OIR: Reflections on the 2016 Words by the Water Festival of Words and Ideas

Article published on March 17, 2016.

Two of our reviewers attended the 2016 Words by the Water Festival and you can read Gwenda Major’s account here but before you press that link, take a moment to read what Linda Hepworth thought of it all. And then you can compare and conntrast!

Sitting in front of the computer, the day after the festival ended, I am wondering how such a long anticipated festival can have passed in what feels like the blinking of an eye – although after so much sitting and driving, my back probably thinks the ten days were more like twenty! It was certainly a memorable festival because the quality of so many of the speakers was of a particularly high standard this year, and the talks so stimulating, that many of us agreed that it was one of the best of the festivals ever held at Keswick. The fact that I left only one talk (to spare the speaker’s feelings I won’t say which!) is, as anyone who knows my unwillingness to waste my time on something I am not enjoying, testament to how special these ten days were. The range of topics covered was as eclectic as ever and so I really do feel full to the brim with lots of words and ideas – and the pile of my “to read” books has grown!

In the past there have been times when bad weather and thick snow have made travelling to Keswick rather hazardous so, as always, I travelled with a packed case, snow shovel and wellies but they remained unused! There were several days when there were “Amber Alerts” for snow and ice, but the occasional snow showers were never disruptive and the icy roads never felt worryingly hazardous. In fact, on some gloriously sunny days, the snow just served to show the hills of the Lake District and the North Pennines at their winter best.

In my feature “In Anticipation”, which was posted prior to the festival, I wrote about the talks I was particularly looking forward to on each of the days, and wondered what unexpected delights might be on offer. So did the selected talks match my expectations – and were there any unexpected “gems”?


Monday 4th March

Howard Jacobson’s account of the genesis of his re-telling, in a modern context, of The Merchant of Venice, his reflections on being a Jew in the modern world and on ideas around the issue of anti-semitism were both thought-provoking and, at times, very humorous – he reflected that, as a Jew, he could make comments that perhaps others couldn’t!

A.C. Grayling was, as always, a very stimulating speaker, providing the audience with a well prepared academic talk on the 17th Century scientific revolution – a real tour de force. On the numerous occasions I have heard him speak I have always felt stimulated by his ideas and this talk was no exception.

Saturday 5th

BBC Arts Editor Will Gompertz, on “Creative Thinking”, shared some very interesting and stimulating ideas about creativity and imagination, traits which he believes are unique to humans, and cannot be replicated (yet!) by computers. By the end of the session he seemed to have convinced even people who doubt they have a “creative gene” that maybe they have hidden depths!

My second choice had been Jonathan Bate on his book about the life and times of Ted Hughes and, although less humorous than Will’s talk, we were treated to a fascinating, scholarly and remarkably detailed exploration of the poet’s life. It was a talk which, unusually for the festival, ran over by ten minutes and left many of us wanting more!

Sunday 6th

David Crystal’s exploration of the historic development, and continuing pitfalls, of punctuation provided an impressive performance from this consummate speaker. He engaged his audience from the moment he started speaking; no notes, complete knowledge of his subject and total engagement with his audience – a truly magnificent presentation. I think he made all of us feel better when he told us that even Wordsworth had no confidence in his punctuation – or perhaps didn’t care much! In fact, on one occasion he had sent a major piece of his work to Sir Humphrey Davy at Cambridge with the request that he punctuate it as necessary – with the added instruction that, as he had no interest in the result, it should then be sent directly to the publisher! In contrast, Mark Twain telegraphed orders to shoot (without giving him time to pray!) the proof-reader who attempted to “improve” his (the author’s) punctuation!

David Aaronovich’s talk about his life with communist parents, surrounded by their communist friends watching Russian movies and attending Socialist Sunday School (whilst his peers went to church and watched American television) was fascinating. He had so much to share about this interesting background and how it has shaped his own views that he, rather disappointingly, left time for only one brief question from the audience – although lots of hands went up! So, although I really enjoyed what he had to say, I think he should have been a little more organised in his preparation in order to allow more time for questions and discussion.

Monday 7th  

As Anthony Loyd had been sent by his paper to the Middle East, Patrick Cockburn, the Middle East correspondent for The Independent, and an award-winning journalist and author, replaced him. He spoke about his latest book The Rise of the Islamic State: Isis and the New Sunni Revolution. He is a reporter for whose clarity of expression, ideas and information I have always had huge respect and so I had been very much looking forward to hearing him speak. However, although the content of his talk offered many new, and sometimes chilling, insights into the ever-changing situation in that area of the world, his rather hesitant presentation meant that at times I found it difficult to remain engaged – although this was less apparent when he was answering questions.

The totally unexpected “gem” of the day was provided by Isy Suttie – “comedian, writer and song-smith” – who entertained us with her reflections on growing up and searching for a genuinely good relationship. I had never heard of her and so had no idea what to expect – I had even considered skipping her session as stand-up comedians usually hold little appeal! However, I am so very glad I didn’t as I was delighted from start to finish by her very relaxed, spontaneous but polished performance. What a treat, and a wonderful example of the unexpected delights of having a festival pass!!

Tuesday 8th

Francis Beckett’s talk about his book The Architect of the NHS: A Clem Atlee Biography was delivered in a highly polished, thoughtful and amusing way. However, although it offered some new insights into the personality of his subject, I didn’t feel that I learned anything new about that period of our history so it won’t be one of the most memorable talks of the festival.

Although I had been looking forward to the talk given by Professor Irving Finkel, from the Department of the Middle East in the British Museum, on cuneiform script, the oldest form of writing, dating from over 3,000 BC, I feared that it could perhaps be “as dry as dust”. Nothing could have been further from the truth as the professor was a wonderful speaker who immediately engaged with his audience in a lively and, at times, very humorous way. I learnt such a lot – it is a reflection of how good a communicator he is, that this knowledge has remained vivid even though his talk came halfway through the festival – what a teacher, as well as a superb speaker!

Wednesday 9th

Chris Rapley gave an excellent, if disturbing talk about his play/theatrical lecture 2071, written in conjunction with Duncan Macmillan, a writer and theatre director and first shown as a play at The Royal Court Theatre, London. The script is now available in a short book as 2071, The World We’ll Leave Our Grandchildren, and the arguments presented persuaded me that this very readable book should be essential reading for everyone, especially as the clearly expressed facts come from such a well-respected climate change scientist.

My second choice of the day was a much more light-hearted, amusing and entertaining affair. Meg Rosoff talked about the genesis of her writing for young adults and all the “what ifs” which have influenced her decision-making throughout her life and which provided the stimulus for Jonathan Unbound her first novel for adults.

Thursday 10th

My choice for this day had been the talk by Anne Rowe and Avril Horner about their book Iris Murdoch: Her Life in Letters. Between them they gave a very polished performance and demonstrated that from childhood, and throughout her life, Iris Murdoch had been a prodigious letter-writer. Whilst I admired the scholarship behind the book, there were times when I did find myself feeling rather uncomfortable with the intimate content of some of the letters – for me a disturbing ethical question surrounds the publication of such personal letters.

An unexpected “gem” was the talk given by Anna Pavord about the power of the landscape. She spoke very eloquently about the landscape’s potential to comfort, awe and mesmerise and very movingly shared feelings about a sense of herself in relation to place – her use of the word “hefted” certainly endeared her to those of us who are more used to this word being used in relation to upland sheep!

Friday 11th

Juliet Barker is one of those speakers whose talks never disappoint because she is able to communicate her comprehensive knowledge of whatever she writes about in such an eloquent and accessible way. On this occasion she challenged the many commonly held myths about the Brontë family, particularly those perpetuated by Mrs Gaskell in her biography of Charlotte. Juliet provided the audience with a much more rounded and positive account of family life at the parsonage.

Grevel Lindop’s talk was about Charles Williams, novelist, poet and magician and a less well-known member of “The Inklings”, the Oxford literary group which included JRR Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. What a fascinating insight we were offered into the rather bizarre life of a man who was deeply involved in the occult, and who advocated sexual love as an approach to God. However, I have to say that by the end of the talk I didn’t feel much inclined to delve any further into the man and his writing!

This day’s real “gem” came from David Hare who talked with passion about his life experiences and how these have shaped his creative processes. It was easy to see why his plays are both so powerful and so totally convincing. Delivered in a rather modest and self-deprecating way, this talk was a real treat!

Saturday 12th

Having recently suffered a minor stroke (from which he is recovering well) Richard Dawkins was unable to talk at the festival but Professor Steve Jones, the renowned geneticist stepped into the breech. His talk “No Need for Geniuses – or why Genetics Matter” was not only informative and thought-provoking as he explored the interactions of nature and nurture, it was also a master-class in clarity and accessibility. As an added bonus, his delivery was also highly entertaining – how I envy the students he teaches!

His second session of the day, which was described as “in conversation” with Alistair McGrath, Anglican priest, Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford, and of Divinity at Gresham College, London, was something of a disappointment because the other speaker gave an overlong introduction to his own work and views and then dominated the truncated time for discussion. However, when Steve did manage to participate, his contributions were very clearly expressed, and were to the point rather than rambling and so were well worth listening to.

Sunday 13th

Salley Vickers is another writer whose talks are always well prepared and presented and this one was no exception. She gave the talk on behalf of the Royal Literary Fund, of which she is a fellow. She offered a fascinating, scholarly exploration of what Shakespeare means to us today, and what his influence is on contemporary writing. She particularly enjoys his use of the “play within the play” in his writing and acknowledged that this is a device she enjoys playing with in her own novels – those of us who are fans of her writing can attest to the success she achieves!

Paul Mason’s talk on “Life after Capitalism” was yet another of the festival’s challenging and thought-provoking talks, positing the idea that capitalism has reached its limits and that we need to create a more socially just and sustainable economy. His arguments were very convincing but everyone acknowledged what a huge shift will be needed to achieve this ideal.


So, as you will by now have realised, to a greater or lesser degree (and mostly the former) all the talks I had been eagerly anticipating didn’t disappoint and there were, indeed, some unexpected “gems”. There were many other talks which also warranted a 9* or 10* rating from me – a much higher proportion than in other years – but to list them all would take up too much space! Next year’s festival will take place between 3rd – 12th March so, although this year’s will be a hard act to follow, I have every confidence that Kay and Stephen will, once again, come up trumps!

Linda Hepworth
March 2016


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