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Dystopia. And Margaret Atwood.

Shortly after leaving Aberystwyth, a disembodied voice announces that our train, which is already moving very slowly, will be held between stations for 20 minutes until we can proceed. Around the same time, I receive messages from Lily, who is travelling from Cardiff, and Rose, who’s coming up from Keynsham, that their trains have been cancelled. Time is already ticking on our long-awaited trip to hear Margaret Atwood in conversation at Birmingham Symphony Hall. As Lily struggles to board an overcrowded train, the middle-class family behind her yell at her to ‘just get on the f*cking train!’. Rose’s train is similarly packed. She is heavily pregnant but no one blinks, let alone offers her seat, so she is forced to stand for an hour and a half. When we eventually meet up at Birmingham New Street, we’re all frazzled and half the afternoon has gone.

A pre-theatre dinner at Côte provides us with a calm interlude and the chance for a proper catch-up before we make the short walk to Birmingham Symphony Hall. We’re absolutely thrilled with our seats in the stalls just four rows away from the very chair where Margaret Atwood will be sitting. Unfortunately not everyone is happy; some very entitled folks try - unsuccessfully - to evict the couple sitting behind us on the grounds they are sitting in ‘their’ seats. The couple behind us point out to the other folks that their tickets have a ‘1’ before the C which means they are upstairs. The entitled folks are having none of it, but eventually retreat in a huff. It’s just the first of many squabbles breaking out around us about who should be sitting where… it’s not difficult, people, the trick is to match the numbers and letters on your tickets to the ones on the rows and chairs in the theatre. Simple.

The evening is formed of two parts; during the first half the interviewer, novelist Irenson Iseghohi-Okojie, talks to Margaret Atwood about her work and career and, for the second half, the audience listen to answers to their pre-tweeted questions. Margaret Atwood is an absolute delight; warm, witty, generous and expansive, however, Lily, Rose and I think there’s a bit of a missed opportunity for deeper exploration. I have to admit to rolling my eyes at the question, ‘where do you get your ideas from?’, to which Margaret Atwood’s initial response - said with a mischievous smile, as she mimes taking a sheet of paper - is ‘from the Ideas Man standing behind me’. Scenes, voices and images rather than ideas, she says, are what come to her. World building has its foundation in historical research and first thoughts may take years, decades even, to come to fruition. I take heart from her advice to aspiring writers to write as if no one is watching, ‘write anything,’ she says, ‘no one will know!’

About the bleak, dystopian futures portrayed in her novels, Margaret Atwood simply points out that these are not blueprints; we have a choice about the society in which we wish to live. Nevertheless when, for our return journeys the next day, Rose, Lily and I arrive to find Birmingham New Street station in total chaos, it feels like a scene from an Atwood novel or, perhaps, one of Hieronymus Bosch’s more hellish visions. Trains are delayed, cancelled or stuck on platforms and there are armed police in all directions. Eventually the girls and I pile on the one train to Cardiff as it’s our best bet. Five and half hours later, I make it through my front door.

The next day, I get a message from Lily to say that the parcel with a customised running medal I ordered for Bee to mark her first parkrun has been delivered…. Except some kind soul has removed the medal leaving only the ribbon. Three cheers then and many thanks to Trophy Store UK not only for sending out an immediate replacement but for helping to restore my faith in human nature.


Clare Chase said…
Oh wow - the journeys sound particularly horrendous, despite some stiff competition. Wonderful to be able to attend the event though!
Chris Stovell said…
We might not have gone, Clare, had we known how horrendous the journeys would be - but I'm so glad we did!

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