Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Edinburgh Festivals Saturday 13 August: Bettany Hughes; Alexander McCall Smith

So, in the afternoon, fortified by a panini from the George Street Starbucks, I returned to the Book Festival to join my wife and mother-in-law for a talk by historian Bettany Hughes whose most recent book The Hemlock Cup is all about Socrates. She told us that when she'd mentioned to the author Mark Haddon that she was planning a book on Socrates, he said how fascinating that would be because Socrates' life is like a doughnut: we know a lot about his teachings, and about his contemporaries, but very little about the man at the centre of it all, as he never wrote anything down. Indeed, all we know of Socrates the man we learn from three authors, all with rather different slants: Plato, Aristophanes and Xenophon. You can see the problem: trying to learn about Socrates from his appearances in The Clouds and The Birds is like trying to write a biography of Michael Heseltine based on Spitting Image. Still, Hughes has made a good job of her huge task, and explained how much we now know (and are continuing to learn) from archaeology about life in Socrates' Athens: many little details in Plato that seemed fanciful have been confirmed. She talked about the "curse dolls" found recently, used for cursing enemies. Some recently-discovered ones were clearly used as teaching aids for children learning to read and write, listing inventive curses to put on your foes. For example, someone trying to sue you - and Athenians were as litigious as present-day Americans - could be cursed so his arms and legs would drop off as he entered the court-room, though not before his eyes had fallen out and he'd stepped on them. Not exactly The Very Hungry Caterpillar.....

She discussed Athenian democracy and Socrates' trial, as well as the parallels with another teacher who left no writings and was condemned to death by a religious court, to wit Jesus. Nobody knows whether Jesus was exposed to the teachings of Socrates, but it is a tantalising idea, with universal love - a fierce, cathartic kind of unsentimental love - at the core of both men's teachings.

After that we adjourned to the Spiegeltent for a coffee. There is a Matthew Algie coffe bar in there, and the staff all have appropriately literary puns on their T-shirts:

Lawrence of Arabica
A Midsummer Night's Bean
Pride and Percolate
Murder on the Orient Espresso
Lord of the Coffee Rings

There was also a large poster of To Kill a Mocha Bird.

Moving on.... our final event of the day was Alexander McCall Smith, who is a regular at the festival. (McCall Smith, J K Rowling and Ian Rankin: three millionaire novelists, all living in the same part of Edinburgh a mile or so away from us.) Last year he had book-ended his talk (as it were) with performances by a player of the musical saw. This year he had The Refrains, an a capella choral group from London who opened up with Over The Rainbow and Loch Lomond. His conversation ranged over his various series of books, and is impossible to convey in print. We discovered, though that the people of Argentina are obsessed by Freudian psychoanalysis (seriously - read Freud In The Pampas, by Mariano Ben Plotkin). Also that after giving W H Auden's literary executor an appearance in an Isabel Dalhousie novel, giving a lecture on "Freudian Guilt in the works of W H Auden", he decided that it would be fun to gather together a number of people who had made such guest appearances for a dinner party. Having brought the Auden guy over from New York, he persuaded him actually to give the lecture he had imagined fictionally. The session closed with another appearance from The Refrains, who did a wonderful version of The Teddy-Bears' Picnic.

And the evening and the morning were the first day......


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