Free Thinking Festival 2010: Matthew Sweet

Think for a moment about the last man standing. The caretaker who hovered around the school. The same man you knew remained in the building long after the kids had gone home. Nobody wanted that job. Nobody wanted to be left after everyone else had gone home. What a lonely prospect.

So it is with lovely Mr Sweet. After all the Free Thinkers have gone home after a frightfully couple of days spent thinking and gassing and wotnot, so Matthew remains at the helm of ship steering us through some of the highlights of the Free Thinking Festival.

I felt rather sorry for him when I spoke to him earlier on this afternoon, so much so I momentarily forgot about my splitting headache and flagging energy levels.

:: The Free Thinking Festival kicks off on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday 7 November and is available on BBC iPlayer for 7 days afterwards. Broadcasts continue throughout the week and right up until Christmas.

Free Thinking Festival 2010: Sport or Arts?

What does Britain do best, sport or the arts?

Initially, I mistook the debate title for ‘what’s best: sport or the arts?’ Which of course is a no-brainer of a question. The arts wins hands down. Every time. Obviously. But then I’m bound to say that.

I’m in no way sporty. If I watch any sport, it’s tennis. And if I’m forced to watch anything like football say, the only way I’ll make it anywhere near bearable is by turning the 90 minute ordeal into something which might loosely be referred to as ‘talent spotting’. Their talents with the ball don’t normally figure in my assessment. And, given that at the point of writing this I can think of possibly only one eye-catching specimen on the pitch, it’s not difficult to confess that football and sport in general is normally something I steer well clear of.

And therein lies sport’s problem, in my opinion. In this country at least, sport means football. Sport’s image seems to be shaped by football. In some cases it might even be tarnished by football’s image. At least that’s the way I observe it from my specially roped-off area signposted “Reserved for The Arts”.

At the same time however, I see the same passion for the game football fans have as I share whenever the Eurovision bus rocks up in town. You’d think on that basis I’d be able to map one experience onto an understanding of the other. I don’t. I can’t.

One is needless, pointless entertainment. And the other is someone else’s party. One I’m not invited to. I’m just never going to get excited about the possibility or the reality of a goal being scored.

Even when I reluctantly find myself involved in the progress of England in the World Cup, I’m not actually involved in the sport per se. I’m more interested in getting to the next level. It’s the win, not how we get the win which I’ll latch onto come the World Cup.

And because I don’t get football it seems even more unlikely I’ll follow rugby or swimming or darts. Darts is a sport, isn’t it?

I know. I know what you’re thinking. There’s not much to understand. It’s not that alien. It’s not a different language. It’s not difficult. I probably just need to go to my local (wherever that is) and watch it with a crowd to experience the thrill of it. Or maybe I need to go to a match. Even though that communal experience is the opposite to the inward reflection I indulge in whenever I come into contact with the arts, I know that attending some kind of sporting event in person is the least I can do. If sports fans I know are prepared to venture into a concert hall then I’m sure I could make the effort and go watch a football match.

That fig-leaf laid to one side however, I still didn’t buy the claims made by Matthew Syed and Pat Nevin ‘for sport’ during the joint Radio 3 and Radio 5 Live live debate that sport was more inclusive than art. Such a cri du coeur did sound a little like a slightly politer version of the age old criticism that the arts is elitist. And there’s nothing more annoying to someone who derives immense pleasure from the arts than hearing cries of elitism.

But tonight’s debate did do something quite unexpected. Something a bit weird.

At the end of what at first I had thought was an intensely disappointing event on the internet (it seems no-one wanted to participate in discussion on the internet of the kind BBC Question Time gets week after week), I found myself wandering back to my hotel room with a slightly adjusted view on sports fans.

Listening to former football player Pat Nevin and Matthew Syed make erudite cases for sport, I was left with a new insight difficult to shake even if it did reveal how narrow-minded I might have been before. It was as though I’d been given a primer into how intelligent sportsmen think. That was enlightening. I don’t know I’ve ever heard that before. I’d had my preconceptions shaken up a bit. I’d been tackled. I’d been thrown to the ground, landed in the mud but – most importantly of all – helped up by my tackler too.

And before you say it, I don’t think I could have got that insight merely listening to BBC 5 Live more. I’d hear people commentating on sport. I might hear people speculating about sport. But what I wouldn’t hear is what sport means to them. That’s what I heard indirectly from the mouths of Nevin and Syed. That’s important. That’s what I need to hear as an arts fan to connect with them.

If you were to over-simply this blog post you might (if you were being especially disingenuous towards me) assume that I’d thought all sportsmen were thick and didn’t think about their passion in the same way I did about mine.

Of course. That would be to over-simplify. And let’s be clear: ‘thick’ is a dirty word too. A deeply unpleasant one. No, I didn’t think that before. The point was, I didn’t feel like I understood sport. I wanted some kind of deep understanding (or justification) in order for me to feel as though I could connect with it. Nevin and Syed effected an introduction where that was concerned. For me, they opened negotiations admirably and decently.

But back to the point of the debate? What does Britain do best? Sport or the arts? It does both very well, satisfying audiences up and down the country and meeting the expectations of those audiences admirably.

What Britain needs to work on however, is making sure that sport and the arts work a little harder at understanding each other. By which I mean me. I should probably work harder at understanding sport a little bit more.

After all, there’s got to be more to just footballers than what they look like, hasn’t there?

:: Listen to the joint BBC Five Live / BBC Radio 3 debate from the Free Thinking Festival on BBC iPlayer or via BBC Programmes

:: The picture at the top of this post is from the BBC website. It’s of the Millennium Bridge outside the Sage, Gateshead.

Free Thinking Festival 2010: Kevin McCloud

Kevin McCloud was speaking at the Free Thinking Festival this year in a lecture recorded for later broadcast on Radio 3. (I’ll let you know when it’s being broadcast, soon.)

I was meant to be tweeting during the event. What quickly became apparent during McCloud lecture was how difficult it was to tweet. Listening to him was akin to a specially extended edition of Grand Designs. The man writes beautifully and speaks even more eloquently. So much so that every single sentence is a 140 character tweet in itself. Little wonder that after a while I gave up, sat back and listen to what the man said.

And it was a convincing argument too. So convincing in fact, you’d be forgiven for wondering why it needed to be made at all. Doesn’t everyone already know deep down that mass-produced goods aren’t terribly good for our psyche. That cherishing those objects in our lives which have narrative, those which weather well and perhaps even improve with age is better for our soul?

His solution was simple. We need to return to respecting craftmanship.

His illustration – proof if you like – was simple: shopping promotes the production of dopamine, a short term mind-enhancing drug which temporarily makes has feel better about ourselves; investing time in craftmanship like extended periods of time spend making a sculpture promotes an alternative mind-altering and considerably longer-lasting drug – serotonin. Which would you prefer?

But there was a problem for me. McCloud’s is well-known for documenting the paths people follow in creating their dream homes. Grand Designs is about self-builds involving the kind of craftmanship he espouses. But they’re also projects which involve lots of money and considerable amounts of pain in the process for those pursuing – as far as I can make out – an extreme form of happiness.

During a short interview after his lecture, I asked him whether it was all really worth it. Just because you’re respecting the value of craftmanship in the end product, are the months of agony us viewers often derive a warped sense of pleasure in watching really worth it when the build is complete?

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Free Thinking Festival 2010: Human Aquarium

Here’s a little thing from the fringes of the Free Thinking Festival this year. If you don’t want to read what’s below, skip to their interview here.

Human Aquarium is … well .. what is it exactly? It’s a box. That’s what it is. A box packed full of computer and projection equipment with two people sat inside looking out through a perspex screen to a bemused looking crowd the other side.

One of the pair – Guy Schofield (below) – operates the ‘machinery’. The other – Robyn Taylor (above) – sings a long drawn out melody into a microphone.

There’s a technical chappy too – that’s John Shearer (below). He, like me, looks on at the assembled crowd who in turn look on the whole thing with a mixture of bemusement and excitement.

Unlike me, however, he does from time to time touch the perspex screen while Robyn and Guy perform inside their box amid temperatures approaching a stifling 40 degrees. No wonder their sets extend only to 20 minutes a time. By touching the perspex screen John like any member of the audience helps create the performance. The fingers on the perspex influences the computer-generated sounds. I don’t know how exactly, but it does. And, in a space like Sage, Gateshead it’s quite a wondrous thing to experience. Not least because the sight of it draws you and others in. And as soon as that happens you’re entranced.

One night only at the BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival. No matter though. I talked to them for ten minutes about their work. And what a smashing bunch they are too.

And there’s even some hastily shot video of their performance too.

:: Follow Human Aquarium on Twitter
:: Find out more about the lovely performers on the Human Aquarium website

Music: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment play Cherubini

Lovely to see a handful of groovy Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment office bods share their thoughts ahead of the orchestra’s 9 November “French Connections” concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London.

There’s more than a hint of communications director Will Norris having cajoled his colleagues into taking part. Imagine their reaction … “You want me to do what Will? This is gonna cost you. It’s gonna cost you big time.”

The word “duress” is probably going a little far. But on the basis that they all look lovely, I’m sold on the idea. I don’t know much Cherubini either.