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Social upheaval, technology, monologues and The Good Life

"By words the mind is winged" (Aristophanes) -or 'How to keep a Barbican mother amused' – Sreela Banerjee recounts a recent literary weekend at Dartington Hall

Dartington Hall

from the gardens. Source:

Images by Herby C

hild-rearing should be repetitive, if it's done properly - I was warned by my mother. She was right. What she could

also have told me is that persistent attempts at prudent housekeeping can eventually colonise the brain. The threat of intellectual stagnation amongst mothers of small children is always nigh therefore, though in these days of blogs and Skype nobody can claim to be isolated.

Hisham Matar

It is in fact to debate the influence of social networks (and internet technology more broadly) on the current Middle East revolutions that the festival goers at Ways with Words at Dartington Hall found themselves looking at a most interesting panel : I had joined them for the weekend of 8- 10 July; this is my annual attempt at fighting atrophy of the brain. Google's Susan Pointer who is charged with Government Relations for Eastern Europe, Middle East, and North Africa was on this panel, with Hisham Matar, the Libyan-born novelist. John Kampfner, of Index on Censorship chaired the session – a greying population faced them in the Great Hall at Dartington, waiting for new insights and nuggets of truth . .. So were social networks like facebook and twitter crucial in making a difference? Does the internet facilitate

social and political revolutions? Susan Pointer was optimistic - her buoyancy was almost infectious – she spoke of the transparency which internet technology and social networks bring to political processes, she spoke of the decentralised, cross-border nature of social networks, where no prior permission is needed to send out messages: anathema to dictatorships. She had been to Egypt where there was a sense of empowerment and optimism amongst her circle, and this was because they felt that they could now be heard.

The lady next to me murmured 'and be monitored of course' – almost on cue, we were reminded by Kampfner that the Kremlin ‘tweets’ too, as does Hugo Chavez – these are tools for good or ill.

It was Hisham Matar who brought in a note of balance : what happens just now is being done by the elite – and being played to the international community – but, he said, revolutions are in fact very boring, and achieved through sitting on endless committees, thrashing out the nitty gritty of how to govern, and what happens next. Has he been approached to sit on


committees such as this? Apparently he has, we found out later, when he presented his new novel 'Anatomy of a Disappearance'.

He had declined of course – because he felt that being for or against any dictatorship is to let it into one’s life. He said it rather beautifully – If someone is trying to oppress you (forgive me Hisham, I know you put it more elegantly) don't take any notice of it. The best response to a dictatorship is not to support nor to oppose it – perhaps it is to sing! It was a relief, amongst all this informed opinion, to have one of one's own prejudices confirmed. Long may you 'sing' Hisham. And long may you remain outside Libya so that you can. It all seemed to link together. The day before, we had heard Professor Keith Jeffrey, who had written an ‘official’ history of MI6. Does he tweet, I wonder. Does our own government seek to manipulate public opinion by 'sponsoring' such publications? Jeffrey did concede that he was putting his credentials as an independent historian on the line, by taking on this book – but then he smiled. Those of us who have small boys know that particular

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