ELF’s Festival in a Day: Of Jackson Brodie, Dolphins and Medusa

Last Saturday, I attended a special screening of sessions from the Cheltenham Literature Festival at Novo Cinemas in the Festival City Mall. When I first saw the notification on the Emirates Literature Foundation’s Instagram, I thought for a minute that Kate Atkinson, David Attenborough and Mary Beard were going to be in Dubai. Then sanity prevailed, and I read the finer print.


That these three amazing personalities were not present in the flesh did not in any way detract from the quality of the event. This, as Ahlam Bolooki, Festival Director, Emirates Lit Fest mentioned, is meant to be the first of many such screenings from Lit Fests around the world. (The Emirates Literature Foundation organizes the Emirates Lit Fest every year in March). I’ve also been fortunate to attend intimate, salon-like sessions in their heritage headquarters in Fahidi, featuring Tim Mackintosh Smith and a young art student, Rawa Talass, in the past.

Right outside the theatre, Magrudy’s bookstore had a little stall featuring works from all the speakers. I picked up the new Kate Atkinson, Transcription, as well as two of Mary Beard’s works on the classics and Rome.


The Magrudy’s stall at the Festival 

All the sessions were transmitted live from Cheltenham, with 45-minute breaks in between. The clarity of the transmission was top notch, and the presence of erudite moderators enhanced the experience. In each session, there was a shoutout and wave to Dubai, as well as a question (vetted in advance) from the Dubai audience.

Kate Atkinson

Atkinson started off by reading a humorous passage from Transcription and then answered questions posed by the interviewer, Sam Baker. The book is set in 1940, in war time Britain, and the protagonist is a secretary in MI5. It is based on true events, on a long running operation by the MI5 to identify British fascists and Nazi sympathizers. (I immediately thought of Diana Mitford and Oswald Mosely).

But the conversation was wider ranging than that.  Atkinson spoke a little about Life After Life and A God in Ruins, as well as her Jackson Brodie series of crime novels (yes, there’s a new one coming out soon!). She touched on the rather strange and patronizing New Yorker review of Transcription, which while mostly complimentary, contrasted her with Rachel Cusk (who’s highly acclaimed novel Outline, I found unreadable) and called her a matron, which she thought was “not just sexist, but ageist”. In response to Sam Baker’s observation that she’s one of the few authors who’s both popular and critically acclaimed, she said she is bewildered that her work is labelled as ‘women’s writing’ or ‘family stories’. The latter, I can personally attest, is complete nonsense, no less ridiculous than if Evelyn Waugh were to be accused of doing the same.

On being pressed, Kate spoke a little about her “process”. I was reassured that she finds the whole writing and artistic inspiration business mysterious. Unlike other author lists of definitive dos and don’ts, her tips felt quite nebulous. She likes to start with an interesting title, going so far as to fit her ideas around it. She generally has a beginning and an end in mind and then sort of works out the middle.  While she always has one or two story ideas bubbling beneath the surface, she likes to let them marinate (her word) for a bit before she starts writing. The longer her ideas marinate, the better the story is likely to be.

David Attenborough

This was without a shadow of doubt, the main draw of the day. In fact, though the ticket covered all three sessions, many people chose to attend only this one.


Sir David was interviewed by Emma Freud, great-granddaughter of Sigmund and niece of Lucian, the artist. (She’s also Richard Curtis’ wife but clearly an accomplished woman in her own right).

Ms. Freud had the famed naturalist, who was there to promote an updated edition of his book Life on Earth, reminisce about his early days in the BBC, which were also the early days of the BBC itself. Initially, he said, programmes were broadcast rather than recorded because the Beeb didn’t have funds for film. When he went on to become programme director for BBC 2, he, and other likeminded individuals, commissioned a wide variety of programmes to cover a broad range of interests, even niche ones. He contrasted that with today’s ratings-and-revenue mentality.

As always Sir David came across as humble and funny, even more so than on his Graham Norton appearances. He agreed with Emma Freud that people probably adore him because they project their feelings about the natural world on to him.


Full house for Sir David’s session

There were many observations of interest. He mused on how all the advancements in technology that allowed him to shoot increasingly sophisticated shows were made possible by military research – night vision, heat sensitive imaging and drones to name a few. He also said how in spite of all his achievements, he still feels like an imposter, as he’s not scientist or a researcher making new discoveries in the natural world, but “merely” a creator of documentaries.

Answering an audience question, Sir David said he thought animals in Africa were the most endangered, largely because of population growth and the resulting encroachment into animal habitats. In response to another question, he said he would most like to converse with Dolphins, who he said were highly intelligent and socialized.

Much was also made of how he’s seen more of the earth than any person alive today.

Mary Beard

This was the session I was the most excited about, having watched Professor Beard’s Rome documentaries, and read her LRB pieces. Her book Women and Power is an expansion of those two articles, Women in Power: From Medusa to Merkel and The Public Voice of Women. In these lectures, as in her book and her session on Saturday, Beard draws on her extensive knowledge of antiquity, particularly the treatment of women down the ages. Much of what is below is covered in those pieces but it’s worth repeating. Examples of misogyny she mentioned from literature include:

  • Telemachus shutting Penelope down because “speech is for men”
  • The Medusa story and how it’s all about a strong woman (ergo, a troublemaker) needing to be shut down (decapitated) by a male (Perseus). She tied this to the horrible imagery from Trump supporters that superimposed Hilary’s face on that of Medusa and Trump’s on Perseus, printing it on mugs, tees and more. She said more than anything else, she objected to the normalization and “domestication” of such imagery, as though it was something mundane and so, somehow ok.
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland, in which women found and run a country entirely without men, one which is utopian in how peaceful and progressive it is. The women still believe however, that they’re doing a bad job and that the men would do a better job of it.

Professor Beard, who is active on Twitter, and is famously known for engaging her trolls, also spoke about #metoo. She believed the real test of the movement’s effectiveness should be measured in how it changes the lives of ordinary woman, especially 10 years down the line. In her words (loosely paraphrased) it should make a difference to “the woman being pushed up against the wall next to the copy machine”. The question from the Dubai audience asked about her views on the power of women and feminism  in the Arab world, and she took the time to answer it with grace and thoughtfulness, saying that Westerners often think that Western liberal feminism is the only template for a woman to navigate the world successfully. She also spoke about the veil and her words showed a deep understanding of cultural nuances.


Excited to get started on these!

There was some fun between sessions, once when someone from the audience decided to play ‘bad lip reading’ with two Cheltenham audience members, and another time when the mic was accidentally left on at Cheltenham and we were treated to a blow by blow account of someone’s cat giving birth. After the David Attenborough session, a mic was passed around amongst the Dubai audience. One woman said “He’s the most inspiring person I have ever seen, and I am 83″, upon which a collective gasp ran through the audience.

The entire evening, dubbed Festival in a Day, was reasonably priced at AED 120 and tickets were available on platinumlist.com.


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I once wrote a diary. When I read it now, it seems childish. Then I wrote a book blog. When I read that now, it seems childish too. See a pattern? I write for a living, and so I've almost stopped writing for myself. The editor who's taken up permanent residence in my head, often strangles my words and ideas at birth. So am I an optimist as the title suggests? I don't know and I don't think I'll be any the wiser by blogging, but I do know one thing - I love beauty - in ideas, in words, in buildings, in art, in science, in clothes, in cats, in make up. Fortunately, even though my pores are on display in the profile picture, this is not going to be an up-close-and-personal, warts all take on my life. In fact, I'm not sure what it is going to be!

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