Big Bang! London Word Festival 2010

‘Is it really that time of year again?’ one asks oneself like a wizened old relative. Yes, it is indeed. But don’t worry, it’s not Christmas… It’s time for the ever-inventive and always entertaining London Word Festival.

Running throughout March, this festival, now in its fourth year, is masterminded by a small and dedicated team – Tom Chivers, Sam Hawkins & Marie McPartline – and since its inception in 2007 the festival has gone from strength to strength.

It officially kicked off on Sunday, but I wended my merry way to the third event of the festival – a Big Bang edition of Robin Ince’s School for Gifted Children.

As the evening’s host, Robin Ince, remarked very early on in the night, if you look up the word cosmology in the dictionary, it means ‘everything’; well, you get what he means… Not an ambitious theme for an evening’s entertainment, then? This brief dash through elementary particle science via the mediums of stand up, song & entertaining talks also took place in St Leonard’s Church with its imposing but refined Palladian structure.

So we were entertained with songs about astrophysics from The Sound of the Ladies’ Martin Austwick, taken on an amusing and nifty dash through the origins of the US space programme by Helen Keen – a surname that suits her well – and treated to an oddly-affecting song about the fourth man on the moon.

And this is the essence of the London Word Festival – unusual connections and unexpected illuminations. You find yourself in a candlelit church of a Thursday evening, the stone arches and impressive stained glass windows almost disappearing in the gloom, half-wondering what you’re doing there as the introductory strains of the Dr Who theme echo out around you (this was a somewhat geeky event and I have to say I wasn’t getting most of the “in” jokes), but you end up experiencing something new and something inspirational.

In my case this occurred with the advent of Professor Brian Cox on to the stage – I’d never heard of him before but I thought he was fantastic. On a huge screen behind him with the lights down low, in a church, he showed us pictures of galaxies billions of years away from us; of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons that has more water underneath its surface than can be found on the whole of the Earth, and therefore suggests life; mentioned that the edge of the observable universe (observable being the key word here) is 46 billion years away; showed us an iridescent image of Saturn’s rings with a tiny star just below – ‘that’s Earth’.

It was magical and he explained it all in such a simple and enthusiastic way, commenting often about how beautiful it all was, how extraordinary, and made a compelling argument for why all that money spent on space exploration is worth it: ‘A physicist is only ever a hydrogen atom away from learning about a hydrogen atom.’ Asking when would you have stopped space exploration in the past? Listing inventions we now take for granted that have come about because of it. He really made the universe seem as if it was perfectly understandable, even to forgetful GCSE science graduates like myself.

Unfortunately at this point I had to leave as, and Professor Cox will know this better than anyone what with the universe’s ever-expanding nature, the world won’t wait, and Betty the schnauzer puppy had to be rescued from her night in alone. So I crept away leaving the audience to enjoy the fun, which included performances from Josie Long and Toby Hadoke. Sorry to have missed the rest of the night, but I thoroughly enjoyed what I did see. I suggest you all get yourselves along to at least one event at the festival. You won’t be disappointed.

Literary highlights include:

Fri 12 Mar

AVANT! NOIR
Music from Led Bib & Get The Blessing 
Dark fiction from Toby Litt, 
Cathi Unsworth, Courttia Newland
& Ray Banks


Tue 23 Mar

OH, WHISTLE AND I’LL COME TO YOU, MY LAD
+ A Pint for the Ghost by Helen Mort


Wed 24 Mar

TIM TURNBULL
+ Laura Dockrill 
+ Luke Kennard 
+ Instructions for Heartbreak 
by Francesca Millican-Slater

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