I went to the Observer Festival of Ideas last weekend. I'd discovered David Simon was talking - that got my attention. I then saw the rest of the lineup, a curiously eclectic bunch of musicians, chefs, tech gurus, mathematicians and scientists. They included a prince, a dance psychologist, Tinie Tempah, Jeremy Deller, Ed Snowden (via Skype) and...Conchita Wurst. It sounded brilliant.
Was there any thematic glue binding together this odd assortment of speakers? A particular issue or underlying motif? Not that I could make out from the strangely muted publicity. Nothing wrong with that maybe. But I did wonder on the way to the event what we were in for, a random selection of life stories from the Observer’s little black book or something more coherent? What was the idea behind this festival of ideas?
Happily John Mulholland the Observer editor gave an answer in his introduction. Running a newspaper can by necessity partition coverage into the well worn issues of the day. Running an event like this is a good way for a newspaper to break out of the rut and discover different stories.
An example: Giles Duley, a photographer who lost three limbs from a landmine in Afghanistan, spoke of his recovery at a previous Observer event and since then had had stories covered in the newspaper. He spoke briefly at our event too about his new project Legacy of War which will look at conflict’s longer term effects on people, long after the newspapers have lost interest.
Duley invited PJ Harvey on stage to recite a couple of her war poems which she did with quiet intensity. The whole day in fact was one compelling person leading into another, a chain of fascinating stories.
Chido Govera told us how learning to farm mushrooms had pulled her out of poverty. Yvgeny Morozov offered a devastating critique of the simplistic data-gathering solutionism set to dominate social policy for decades to come. Michael Twitty, advocate of culinary justice, explained the fine balance required between giving culture freely and protecting it from exploitation. And Jack Monroe described movingly how long it takes to spend your last £4.56 in the supermarket in order to feed your child.
It didn't stop there. Maggie Aderin-Pocock confessed to the Clangers being her inspiration as a space scientist. Emmanuel de Merode presented the Virunga National Park’s solution to gorilla poaching: the creation of 100,000 jobs in sustainable industries. Dr Kate Stone made posters that played music. Tinie Tempah shared his theory of happiness. Jeremy Deller drew connections between the life of wrestler Adrian Street and the UK’s move into a service-led economy. Ed Snowden, on a faint line from Russia, talked in surprisingly chipper tones about global surveillance. And David Simon delivered a piercing commentary on American politics, how the power of capital has undermined democracy’s ability to solve social problems.
It was funny, inspiring, varied, thought-provoking, moving. And as the day developed interesting themes did begin to emerge, by design or by chance, the most prominent for me being this: how misfortune or adversity – poverty, being a target for militia, having dyslexia in the 70s, stepping on a land-mine... – can sometimes lead to unexpected, even rich, journeys that form the basis for surprising solutions and unimagined outcomes others can benefit from.
Songwriter and musician Edwyn Collins was a case in point. Severely debilitated, almost killed, by a double stroke in 2005 he’s since made a difficult, astonishing recovery, with the help of his wife Grace Maxwell, and is back writing songs. Chatting and laughing, they both said they’d been led to a place, a good place, they wouldn’t have found if the stroke hadn’t happened.
There were other musicians, too, such as the imperious, witty Benjamin Clementine, who shuffled onto the stage clutching his coat collars, performed a few songs and then proceeded to demonstrate how music is mathematics, not via the harmonious ratios of Pythagoras but by giving each piano key a number. Doh!
But by far the strangest contribution came from Conchita Wurst. She was the last on stage and embraced the occasion with a composed, thoughtful speech about the benefits of the European Union, how everyone needs a friend, even if you’re an island nation. It was beautifully, endearingly wacky and was topped off by a mesmerising rendition of Rise Like A Phoenix.
Everything begins with an idea, Conchita pointed out, before launching into her power ballad. That’s very true indeed. Thank you, Observer, for having the idea for this festival.