Festival of Ideas

LEO PARKER-REES, JAMIE WILMAN and WILL STINSON review the best events from the Festival of Ideas 2011. Expect science-bashing and similies involving Bill Oddie.

arts degrees bill oddie Cambridge University charlie higson festival of ideas Horror horror films leo parker-rees leszek borysiewicz lord byron Reviews Richard Dawkins vice-chancellor

The Magic of Reality – Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins’ talk on his new book, The Magic of Reality, drew a big crowd. Many were doubtless drawn more by celebrity than science, but the buzzing Lady Mitchell Hall certainly added to the evening.

Dawkins’ charismatic hostility to religion has gained him a great deal of fame, but this evening the focus was on the advocation of the scientific approach. Covering two of the 12 chapters in the book, Dawkins took us on a journey through facts, describing old myths and presenting modern science as an alternative that provides more magical explanations.

The evening was slightly lacking, however. While Dawkins’ talk on evolution was very well presented, we were only being shown what science tells us. Considering the full title of the book, The Magic of Reality: How we know what’s really true, it seems that the latter part was neglected. It was only when questioned on his preference for a scientific approach that he really justified it. This justification involved quoting ‘a T shirt’, saying “Science. It works, bitches”, and was a highlight of the evening. Aggressively atheistic pseudo-intellectuals everywhere would have loved it, but I was hoping for more elaboration on this key point.


Bill O’Reilly rips Richard Dawkins apart on US TV

It was unclear who the talk – or the book – was really aimed at, other than children in that precious stage of deciding whether to follow science or religion as the ultimate source of truth in life. A bit like indoctrination of children by religious people, but with more iPad apps. Although the religious indoctrinators probably use those as well. The hypocrites.

Discussing magic at the start, he explained that pumpkins can’t turn into stagecoaches, because it isn’t physically possible; there are too many atoms with too many permutations for such a change to happen rapidly. The explanation was thorough, but seemed to miss the idea of magic. It’s not supposed to be physically possible. If it were, it wouldn’t be magic. It would just be stuff.

Dawkins is a great speaker, but I’d hoped for more from such a celebrated figure. This felt like Dawkins for kids – Dawkins with a muzzle. Why was he here? Why was I there? These are the big questions, the sort not addressed by this (admittedly fascinating) talk.

– Leo Parker-Rees


Who Cares About the Arts and Humanities?Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Vice-Chancellor

When Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz (or ‘Boris’, because that’s easier to spell) took to the lectern, it was hard not to immediately think of a Welsh-sounding Bill Oddie. To help illustrate his points about the arguments surrounding the arts and humanities, Sir Leszek deployed a pretty appropriate metaphor: that of the arts as “endangered species”.

Boris did not deliver yet another passionate eulogy on the Arts, such as you might expect from Oddie on wild badgers. Instead we were first offered a brutally cutting insight into the lives, not of the Arts, but of that curious species of its so-called “Defenders”. Boris neatly split those Defenders into two categories: those who argue that the Arts are useful; and those who say that the Arts don’t need to be useful. Like the fervent Oddie, the latter category see the Arts as species under threat of extinction, and we should preserve them for their inherent beauty as we would miss them otherwise.

Boris: a Welsh Bill Oddie?

“This is not my vision,” boomed Boris, “and I think it seriously underestimates the Arts and Humanities’ value.” He says that conservationists have learned in the last ten years that pretty pictures of pandas can never be the sole basis of their argument. What we now have, according to Boris, are far more sophisticated discussions on securing food chains and in ensuring a supply of pharmaceuticals. Conservationists are even putting a financial evaluation on such things to get their case across.

Boris suggested that this utilitarian focus does not replace the “beauty” view of the arts; but compliments it. From the multi-billion pound creative industries in Britain, to the extent to which the arts share and exchange ideas with government, society and industry at large, the Arts do have this value. The problem, Boris argues, is that the Arts aren’t very good at showing it. Whilst the sciences have managed to explain the value of their research to the public over the last 30-40 years, the arts haven’t sold themselves. Boris challenges the Arts to shed the victim mentality, to go out into society and start to making a positive case.

– Jamie Wilman


Charlie Higson’s History of Horror

It started off so well. In the dingy Lady Mitchell Hall, Charlie (in The Fast Show but hasn’t done much since) Higson recounted the gruesome and mysterious tales that inspired some of the most famous horror stories: a recurring nightmare of her still born child awakening led Mary Shelley to pen Frankenstein; the Indonesian volcano that erupted, leading to much of the atmosphere of the northern hemisphere being covered by volcanic ash, and so the year of 1816 came to be known as ‘the year without a summer’. It was the effects of Mount Tambora that led to the Victorian gothic masterpieces of Polidori’s The Vampyre being written.

Charlie Higson and three of his teenage fans

The story goes that Lord Byron invited his personal doctor, John William Polidori, as well as Percy Shelley and his mistress to his villa on Lake Geneva. Sitting around the fire, they held a competition for the best horror story they could think of. Byron began the tale of the aristocratic vampire, but he had more pressing matters to attend to. Polidori finished his tale; The Vampyre was published.

A Gothic film fanatic and horror writer himself, Higson uses all his charisma to engage both parents and children, forming a hilarious and encapsulating narrative, but then he brazenly finishes his saga of the masters of the horror genre with himself. Shamelessly plugging his new book for young teenagers, The Enemy, the talk turns into a series of questions from the floor. All the children ask about are his new book as garish advertising is blatantly projected at the back of the stage; the way the children are hypnotised by the bright colours is the most disturbing part of the whole talk.

– Will Stinson