What are you looking at? How to Speak Well at a Book Festival

Spring is usually the time I am making daily trips to Glasgow’s wonderful Aye Write! book festival which bestrides a couple of weeks at this time of year in the Mitchell Library.

This year, of course, I will be looking online for this festival in June, rather than taking myself off to the Mitchell. Be that as it may, I love book festivals.  Those glimpses into other worlds.  Cranking up the grey cells to try and understand the latest thinking about the universe, animals, time, censorship, torture, art.

I’ve heard many fascinating talks but one from Aye Write! stands out a mile.


Because of the way it was delivered.  All the author talks or topic discussions at Aye Write! are going to be interesting and illuminating in some way.  But some speakers are too fast, too indistinct, have lots of knowledge but not too much of a clue about how to really engage an audience.

And I’m that kind of audience member who often picks authors and topics about which I may know little, in order to find out more. One such author, a few years back, was Will Gompertz.

Will Gompertz from The Guardian

I’d seen Will on tv many times as he’s the Arts Editor on the BBC, (although he is shortly moving on to the Barbican Centre as their Director of Arts and Learning.) A rather odd looking man with big glasses and strange hair, I’d always liked his enthusiasm for his subject.

He was at the festival to promote his new book What Are You Looking At? 150 years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye.  But rather than give us a straight talk with a few slides, Will performed a one-hour stand up routine which had us laughing, marvelling and learning.

Instead of dry art history, Will told us how he’d whisked the girl of his dreams off to Amsterdam for the weekend, where he’d planned a full itinerary of fun events, only to be told in no uncertain terms, that they had to visit a gallery or she was off.

His reluctance was genuine as he had zero interest in art. But to the Stedelijk Museum they went, where he was confronted by the work of Willem de Kooning.  He described his initial reaction to the work, which was not complementary and how, just as they were about to leave, he went back to look at this painting, Rosy Fingered Dawn at Louse Point, once more.

© The Willem de Kooning Foundation, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam/Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

He stood there for two hours. It changed his life.

And what was wonderful, was the way he led us in to look at this painting and for us to have a relationship with it too, because of his story.  All of us there, like it or loathe it, now have a history with the painting.

When he talked about Impressionism he made us vote whether small details from paintings were by Monet or Manet, thereby helping us understand about the nature of choices, brushstrokes and the application of paint.

When he talked about a particular pivital moment in modern art, he got three volunteers up on the stage with him, acting out the moment that Marcel Duchamp spotted a urinal in a shop window.

Fountain by Marcel Duchamp

Duchamp invented a new form of sculpture – that of a found object, that becomes art because of the context in which the artist sets it.

How do I remember this?

 By seeing in my mind’s eye the three volunteers – Duchamp and his two companions – acting out walking down West 67th Street in New York, chatting and looking about them, in April 1917 (ok I looked that bit up!)

When we are having fun, when the speaker uses no jargon but communicates his or her enthusiasm in a truly accessible way, we learn.  We learn because we can’t help but be intrigued, we have reference points, stories that we can remember.  One minute Will Gompertz was talking directly to us, the next we were shouting out quiz answers, the next laughing along with his ‘Aye Write Am Dram Team’.

I learned a lot in an hour.  And Mr G sold lots of books.

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