Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Meet the Authors: Andrew Roberts, Helena Kennedy, Simon Schama

Friday 29 January 2010

Through Sally, we were able to attend the British Council's Meet the Author sessions. Here are the summaries from the morning sessions.

Below are the British Council blurbs, followed by my commentary.

Andrew Roberts
9:00-9:40 Andrew Roberts, historian and political commentator. Roberts is author of The Storm of War and The Holy Fox, a biography of the Earl of Halifax, foreign secretary to Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill. He is a regular contributor to British publications The Sunday Telegraph, The Spectator, Literary Review, Mail on Sunday and The Daily Telegraph.

A New and Fascinating Twist on History

Roberts gave a presentation on why Hitler lost the Second World War. According to Roberts' analysis, Hitler owed his downfall to a series of political, and racial assumptions that caused him to consider his enemies inferior: his blunders were ideological more than military or tactical. His base of support was a cult of personality in which, like a self-help guru, he preached nationalism and the empowerment of the people through self-affirmation.

Roberts noted the irony that many of the scientists who helped develop the atomic bomb that eventually put an end to the war and sealed Hitler's fate, came from Germany and Eastern European countries, from which they were forced to flee to prevent persecution. Or as Roberts put it, "Our German scientists were better than his German scientists."

My question to Roberts during the question period at the end of the session was: In the modern age, when there is more information flow, opportunity for dissent, and institutional checks and balances, could a leader with a strong cult of personality repeat political and military history, based on the social tendency to follow gurus of self-affirmation, or the fervor of religious fundamentalism?

In his answer Roberts suggested that there is little risk of this taking place in modern democracies, but the threat is still inherent in countries under the domain of religious fanaticism precisely because the checks and balances of democratic control are weak or nonexistent in these. He also noted that increased information flow means that the international community is much better informed and prepared to take action if necessary.

I found Andrew Roberts a fascinating and informative speaker.

Helena Kennedy
10:00-10:40 Helena Kennedy, barrister specializing in criminal and human rights law. Kennedy is an active voice in the arena of human rights, her most recent achievement being the establishment of the website Power 2010 which advocates reformation of the British political system. She has also set up a charity, The Helena Kennedy Foundation, which gives grants to underprivileged or disadvantaged adults to enable them to go to university and is the author of several books, including Eve Was Framed, which outlines the problems that women face in the British judicial system. Kennedy was chair of the British Council from 1998–2004. She is coming to the Festival with the support of Banco de la República.

Utterly Unpretentious and Moving Words from an Architect of Society

Kennedy spoke about human rights and why lawyers matter in a democracy. Her three criteria for democracy are: 1. Government that is held accountable, 2. Freedom of the press, 3. A fair judiciary system.

Following World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt hosted a dinner party with a group of experts whose interest was ensuring that nothing like WWII could ever happened again. This gathering gave rise to the universal declaration of human rights. Much time has past since that moment, and nowadays the focus has shifted to what is known as the second wave of human rights, which deals with the rights of individuals in communities. In the second wave, the role of the state is to enforce protection for those whose rights are being abused. Upholding the rights of vulnerable groups, women, ethnic, racial, religious minorities, minors, low-income people, etc., are some of the groups that these rights address directly. The law plays the vital role of protecting the people in a democracy, but it has not always served them well.

The current debate in human rights, in the age of terrorist threats and security alerts, is the issue of proportionality, which examines the justification for measures that restrict individual human rights for the greater good.

From the abstract to the personal. In response to a question from the audience, Kennedy acknowledged that she has had to defend people who she was convinced were guilty, but that it was her duty to do out of respect for the principle that everyone is entitle to a fair trial. She is opposed to capital punishment on the grounds that the law can be manipulated and wrongful convictions do take place. For example, she served as the defense in the appeal brought by one the Guilford Four who was wrongly convicted in the seventies of having carried out a bombing for the IRA.

For a tremendously influential woman with a remarkable background, Helena Kennedy was charmingly down to earth and humble. She spoke to the audience, composed mainly of young people, in a way that was inspiring and utterly unpretentious. She spoke clearly and directly about why human rights and the law matter in terms of building society; issues that are high relevant in Colombia today. By distilling rights to their essential principles, they become clearer, more important, more relevant, and more applicable. Kennedy is an inspiring speaker. Following the Hay Festival in Cartagena, Kennedy had a speaking engagement at the Los Andes University in Bogota, on Monday 1 February.

Simon Schama
110:00-11:40 Simon Schama, historian and well-known presenter of a number of award-winning BBC television series, including A History of Britain. Amongst his most famous works are The Embarrassment of Riches, Landscape and Memory, Dead Certainties, Rembrandt's Eyes, and his history of the French Revolution, Citizens. Schama graduated from Christ’s College, Cambridge, with a starred first, and has worked for short periods as a lecturer in history at Cambridge, where he became a Fellow and Director of Studies in History, and at Oxford where he was made a Fellow of Brasenose College in 1976. He is currently Professor of History and Art History at Columbia University.

"Art is Hardly Ever Just About Art"

Simon Schama was one of the more colorful speakers at the Hay Festival. Having hosted multiple BBC series, he is more aware than most of the fact that beyond a lecture he is giving a performance. As such he is hugely entertaining, but don't be fooled by the lighthearted delivery. He's no intellectual lightweight.

The topic of his speech was art and history, and the power of art. Art has the ability to give us new vision. It makes us see again from a new perspective. It shocks us out of complacency.

History is relevant because it is the "persistence of the past in our present." He notes that we are taught history as a deadly dull series of names and dates, whereas it should be told as an epic saga. History is "a piece of storytelling through which you ask questions." (Schama's emphasis). Schama delights at television and the Internet as "spectacular new tools" for history and storytelling.

With wry humor and palpable excitement, he talked about how his family infused him in history, telling him the stories and taking him to art museums and historical locations where as a young child he could see where the events that had shaped the course of the past had unfolded. He referred to this marvelous, Technicolor experience in living history as an antidote to the "British grimness" of the 1940s and 50s.

Schama holds art in esteem for its ability to deliver vision, as poetry delivers vision; in ways that were not previously considered. He underlines that much art needs to be studied in its historical context to be understood. In response to a question on political and protest art, he clarified that not all art is intended as social commentary, but "art is hardly ever just about art."

His words resonated hugely with me. One of the most influential courses I ever took was on the relation between art, literature, and history, taught by Professor Mary Robertson at McGill University. The text for the course was The Shock of the New (the companion book to a BBC series, although not one featuring Simon Schama). It had given a key to unlocking meaning and understanding just as Schama is doing with his students and the general public through the series. Schama is currently teaching at Columbia University in New York; such an inspiring and passionate lecturer makes me want to go back to school.

Sally and I met up with Robert Ness, the head of the British Council in Colombia, during these conferences and at several others. The outcome of the fact that we kept running into each other was that he invited us to the British Embassy party for the authors on Saturday night. I went up to Simon Schama at the party and told him that I had enjoyed his presentation. We had a pleasant chat about art and history and art and history in literature (for example, Headlong by Michael Frayn). He was quite charming, even though he was three sheets to the wind!

To be continued with the afternoon conferences.

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