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Intern review: Names Not Number Conference

 Sonali is currently interning at The Society of Authors.

Waking up bright and early on Sunday morning, I was really excited to attend this year’s Names Not Number conference. The broad theme for this year was sustainability and it was held at Waddesdon Manor in the Vale of Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire and Mansfield College, Oxford. Because there was so much in the three days I was there, I’ll focus on the sessions, insights and snippets which particularly stood out for and struck me.

After meeting in north London, the group boarded a coach to Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire. We were given a tour of the grounds and gardens by the lovely volunteers. Over a delicious lunch in the Dairy (where visitors used to be able to choose the cow their breakfast milk came from), filmmaker and writer Hannah Rothschild gave a talk about her family and the Manor. It was really interesting to learn the history of the Rothschild family, including how Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild acquired the land and who came to visit (such as Queen Victoria). We also heard how the land was used in the past and in the present day as part of the National trust.

We then walked through the grounds to Windmill Hill. It was lovely to walk through the grounds on a sunny day and take in the stunning views of Aylesbury, as well as spotting the art on the way. My favourite was Perceval by Sarah Lucas, which is a life size sculpture of a horse pulling a cart of vegetables. Windmill Hill is a modern building on the Waddesdon Estate which contains archives and art -making it the perfect space for the afternoon’s talks. Singer and songwriter Ayanna Witter-Johnson performed two songs whilst playing her cello. James P. Rubin and Mark Urban then discussed current events in the Middle East, followed by a panel discussion chaired by Alice Sherwood on food and land.

The panel consisted of chief executive of Waddesdon Sarah Weir, food writer Mallika Basu, Professor Tim Lang of City University and Chair of London Food Board Rosie Boycott. It was insightful and slightly terrifying to hear how food production and diet have changed so much in a short time, especially with the rise of packaged convenience food. Mallika mentioned that there are four supermarkets between two tube stops in Clapham that are over 24/7, whereas the local farmers market is open for only three hours a week. It seems that in modern times it’s easy to forget about where food comes from and its natural form when you’re picking up a plastic tray on the way home.

The final talk at Windmill House was a panel discussion about the value and price of art chaired by FT Weekend editor Caroline David. Author, columnist and academic Tiffany Jenkins, Ed Vaizey MP and Hannah Rothschild (who is also Chair of the National Gallery) debated how and if art’s value can be measured and its place relating to society. Whilst “value” and “price” might be considered synonyms, it was clear that the culture value of art is considered very different to the monetary cost. I was intrigued when Hannah said that art on public display belongs to everyone, as it made the art world seem more inclusive and accessible.

Following the last discussion, we again boarded to coach and travelled to Mansfield College in Oxford. The College’s principal Baroness Helena Kennedy QC gave an introductory talk at supper followed by a performance from the London Brahms Trio. Kobi Kremitzer played the piano alongside Erika Eisele on violin and Armand D’Angour on cello. They played two songs – one happy, one sad -which were a treat to hear. Priest and columnist Giles Fraser said two graces, one serious and a hilarious one involving Richard Dawkins and a bear.

On Monday we had a full day of sessions. After a restful sleep, there was a choice of breakfast talks. I chose to attend a session on finding meaning in the modern world chaired by Toby Mundy. Although I felt that the search for meaning has always been a question throughout time, it was pertinent that this issue became more pressing in the internet age. The panel consisted of Professor Angie Hobbs from the University of Sheffield, Radio 4’s Leo Johnson, director of the Institute of Ideas Claire Fox and Harvey Goldsmith CBE. They debated and discussion what meaning “means” in a time where we seem to have an online and “in real life” presence. It made me wonder whether these are distinctly separate from each other, or if they are both part of our identity and whether one presence is more authentic than the other. Online, we are all free to express ourselves as we please especially through social media – yet we can also create and invent new selves as well.

The next session was a series of personal perspectives. Actress, producer and director Lisa Dwan shared her experience of performing Samuel Beckett’s Not I, which is a challenging short monologue. She described how the piece was demanding and yet also very freeing as it involves a stripping back of the self and being a consciousness rather than a present body. Carrying on the theme of words and communication, MIT Professor Ted Gibson discussed language, meaning and communication. He described how language is complicated and ambiguous, especially when words are separate from their context. He also described how syntax varies in different languages and how this too can lead to different meanings (all of which makes me feel a bit self-conscious when typing this sentence…). Journalist and historian Misha Glenny then discussed the history and culture of Brazil, as well as its multiculturalism, crime and the war on drugs.

There was a choice of lunch lessons in small groups in the afternoon. There were topics as different as jewellery making, the ethics of money and a tour of the Ashmolean Museum. I signed up for a session on the secret history of fairy tales with Professor Sarah Churchwell. She spoke about the historical origins of popular tales including Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and Cinderella and the positions of their heroines. Professor Churchwell also described how the tales adapt to the context and culture they are told in. Some versions of tales (most infamously the Grimms’) are violent and brutal, often with a moral purpose to teach children. Whilst the Disney versions of these stories have become the definitive versions for many, it’s interesting to compare how bloodless and sanitised they are compared to earlier ones. I found it interesting that modern Disney princesses, such as Merida and Mulan, are much more active than the passive princesses in the last century. As a literature geek, this was definitely one of my favourite talks during the conference.

Later in the afternoon we headed to the Oxford Martin School for another series of talks. Sir Nigel Shadbolt’s discussion on Artificial Intelligence was particularly interesting. AI has long been in our consciousness as something to be feared that will replace humans. Robots often are the antagonists of sci-fi films such as I, Robot and Ex Machina. But Sir Shadbolt reassuringly described how AI is assistive rather than threatening and called his version of AI as “Augmented Intelligence”. He also commented that we are in the age of social machines as for example, we always carry our smart phones. This got me thinking that perhaps the boundaries of human and technology aren’t so clear cut, as we might think of our gadgets as extensions of ourselves. The day ended with an informal street food dinner at Mansfield College.

Tuesday’s session had a focus on youth, with a panel discussion on Generation Z. Gen z are born between 1995 to 2011, so the oldest are just going into the “real world” and the world of work. Alice Sherwood of King’s College London chaired a debate with Dean Webster from Creative Access, Wyrd founder Nigel Barton, author and consultant Chloe Combi and Kathrin Cohen Kadosh of the University of Oxford. I wasn’t sure if it’s possible to characterise a whole generation in a certain way or to make generalisations about a large group of people. But it was insightful to learn how they have grown up with technology, so it influences (through the internet in particular) how this generation connects and expresses themselves. Kathrin mentioned the psychology of teenagers, as for example their brains are still developing till the mid-twenties so adolescents approach the world in a different way.

Perfumer Ruth Mastenbroek was next with a session on the power of smell. We were invited to share our favourite smells (mine’s vanilla by the way) before she described the science of scent as small volatile particles. I learned that there are actually three parts to a fragrance – top note which lasts a short time, a middle scent and underneath a base note which is the longest lasting. We were then given blotters of a mystery scent to guess, and then sampled her new perfume “Oxford”. Ruth described how she created the scent and described the perfumer’s profession. I’d never thought about the complexity of perfumes before – the talk will make me think twice about what I spray on in the morning.

Having absorbed a lot of acts and opinions on a range of topics, we made our way back to London early in the afternoon. The conference was a feast of ideas and insights. Although the topics were often quite different and some were unfamiliar to me, I found the way they were presented accessible and straightforward to understand. There was definitely something exciting for all interests across the intellectual smorgasbord. I came away from the conference stimulated, having encountered new people and ideas and now have a very long to-read list.