When happiness is threatened …

This post might be just a little bit too left-field. But it’s worth a shot. It’s worth seeing whether it resonates or – to use a current buzzword from work – ‘chimes’ with anyone.

I’ve spent the last ten days or so thinking about happiness and the pursuit of happiness. This has been in part because of the brilliant weekend I spent up in Newcastle, seeing how radio producers work, how radio presenters speak, how lecturers write and how audiences interact. The process has – as you might expect – been an incredibly enriching process.

You might even say it’s made me ‘happy’. I’ve ended up feeling like I’ve grown to fill the space I want to occupy. It’s as though the process of listening and responding has helped me fulfill my potential. It’s a process which promotes good feeling. That. Is Important.

So, given that backdrop – a surprisingly positive one, now I come to read it back – you might think it surprising I’m feeling a bit blue in the video below. You shouldn’t worry. What you see is pretty normal for me, as it happens. This is the “half-past ten” thought process in action. What’s unfortunate is that this was recorded at half past seven.

Hey ho. No matter. What I’m really interested in here is what happens, how we react and how we manage those moments when we feel as though the happiness we’ve acquired is at risk. Do we roll over and say “Yeah, whatever, happiness is cyclical – accept it.” Or do we embark on a way of protecting ourselves? Do we protest like the students outside Millbank this afternoon? And if we protest, what is the best to do rail against that perceived injustice?

:: The picture included in this blog post is was published by Flickr User by Jim Rafferty and is used here under licence.

Free Thinking Festival 2010: Vultures Roy Williams

Vultures is a play written by BAFTA award winning playwright Roy Williams.

It was recorded at the 2010 Free Thinking Festival on Saturday 6 November and will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday 7 November at 8.30pm.

Listen to an interview with the playwright or read the reasonably interesting text below.

The Radio 3 Drama recorded live at the Free Thinking Festival every is year is always a must-see for me. After all the discussion during the day, the opportunity to sit down and see a spot of fiction is a relieves the senses. It’s live theatre, recorded ‘as live’ (meaning it’s recorded all in one take) in front of an audience.

This is the third Free Thinking drama I’ve been along to. Tony Marchant’s play two two years ago was upsetting. Last year’s entitled ‘Beware the Kids’ was disturbing. This year’s – written especially for Free Thinking by Roy Williams – was immersive and thought provoking.

Williams’ play – ‘Vultures’ – joins a growing list of memorable dramas, in part because of it’s simple premise. Author Yvette is participating in a Q&A at a bookshop at the launch of her recently published book. But there’s a fly in the ointment. To what extent is the book autobiographical? A strong opinion emerges from the audience. Initially finding it difficult to speak out, Sean – someone from Yvette’s past – bursts out.

The presence of two of the actors in the audience during last night’s recording did come as a surprise. The moment Sean is introduced was – quite unexpectedly – an incredibly tense moment from where I was sat on the back row. I didn’t know he was there, wasn’t expecting him to be there and was – quite frankly – petrified of him.

This despite director Kate Rowlands advising us all that they were “dotted around” before the recording started. Mind you, us lot in the audience were perhaps concentrating on our role in proceedings. To the side of the stage throughout the play a production assistant held up pieces of cardboard with instructions on them. Yes, the audience you hear in the recording are part of the drama too. And yes, this means that I have – in a sense – been on the radio. At last.

But it was the audience participation – none of us knew before we got there – which was one of the risky elements. Whether or not that contribution necessarily works is open to interpretation and – thankfully – won’t impact on the interesting themes playwright Roy Williams introduces in the play.

I spoke to Roy shortly after the recording. He seemed utterly cool about the whole thing. Mind you, it was over by then.

:: Listen to ‘Vultures’ recorded at the 2010 Free Thinking Festival on BBC Radio 3 at 8.30pm on Sunday 7 November.

Free Thinking Festival 2010: Speed Dating

The speed dating event is always fun at the Free Thinking Festival. It’s noisy. Bustling. Vibrant. It’s a spectacle. There are always people smiling.

Present day transparency
The Radio 3 Horn

If you’re still needing the idea explained, here’s how it works. There are thinkers and thinkees. Groups of thinkees sit around a thinker and listen to them posit on somesuch for a minute or so. The thinker’s proposition can be about anything. For the remaining few minutes the thinkees are sat with that thinker, questions can be asked and arguments challenged. Then, after a few minutes The Radio 3 Horn is honked (only specially trained BBC people can use it – I can’t, I’m not allowed) and thinkees move on to the next thinker.

Then, when all the thinkees have heard all the thinker’s propositions, scores are totalled up and the winner announced.

And, in a development from previous years, the winning thinker – this year, Natalie Haynes defending Latin – gets to trot out their thought in a special reprise surrounded by the thinkees. You know, just like the Eurovision winner gets to reprise their song at the end of the scoring. Nice.

See host Ian McMillan explain to Louise Walter what the Speed Dating event is all about in this video report from last year’s Free Thinking Festival.

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.