by Paula Martin
Back in May this year, I invited Linda Gillard to become Durham University’s “Celebrate Science Author in Residence” for 2011. Where did this crazy idea come from? What was the experience like for me? There are so many questions and avenues to explore that this post is going to have to be split into 2 parts (at least!).
Read on, and all will be revealed...
Part 1: Finding Inspiration
In October 2010 we hosted the first ever Celebrate Science event on Palace Green, at the heart of the UNSECO World Heritage Site in the centre of Durham, nestled between Durham Cathedral and Durham Castle.
The event was a huge success, attracting well over 1,000 visitors over 3 days, stimulating interest in science through a variety of interactive experiments and inspiring people to discuss science in their everyday lives. It was organised in conjunction with Durham Book Festival, and amongst other amazing things, visitors were also given the opportunity to experience storytelling and poetry writing under the theme of Celebrating Science. Following on from this huge success, we wanted to make Celebrate Science 2011 even bigger and even better than the 2010 event, and were contemplating the ways in which we might do this. I have a deep interest in multi-disciplinary projects, and wanted to explore ways in which we might build upon our links to the Durham Book Festival. What kind of “Science and Writing” or “Scientists and Writers” project could I come up with, that would support and/or expand the Celebrate Science event?
At the same time, I had another idea floating around at the back of my head. As soon as I moved to the North East of England to work for Durham University, back in January 2006, I fell in love with the stunning natural beauty of the region, from windswept beaches with miles of golden sands to the glorious moors, peatlands and hay meadows of the North Pennines. And then of course there is the great sense of pleasure that I get from walking along the banks of the river Wear, taking in the magnificent views of Durham Cathedral and the intriguing sense of many, many other people having passed this way before. I want to shout out and tell the world what wonderful place this is and encourage everyone to come and see it for themselves and share my sense of wonder (although I must admit that I do sometimes also secretly want to keep it all to myself!).
What is the best way of doing this? How can I bring the beauty of the North East to a new audience? What I really need, I thought, is someone who can capture a sense of place in the same way the Linda Gillard does in her novels, Emotional Geology and Star Gazing. How am I going to find someone who can do that??
Meanwhile, I was also involved with the North East Beacon for Public Engagement (Beacon NE). Through my previous experiences with Beacon NE I knew that the Beacon NE team are a generally supportive bunch of people, who are open to crazy new ideas. I also had a memory of the voice of the Beacon NE Project Manager Kate Hudson running through my head, saying: “Take risks; try something new!”
All of these ideas and experiences came together in late 2010, and I decided to follow Kate’s advice. First, I discussed my ideas with a few close colleagues, others that I hadn’t worked with before in the Department of English Studies, and with Claire Malcolm from New Writing North (organiser of the Durham Book Festival). Then, as Linda put it in her discussion of being commissioned to write something, I embraced hubris! Rather than messing around trying to find someone who could capture a sense of place in the same way that Linda Gillard does, I went straight to the source: Linda Gillard herself!
For me, really good ideas tend to be slow-burners, that develop over many years, and only turn into reality when several things come together at once and the timing is right. I am so pleased that I did follow Kate’s advice in this case, taking a risk and trying something new. The whole experience has been a fascinating journey of discovery and a real rollercoaster of emotions! I’ll give you all the gory details in Part 2...
Paula Martin is Science Outreach Co-ordinator for Durham University