something to them unmissable.

    Written by Sophie Bradford