After a festival is finished people often ask me, “What were the highlights for you?”
It’s like being asked which is your favourite child – an impossible question. I struggle to think of highlights and details which I can easily relay: the events that made me laugh; where I felt moved to tears; the ideas that inspired me; the new information I learnt. Often people like to hear a remembered joke. I’ve told many people about James Long interviewing Jeremy Hardy about his memoirs at our March festival in Cumbria. Remembering his mother, Jeremy Hardy said that she believed the family was descended from Sir Christopher Wren. When James referred to Wren Jeremy H. interrupted, “You say Wren; we say Uncle Chris.” There was lots of laughter throughout this event but I remember this joke particularly.
It is always satisfying to see the audience enthralled as they were by Shirley Williams. Her talk at Words by the Water was a highlight for me too. She said that as a child, contemplating her own comfortable home, she realized that wealth and advantage were unfairly distributed. Thus she turned to a life in politics.
A true highlight for me was an unexpected one. That is the pleasure of festivals; their serendipity nature. I expected to laugh at Jeremy Hardy and to be impressed by Shirley Williams but the 17th Century writer, Thomas Traherne was a surprise treat. Denise Inge discussed Traherne’s philosophy with Mark Vernon. Felicity, blessedness, happiness, joy – that was Thomas Traherne’s life’s work. “Nothing but felicity is worthy of our labour,” he wrote, and teaching happiness became his vocation.
Which is probably why I like running festivals: they teach happiness. It’s not all laughter and joy. Some talks are disturbing but memorable, as when Chris Rogers revealed his findings about Romanian and Turkish orphanages.
Most people, most of the time, leave Ways With Words' festivals feeling uplifted and enlightened. Their attention is turned to a new way of seeing the world; a fresh appreciation of its diversity and richness; a greater compassion for others. Very Traherne, very Ways With Words.
If you were unable to be at Words by the Water in Cumbria some of the above speakers will be appearing at Ways With Words at Dartington Hall, 9-19 July. The full programme will be available mid-May.