I just found a place where smart people take time to discuss books and ideas, and then you can walk in the snow

Spoke at my first literary festival this week – ‘Words by the Water’ in Keswick. I’ve no idea if it was representative of WBTW 1other such events, but it was fascinating. About 100 people showed up to hear me bang on about How Change Happens. They were probably the most un-aid wonk audience I’ve spoken to so far; they were also the oldest – the demographic at the whole festival was overwhelmingly retired and probably one of the cleverest.

If you’re speaking to an audience of pensioners, things are a bit different. Firstly, quite a few of them go to sleep. Best not to take it personally (hey, I dozed through a couple of talks myself), but keeping going with the powerpoint when a guy in the front row is out cold, head thrown back, mouth open, and being elbowed by his embarrassed wife, is definitely a skill worth acquiring.

But when they’re awake they are as sharp as anything – Q&A included ‘is your use of systems based on hard systems or soft systems methodologies’, to which my reply was ‘eh?’ They are also (thankfully) bookish – How Change Happens sold out, as did many other authors.

words-by-the-water-740x493The thoughtful, erudite conversations continued in the cafe on the margins of the festival – got into one exchange with a retired environmental scientist on whether entropy and evolution are contradictory laws (entropy = increasing disorder; evolution = increasing order).

Then there were the other authors. I actually found the non-fiction sessions more interesting, including lots of people who resembled famous faces off the telly, only greyer (a bit like watching the House of Lords).

Which got me thinking again about the role of older people in society. Here is this huge repository of the smart and experienced. They may have decided to get off the frantic merry-go-round of full time work (I have a friend who retired as a General Practitioner because at 60, he just couldn’t hit his target of seeing a new patient every 12 minutes); they may not be able to keep up with the endlessly receding IT frontier; but surely there are ways to tap into all that wisdom?

In advocacy, I have long thought that older people make better lobbyists (more contacts, more experience, more credibility, greater staying power) – hence my so-far-failed attempts to get Oxfam and others interested in ‘grey panthers’ lobby groups. At LSE, where I teach one day a week, one of the main roles can best be described as mentoring – listening to students’ interests and doubts, suggesting paths to take and things to read. A lot of the people at this festival would be great at that, but how to set it up?

That does of course assume older people would want to stay in touch in this way. They seem to be having a pretty Blencathragood time anyway, if Keswick is anything to go by.

So if any other litfest organizers are looking for speakers, let me know – especially if your event is somewhere as beautiful as the Lake District. I have to confess that I bunked off to go hill walking most days. The highlight was climbing a hill/mountain called Blencathra, (here’s me crunching through the snow), then descending in time to hear a film maker and poet introduce the lyrical film of the same name. Wonderful day.

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2 Responses to “I just found a place where smart people take time to discuss books and ideas, and then you can walk in the snow”
  1. Fiona Remnant

    Couldn’t agree more on the importance of ‘grey panthers’. When I was an Oxfam campaigns coordinator, my best and most active local groups usually had an average age of over 75. They were experienced, well read, credible, committed and had the time and head space to do effective campaigning. MPs loved patronising me and other youngster ”’do-gooders’, but they somehow never dared to patronise the grey brigade who were always ready to come back at them with a stat or sheaf of papers.

  2. tom speight

    Duncan. it was great to meet you and to hear you speak. I thought you dealt with the cerebral questions in the audience with charming panache ! I love this festival (it’s only the second time I’ve been a chair) largely because of who you find yourself bumping into and starting to talk to. Alongside yourself, I got chatting to a remarkable writer called Jeremy Gavron who has written an extraordinary book about his mother who dies when he was just 4 – the book is his quest to find out who she was (book review here https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/nov/01/hannah-gavron-a-woman-on-the-edge-of-time). There were just 20, maybe 25 of us in the audience (same room as yours) – yet one woman sitting there, it transpired, had known Jeremy’s mother and another had been born and had been inspired by his mother’s book (a feminist tome way ahead of its time) and the room was suddenly charged with wonderfully intimate and heartfelt emotion. I never expected that as I rolled up on saturday morning to chair my two sessions. Just love that picture of you in the snow too. And we’ll always have the other Duncan too. Great blog which I will now follow with interest.