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Personal Reflections on Bristol Festival of Ideas from Two Attendees Andrew Jester and Natalie Jester

Written by Andrew Jester and Natalie Jester

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Andrew Jester and Natalie Jester with Gordon Brown in 2017

Andrew Jester and Natalie Jester have been long-term attendees at Bristol Ideas events. As with many members of our audience, it’s not been a passive relationship. We’ve enjoyed and benefitted from the many discussions with Andrew and Natalie about the ideas presented and argued, and we sought their suggestions for new programmes of work both formally on the advisory group and informally at events and over drinks and lunch. They write here about their experiences, what they have learned and the discussions they have held afterwards.

Andrew Jester

At the time of writing, I’m still in a state of disbelief after hearing that Bristol Ideas will close this year. I probably wouldn’t have believed it had the news not come from such an impeccable source as Andrew Kelly himself. I’ve been attending its events for quite some time now and am proud that they have been held in my home city of Bristol. Its Festival of Ideas has become a cultural gem renowned not only in Bristol but also in the UK and further afield. The speakers and diversity of subjects, far too numerous to mention, are second to none and speak volumes for its pull.

With its remit to ‘stimulate minds and passions’, Bristol Ideas certainly ticked those boxes for me and became one of my favourite things to do in the city, given my interests in the wider world.

To say there were standout events would do an injustice to each speaker I’ve heard. One of the most memorable events was seeing Harry Belafonte. It was like listening to living history: he spoke about his incredible life, including his involvement in the US civil rights movement. Another was seeing former Prime Minister Gordon Brown: his good sense of humour was quite a revelation. I was especially proud to see my daughter, Natalie Jester, host a debate presciently named ‘War with Russia’, with General Sir Richard Shirreff as the main speaker.

More broadly, the festival has spoken to my interests in politics and philosophy. It was always good to see Naomi Klein. She got a good Bristolian welcome in 2017 with ‘Bristol Welcomes Naomi Klein’ painted in big letters alongside the M32, which she saw and appreciated. But it was only by chance Naomi saw it: she was meant to arrive via Temple Meads train station but came in via Parkway instead. I always enjoyed seeing Bristol-based philosopher and journalist Julian Baggini, who chaired some fascinating discussions. I even managed to get a laugh out of Simon Schama at St George’s Bristol: we were discussing US president Bill Clinton at the end of the book signing and I mentioned the ‘Arkansas handshake’.

Seeing Democratic Senator Bernie Saunders was quite a memorable experience: he certainly knew his brief and is a remarkable politician and speaker.

Recently, at the 2023 Festival of the Future City, I saw the deeply harrowing film 20 Days in Mariupol, a documentary directed by Mstyslav Chernov with the team from Frontline and the Associated Press about the 20 days Chernov spent in Mariupol with his colleagues after Russia invaded. It showed in graphic detail the brutalities and realities of war and is as strong an anti-war film as I’ve seen, perhaps alongside the Syrian film For Sama about the bombing of Homs, shown a few years before as part of Bristol Ideas.

I’m going to deeply miss the Festival of Ideas and all the other Bristol Ideas activities but I’m glad to say that it has played an important part of my life, stimulating and stretching my mind. It got me thinking and it has been an inspirational experience. It was brilliantly organised by a great team and my thoughts go out to them for the future.

Natalie Jester

I’ve been attending Festival of Ideas events for as long as I can remember. I became especially interested in the programme when I worked as front of house staff at Watershed, where I would get to see what was coming up and sometimes meet the speakers. At the time I was a Masters, and later PhD student, at the University of Bristol, and I was eventually approached to sit on the Festival of Ideas advisory board as a student voice, attending for about four years. One thing that always struck me about this was that every member of the Festival of Ideas team was incredibly keen for young people to engage, offering free tickets to many events.

One of the historic moments in the work of Bristol Ideas was the visit of Bernie Sanders. Audience members greeted him rapturously as he addressed the packed audience live and online. (Jon Craig)

My specialism is international relations and I have always felt so lucky to have Festival of Ideas bring so many amazing speakers to my doorstep. Highlights for me have included seeing Gordon Brown, Naomi Klein, Tony Benn, Angela Saini and Margaret Atwood. I was also able to chair an event with General Sir Richard Shirreff, the former NATO Deputy Supreme Commander for Europe, which was attended by more than 200 people. This was my first big introduction to public speaking, a skill I have used regularly since then in my role as a lecturer at the University of Gloucestershire. The festival has provided a space for ordinary people to come together and hear about politics and international relations in a way that is simply not provided by any other organisation or venue. At a time when decision makers and decision-making structures feel further away than ever, this is a particularly bitter loss.

I would also send event links to my dad and, at some point, we started attending regularly together. For me, Festival of Ideas has been something that I have shared with him. We are similar in our interests, especially politics and global affairs, and when I was able to get only one ticket to see US presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders speak, I gave it to him (you’re welcome, Dad). Festival of Ideas has definitely brought us closer. If I’m completely honest, it will be spending this time with my dad that I will miss the most when the festival is no longer running.

More broadly, Festival of Ideas has never shied away from getting us to think about difficult topics like war and violence. There is something important about ‘bearing witness’ in this space. I would probably say that, of the two of us, my dad is the more optimistic one. After Festival of Ideas events, we would always have a bit of a debrief and see what the other thought. Even though the world can feel like a bleak place, both my dad and I have always appreciated the sense of hope that, at least most of the time, these events would leave us with.

Andrew Jester is a long-standing audience member at Festival of Ideas and linked events and contributed many ideas for speakers and themes.

Natalie Jester is lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Gloucestershire. She worked with Bristol Ideas for many years as an adviser and attended many events.

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

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