The fifth biennial Adelaide Festival of Ideas takes place from July 5 to 8 and Festival Chair Mark Cully has asked three Adelaide bloggers -- Tim Dunlop, Gary Sauer-Thompson and me -- if we would participate in a kind of bloggy engagement with the Festival. This is not so much a formal report as an on-the-ground punter's overview and thoughts: I'll be going to things that interest me and talking around them and the ideas they raise, rather than providing straight, or comprehensive, reportage.
(For anyone new to this blog who is bemused by the catblogging and other domestic preoccupations indiscriminately mixed up with the posts about politics and culture and ideas, this kind of heterogeneous reportage is one of the most pronounced manifestations in the blogosphere of gender difference, and in my case at least is a deliberate if very mild bit of feminist activism. Never mind the women from Venus and the men from Mars; my equivalent book on the subject would be called Male Bloggers Compartmentalise and Female Bloggers Don't. Now read on ...)
The Festival of Ideas began in 1999 and takes place in the years when there is no Writers' Week; unlike the writers' festivals in other Australian cities (Adelaide WW is the oldest one by more than 20 years), WW is biennial, as an integral part of the Adelaide Festival of Arts. It seemed logical to the organisers to run the Festival of Ideas in the alternate years.
One effect this has had, if largely by default and in punters' minds, has been to somehow hive off 'literature' from 'ideas' and vice versa, but obviously there's no such clear-cut distinction, and the kinds of guest writers who might be sorted into the 'ideas' box have in fact often drawn some of the biggest crowds at Writers' Week -- Robert Fisk last year, Paul Keating at an earlier Writers' Week, Michael Ignatieff (who was really something) at an earlier one again.
The guests who feature at the Festival of Ideas, however, tend not to be 'writers' as such, in the way we usually think about 'writers', but rather scientists, theologians, economists, philosophers and others whose books, articles, essays and broadcasts are a means to an end rather than an end in themselves, whether it's to convey information or to argue a case.
Because 'literature' as such is my living, my specialist subject and my main field of endeavour, I always know my way round Writers' Week -- but I feel very much the bemused and humble punter at the Festival of Ideas, and that will be the perspective from which I'll be writing about the sessions I go to. So far, these are the sessions (there's a link to the Festival website at the end of this post, including a complete program with session notes) that I've got a big asterisk next to:
* Everything with Norman Swan in it. Swan is one of my absolutely favourite ABC radio regulars and has an extraordinary gift for making complex ideas accessible without dumbing them down. He's got a lot of work to do: first up he has a session all to himself on the Friday morning, called 'Survival of the Fittest, Survival of the Richest or Survival of the Thinnest'. He's also participating in three panel discussions: 'Before You Eat', also on the Friday morning; 'Lifting the Lid on Whistle-Blowing', on the Saturday afternoon; and 'A Passion for Science', later the same afternoon.
* The Festival has quite a strong emphasis on food and health, on workplace issues, and on Indigenous matters, and those are the sessions at the top of my list. But I'm also looking forward to the opening session on the Thursday evening, 'The Elephant and the Dragon': this is a large panel discussion on the future of China and India and their place in the world economy, featuring Chinese Professor of Political Science Joseph Cheng, Indian historian and biographer Ramachandra Guha, Australian specialist in Pacific and Asian studies Robin Jeffrey, British (despite his name) financial journalist and author Philippe Legrain and Australian Colleen Ryan, the China correspondent for the Fin Review, in a session chaired by the ABC's (and Adelaide's) Peter Mares from The National Interest.
* Other titles that intrigue: 'People Without Borders', 'Mumbo-jumbo, Snake Oil and Other Delusions', and -- especially beguiling -- Jay Griffiths on the topic 'Wild Mind: a manifesto for the essential wildness of the human spirit'. But that's just the beginning. What I'll probably do is what everybody does at such a time: juggle the parallel sessions on the program, make a lot of hard decisions about what I most want to hear, and occasionally get sidetracked when I run into a friend I haven't seen for months or years and goof off somewhere for a coffee.
The thing I love most about the Festival of Ideas is what it says about my city. Not only because I live in a place that could think up something like that, get it going, and support it enthusiastically over a period of eight years, but also because the ordinary punters of the place turn up for it, as they do for Writers' Week, in droves.
For those three days North Terrace is jumping with an amazingly heterogeneous assortment of Adders citizens, from teenagers in school uniform to shrewd-looking and well-wrapped elderly people briskly pushing each other about in wheelchairs. The city of Adelaide was founded on ideas and shaped by visionaries, and at this time of every other year you can still see that inheritance in the eagerness with which so many of its citizens turn up to hear the thinkers of the world expound.
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The Festival of Ideas website is here.