Prepare for an incredible journey

31st August 2007 at 01:00
Neo-Nazis, penguins and Zen philosophy: a day at Edinburgh's famous book festival can be a dizzyingly eclectic experience. But one event can be relied upon to remind you what it's all about in the first place, as Henry Hepburn discovered.

AN AUDIENCE member is trying to escape through the back door. Another commits intermittent acts of violence against a glove puppet. A third chuckles at a joke no one else has noticed. Some even listen to the presenter.

The unfettered randomness of such scenes fits well at the Edin-burgh International Book Festival, a self-proclaimed festival of "open horizons and energising ideas". And the pursuit of these laudable aims is to be found as much in the children's programme as in events for grown-ups.

Most obviously, Big Brother Is Watching is a worthy-sounding session for teens where four "writers for young people" are looking at freedom of speech and civil liberties "in an age of terrorism and government surveillance". It is a topic seemingly guaranteed to raise the hackles of teenagers' anti establishment instincts. Yet the 150-seat RBS Children's Theatre is far from packed, and the few questions from the floor are distinctly lacking in dolescent ire.

Panellist Sherry Ashworth, whose novel Close-Up sees a day-dreaming teenager jolted by the discovery that his dad is a neo-Nazi, gets wistful for her youth in the Sixties and Seventies, when teenagers would protest en masse against multifarious injustices.

Now, she reasons, teenagers are under more pressure to look a certain way and more concerned with money. Meanwhile, their parents are stealing their defining characteristics by getting into fashionable clothes and music themselves. Even new technology falls short: "I don't think the internet gives teenagers the wake-up call that personal experience will," she sighs.

Breaking free from the shackles of authority is on the minds of dozens of teachers who file in dutifully to the same theatre a couple of hours later. They have given up lounging outside on one of the hottest days of the year to hear Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools, Frank Crawford, talk up The Journey to Excellence and its promise of a curriculum liberated from bureaucracy.

Mr Crawford, his jeans and jaunty manner proclaiming that this is no stuffy education seminar, gives an entertaining talk that the audience seems to enjoy. There is plenty of enthusiasm for the new curriculum, but the event gets sidetracked when he is asked to define "excellence". "It's more of a quest to find excellence, but I think it's a never-ending journey," he says, before drawing a parallel with epic journeys of biblical lore.

One mischievous questioner wonders whether the elusiveness of excellence means the document should be renamed "The Journey to Perfection". Mr Crawford quips back that he is likely to be retired before such a lofty pinnacle is achieved.

He makes a virtue of not being pinned down on a definition of excellence by revealing that he has recently re-read Robert Pirsig's seminal work of beat philosophy, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Main-tenance, wherein Pirsig's semi autobiographical protagonist spends 600 pages grappling with an understanding of "quality". Pirsig, as Mr Crawford is fully aware, was "carted off to an institution".

A teacher from Staf-fordshire broadens the debate by revealing that teachers south of the border have their own problems with excellence they spend so much time trying to prove it, that they don't have time to be it.

Amid teenage torpor and the tangle of excellence, it is an unlikely forum that demonstrates true independence of spirit.

Perky Little Penguins sounds quite straightforward children's book illustrator Guy Parker-Rees will show a rapt audience of four to six-year-olds how he draws penguins, pigs and ponies, while Morn-ingside mums flick through Heat and OK! magazines at the back.

Instead, the event teeters constantly on the edge of anarchy. The head of a pet mouse is blithely pounded against the stage by its owner. A boy takes the chance to stand up to regale the audience with everything he knows about peregrine falcons (they eat mice and go at 5,100 metres per second). A girl simulates riding an upside-down bike while spouting improvised nonsense verse. A toddler with a massive mop of curls and a beatific smile is circling endlessly. Another girl is bursting out in laughter at metronomic 30-second intervals.

Half the room is still listening intently as Mr Parker-Rees gamely carries on drawing; the other half increasingly resembles a Dadaist installation. Perky Little Penguins, it seems, is the place for open horizons and energising ideas.

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