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Free Thinking: Ideas for All Suzanne Rolt

Written by Suzanne Rolt

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Bernie Sanders speaking in St George’s, 2017. (Jon Craig)

In her work as director of St George’s Bristol, Suzanne Rolt partnered with Bristol Ideas on many events in the Festival of Ideas programme. Rolt later joined the board of Bristol Ideas and was chair  2019-2023. Here she reflects on the ethos of Bristol Ideas, the festival, the remarkable people presented on the stage and some of the significant and most memorable events she encountered.

Stay in your lane. That’s the message so many of us hear from an early age. You’re arts or science, maths or humanities. Stick to what you know and don’t, for heaven’s sake, try to be something you’re not.

What joy, what liberation then, to arrive in Bristol and to encounter its Festival of Ideas. Here was a festival whose currency was free thinking, where no subject was considered beyond anyone’s reach. It was a trusted friend to thousands of people, leading them through a seemingly endless celebration of ideas from the past and for the future.

So often when we think of festivals we conjure something static, a fixed point in a calendar with a clearly defined beginning and end. In a city famed – notorious even – for doing things differently, it wasn’t surprising that we should forge our own way. After all, no single week could hold something as expansive as ours: a festival in perpetual motion, weaving in and out of the city, meditating on, and soaking up, culture and ideas in all their infinite complexity and glory. It was a constant pulse, its events finding their way into nooks and crannies as well as the mainstream all year around. A catalyst for partnerships, a vehicle for change, and a reminder of what truly matters in life.

Those of us who were close to it were caught up in its infectious energy and imaginings. It coaxed people into its orbit, encouraging them to engage at whatever level felt right. There was depth and heft to its work, but it had a lightness of touch, too. It was generous with its own ideas, reaching out to cultural venues, universities, schools and community spaces and inviting them to add their unique perspectives. Over time, the hour-long presentations of ideas came to be threaded through with music and theatre, poetry and painting. Theories of quantum science and evolution seeped out beneath the doorways of the hallowed halls of academia, eager to take their place alongside contemporary affairs and popular culture. Nothing was out of bounds and speakers from all disciplines, all places, were given the space to express their most deeply held thoughts and beliefs.

Surprisingly, it was a festival that rarely drew the critics in the numbers it deserved, their heads more often turned by the big-budget literary lights of Hay-on-Wye and Cheltenham. The Observer newspaper was the exception, a handsome media partner for many years. But Bristol Ideas was no less for it and, besides, we didn’t need external endorsement because we knew we had a good thing and audiences agreed. They turned out in their thousands and generated expansive returns lists for the most popular events.

I have a deep attachment to the festival and it became one of the great professional loves in my life, bonding with, and flowing through, the beautiful concert hall, St George’s Bristol, that I led from 2005 to 2021. We didn’t know it then, but this was a golden era in our history, a time before pandemics and austerity-induced budget cuts laid waste to so much of our cultural landscape. At St George’s we had the confidence and the means to dream big, investing in our music programme and launching a succession of expansive, stand-out series that took on major themes: migration, revolution, nature and the environment. This was when we began to collaborate with the Festival of Ideas, augmenting these themes through joint programming. With nearly 600 seats, we were ideally placed to host the festival’s bigger names and soon became the go-to venue for some of its most celebrated events. I shared the same excitement as the festival organisers, moving heaven and earth to secure the dates needed to fit in with often narrow and last-minute availability. The effort was repaid a thousand times over as St George’s threw open its doors to household names across disciplines as varied as literature, politics, science, philosophy, journalism and drama.

I remember patient queues snaking across the stage at the end of events, audiences grasping their newly purchased books in the hope of a personal dedication on the front page; if they were lucky, a photograph too with a celebrity speaker like Michael Palin or ballerina Darcey Bussell. Over the years, the festival sent us poets and thinkers, agitators and sceptics, truth seekers and truth speakers. We encountered utopias and dystopias, people at the start of careers and those who had reached great heights. It attracted speakers from across the world, so it was all the more remarkable that tickets were often free or modestly priced, but the principles of fairness and accessibility were ingrained from the start; all speakers, regardless of stature, were paid the same token fee. This was a vital aspect of a vision to democratise ideas, ensuring they could be heard and stated by all.

At home, my bookshelves displayed uncharacteristic purchases inspired by festival events, not least Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. As someone who still feels shame at having failed two physics exams at school, it felt surreal to encounter one of the world’s great theoretical physicists all these decades later and to finally, and briefly, glimpse the wonders of the poetically expressed truths he shared. The bookshelves soon groaned under the weight of the 130 books that arrived, neatly boxed, when I joined the judging panel of the inaugural Bristol Festival of Ideas Book Prize. This was a significant prize of £10,000 awarded to a title which presents ‘new, important and challenging ideas which are engaging, accessible and rigorously argued’. With fellow judges Tim Dee (BBC Radio producer/ writer), Judith Squires (deputy vice chancellor at University of Bristol) and Adrian Tinniswood (historian/author), I immersed myself in the seemingly impossible task of reducing 130 books down to a shortlist of six. I remain proud that we chose as our winner The Spirit Level by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, a book whose lessons on why equality in society is better for everyone remains highly relevant today.

I’ve been asked many times to name the speakers who have stood out for me. James Lovelock, still mentally and physically agile at 90 years old, articulating the most important environmental issue of our time. Historian Simon Schama, gracious and erudite, who shared his thoughts as generously with backstage staff as he did when he stepped on stage. Arundhati Roy, a modest figure who, through the might of her words on social injustice, soared above us all as she spoke out from the pulpit of Bristol Cathedral. Philosopher AC Grayling, who wryly requested that a torn cardboard box be used to conceal the painting of Christ overlooking the stage – not to ward off divine intervention but to avoid being photographed with a halo hovering above his own head that would be instantly lampooned by a publication like Private Eye. And Bernie Sanders, sweeping in, hot off the campaign trail for the American presidential election to deliver a rousing speech, not in a stadium but in a quiet residential street in a city all but anonymous to most Americans.

Arundhati Roy speaking in Bristol Cathedral in 2017 (Jon Craig).

I remember the quiet reflections of unassuming individuals living and writing in our city. The greatly missed Helen Dunmore, an unofficial patron, who read from her novel The Siege as part of another outstanding initiative of Bristol Ideas, The Great Reading Adventure. BBC producer/writer Tim Dee whose observations of the natural world are always so thoughtfully and elegantly expressed. Or Julian Baggini, whose ability to convey the essence of complex philosophies with humour and humility helped so many of us to grasp ‘the meaning of it all’ – and inspired me to appoint him as our philosopher in residence at St George’s, a world first for a concert hall.

There have been the people, too, who, by daring to appear in the public domain, have underlined the potency of the written word. The life of Roberto Saviano, author of Gomorrah, has been under threat since the publication of his best-selling expose of the Camorra Mafia in Naples. A rare appearance at We The Curious necessitated an entourage of black-clad security guards who stood like sentinels around the stage, poised to counter any attacks. This brought a palpable sense of tension to the evening, only dissipated once Saviano was manoeuvred with military precision out via a back stairwell of the building and speeded away in a waiting car. Or Salman Rushdie, whose appearance to publicise his testament to the power of love and humanity in chaotic times, Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, while still under a fatwa, required multiple police sweeps of St George’s and nervous vigilance by every staff member from start to finish.

Writer Salman Rushdie interviewed by Andrew Kelly in St George’s Bristol in 2015. Defending freedom of expression was a key part of the work of Bristol Ideas. In 2023, Bristol Ideas ran one of the first events on Rushdie’s novel Victory City. We talked about cities as part of our Festival of the Future City work, but also reflected on and supported Rushdie in his recovery after the murder attempt the year before. (Jon Craig)

There were events too that broke free of the constraints of the hour-long format to become something altogether more affecting than we ever believed they might be. Upholding the environmental concerns of her new novel, The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood had travelled to Europe from Canada by ship and adopted a vegetarian diet throughout her book tour. Her commitments spurred us on to present something far more ambitious than just a Q&A and readings. Atwood had written and commissioned music for a special performance for the novel. Music to bring to life the hymns featured in the book was hastily adapted by local choral director Ali Orbaum and performed by a newly assembled chorus, together with a small troupe of actors under the theatre direction of Sheila Hannon. With just one afternoon of rehearsal, the stage of St George’s became the setting for what felt to be a rapidly assembled modern-day Mystery Play – one that even featured a (sweary) call out from the gallery by Andrew Kelly. It showed that wonders are possible when artistic imaginations are given the means and freedom to express themselves. Seeing it in rehearsal for the first time that afternoon Atwood commented that this is how she hoped it would be performed.

Ultimately though, I will never forget the borderline euphoria of an audience on catching its first glimpse of the civil rights activist, singer and screen idol Harry Belafonte. The day was hot, and excited crowds drawn from all quarters of the city had found their way to St George’s, many for the first time. Harry Belafonte remains the only person I can remember in all my time at St George’s who received a standing ovation before he’d uttered a single word. In the spontaneous rising to their feet of every last member of the audience as he entered the hall, it felt as if the entire city had turned out to bear him aloft to the stage and to make him its own. If there were keys to the city to bestow, they would surely have been his.

The sharing of a handful of memories can never convey the full extent of the reach, influence and impact of Bristol Ideas. Festival of Ideas burned brightly for nearly 20 years igniting an appetite for cultural and community events that will continue well beyond its own time. It has been the inspiration for spoken word events and creative programming right across Bristol, and awakened a love of knowledge and learning in both young and old, and in people from all backgrounds. For an all too brief period, so many of us were challenged and enabled to become more than we ever thought we might be. To my mind, that’s an idea worth celebrating and an ideal to be held close as we contemplate an unknowable future.

Suzanne Rolt is CEO, Quartet Community Foundation. Before joining Quartet, she was CEO of St Georges where she led a transformational capital project. She was a long-standing board director of Bristol Ideas and served as chair, 2019-2023.

This essay is taken from Our Project Was the City: Bristol Ideas 1992-2024, published May 2024

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