Preaching to the Converted: Writers and Readers Week Town Hall Talks

ARTS, Books

Ricahrd Dawkins, Simon Schama, Neil Gaiman
New Zealand International Arts Festival, Wellington | March 10-13

A biologist, a historian, and a novelist walk into a room and start talking about God. It sounds like the start of a Simon Schama stand-up routine, but in fact is the unexpected link between the three guests at this year’s Writers and Readers Week Town Hall Talks.

First up was biologist Richard Dawkins, whose talk was moved to the Michael Fowler Centre in order to accommodate the masses. Introduced by local science teacher and writer Bernard Beckett, he presented a lecture (or half a lecture) covering biology, physics, biochemistry, evolution, astronomy, and quantum physics. The lecture set out the basis for Dawkins’s arguments about life and evolution, and by extension atheism.

It’s the strong and well-reasoned argument you’d expect from a rationalist, and I was impressed that he was able to present a wide-ranging, gripping story without the need for the now standard props like PowerPoint, while still describing the detail of the science—the structure of DNA, or how enzymes work, for example. The basis of the lecture was the improbability of our existence; the Big Bang, the luck required for the origins of life, the freak accidents that lead to evolution, the predictability of evolutionary outcomes (ears, eyes, wings, etc.), the possibility of life existing on other planets, and the multi-universe.

I understand it is a talk he has been giving for 30 years, though clearly it has evolved as science has changed our understanding of the universe. Due to time constraints he was unable to give the second half of the talk, which apparently concerned who we should be grateful to when we give thanks for our existence. This, presumably, would’ve centred on his theological arguments, rather his scientific ones. It’s a shame we didn’t get to hear it, but that’s the nature of events such as this.

To paraphrase the lecture, it is highly improbable that we exist, but as we quite obviously do, it is clearly possible, and the likelihood that a God exists is at least as improbable as our existence.

After the lecture Beckett asked some humorous, but insightful questions, and Dawkins demonstrated that he is a clever, funny, and very knowledgeable person. When the audience got to ask questions, his responses were incredibly perceptive on all manner of subjects. When asked what his favourite argument for evolution was, Dawkins discussed the work of New Zealand’s own David Penney who has developed an evolutionary family tree using genetics to show how a large number of species are related.

Having recently watched his TV series The Genius of Charles Darwin, in which he more or less abuses creationism/intelligent design proponents without presenting them with his opposing argument, I was taken by Dawkins’s accommodating demeanour. He was talking to an audience who seemed to share his views, and yet he was far from the dogmatic curmudgeon I was expecting.

Several days later, Simon Schama turned up to the Town Hall, running onto the stage (much like a rockstar) before taking a bow while Sean Plunkett lumbered after him. Schama is a true performer, happily telling stories and barely letting Plunkett get a word in. Plunkett was kind enough to let him ramble. And it was a rambling discussion. Starting with his childhood and education, jumping forward to his renowned TV series The History of Britain, then jumping forward again to his latest book.

Schama’s interests are varied and he said that he initially viewed art and history as being on different tracks, but early in his academic career he realised that history without images was a poor thing, as were images without history. This led to him integrating the two, which culminated, I gather, in the book and TV series The Power of Art.

A couple of years ago Plunkett impressed me with his conversation with Donnesbury creator Garry Trudeau. He again impressed by letting Schama ramble on with very little interruption. Plunkett was clearly taken with The History of Britain and devoted quite a bit of time to the series. It wasn’t a bad thing, as it gave us a distillation of Schama’s views on history. He is much more interested in the personal stories, of bringing the dead back to life, than of discussing sweeping, dry theory.

Things, however, got drier, more lecturing, and more serious when the talk moved on to The American Future, Schama’s most recent book, a look at America under Obama. When asked what his next project will be, Schama, like many writers, refused to divulge any information, but did let slip in a rather melodramatic fashion that last November he did an hour of stand-up comedy, and proceeded to give us part of his routine. It was pretty funny, but really no more so than the stories he told earlier.

Towards the end of the talk, in a knowing nod to the earlier event, he checked whether Richard Dawkins was present when discussing the secularisation of the UK and the lack of secularisation in the USA.

Someone who has also written much about God (or at least gods) is Neil Gaiman, and while he didn’t name check either Dawkins or Schama, the subject did arise during his talk. The audience for Gaiman was noticeably different than for the earlier two talks, which clearly represented his younger and, dare I say it, geekier audience.

Introduced by Kate de Goldi as the “Amadeus Mozart of post-modern literature” (does that mean he’s going to die young and broke?), Gaiman proceeded to read us three poems—lengthy prose-like poems. The first, by request, was ‘Locks’, a credo of sorts. The second ‘My Last Landlady’, a yet-to-be-published poem, and the third about St. Oran, was only a few days old. I’ve not yet read any Gaiman, but he has a lovely way with words, and can be funny and moving and haunting in quick succession.

The conversation with de Goldi was… strange. It was rather dry, and Gaiman didn’t really seem that comfortable. The chat was largely about the writing process and how he got to where he is now, and Gaiman did his best to keep it entertaining. Due to the circumstances of his early education, Gaiman developed a deep knowledge of Edwardian literature, and especially a love of G. K. Chesterton. He prefers to write to order as it confines the possibilities, gives him boundaries within which to write. He also said that his ideal audience is himself, and consequently he throws everything that he loves into his stories.

When the talk was opened up to the floor, Gaiman seemed to almost instantly relax. Quite obviously he was used to this kind of thing—“just remember questions should be short, interrogative statements which end with a question mark… and which can be answered.” The random questions coming from the audience were exactly that, and ranged from the predictable to the geeky to the insightful. And the responses were extremely funny and warm and equally random, geeky and insightful.

Gaiman ended with a reading from American Gods and I left feeling that there’s a whole world out there that I’m missing.

Writers and Readers Week Town Hall Talks offered us three quite different writers, and three quite different experiences, but all were fascinating in their own way: erudite, engaging, and clearly quite happy to be amongst fans.

I was also able to squeeze in a conversation between Geoff Dyer and Emily Perkins, who have known each other for years. Dyer was easily the equal of the Town Hall ‘stars’, and the chemistry between him and Perkins made for a very funny hour during which we learnt an awful lot about what drives Dyer’s interests and writing. It was a great way to start a Thursday morning.