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Speak to me

The surprising return of the public lecture

5 February 2011

12:00 AM

5 February 2011

12:00 AM

Critics have been predicting the death of the public lecture ever since Johannes Gutenberg got his printing press going in 1450. Why bother negotiating the market-day crowds in downtown Mainz to hear someone read from the Bible, when you can sit by the fire in your parlour and read your own copy? The same argument was made ad nauseum about the internet when it first kicked off: who on earth will bother trotting off to an expensive talk when you can see and hear the best lecturers in the world on your computer for free? TED, an American website, offers you hours of fun from David Cameron, Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the internet, and the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. It can even resurrect the dead — Douglas Adams is on their books.

Well, lectures did OK for half a millennium after Gutenberg came along; and now they’ve survived the internet too. In fact, the curious thing is that the internet has if anything reinvigorated the Victorian fashion for public speaking and debates.

This spring, hundreds of pretty provincial towns — Hay-on-Wye, Guildford, Dartington, Cheltenham, Edinburgh, Bath and Oxford among them — will put on their own book festivals, which are essentially a series of lectures. This month, Tom Hodgkinson, co-founder of the Idler magazine, launches a new Idler’s Academy in Notting Hill — a sort of Dr Johnson’s coffee house meets public lecture hall. There’ll be a series of talks, along with lessons on Latin, logic, rhetoric, carpentry and gardening. ‘The taste for public lectures and public learning is definitely coming back,’ says that arch idler. ‘It’s a return to the days when Hazlitt and Coleridge gave lectures in Somerset on Shakespeare and Milton to the fashionable ladies of the town.’ The public lecture answers a need that survives any technological advance: the need for actual human interaction.

This renaissance has come about, I think, because for all its wonders and extreme usefulness, the internet eliminates more daily human contact than any previous invention. Banking, bill-paying, shopping, appointment-making — they can all be done, day or night, without the need to vibrate the vocal chords for a second. A blessed relief, maybe, but with greater ease comes deep-seated unease. Too much electronic communication leaves a vacuum in the soul where a happy hum of human chit chat used to be.

The late Alan Watkins, former political columnist of this magazine, was shocked at the silence in the Independent on Sunday’s offices a decade ago. Recalling the Fleet Street of the 1960s, he wrote, ‘There was none of this sitting in front of a flickering screen for hours on end, seeing no one, never going out, relying on the telephone not only as a means of communication with the outside world but also as a source of information about it.’ Since Watkins wrote that piece, an unexpected self-correction has begun to take place. Even this magazine has branched out into debates, while the School of Life in Bloomsbury offers talks on philosophical subjects: ‘How to Spend Time Alone’ and ‘How to be a Better Friend’.

The punishing American touring schedules of Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde are a thing of the future as well as the past, as a modern writer must now flog himself up and down the Eastern Seaboard, explaining his thesis to legions of interested fans, in exchange for a few extra sales.

So it’s not just interaction that people crave — but intelligent interaction. Is it because our education system and our culture have been so dumbed down? Whatever the reason, there’s definitely an increased appetite not just for public conversation, but for serious, challenging subjects. A few weeks ago I went to a talk at the Wallace Collection by Grey Gowrie, comparing Anthony Powell with Marcel Proust — chewy stuff, on a cold Friday night at the height of rush hour. It had been sold out for weeks before the event.

Back to the Idler’s Academy, which is inspired by the original one — the Academos, the garden near Athens where Plato taught his students; where schooling and leisure were interwoven concepts (schole means leisure in Greek.) The idea of using your leisure time to learn had almost been forgotten here, but just at the last moment, it has been revived. ‘Someone will forever be surprising a hunger in himself to be more serious,’ as Philip Larkin said.

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