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The birth of an Ideas Festival
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The birth of an Ideas Festival

Martin Dickson

‘Pandemic. Unprecedented. Panic-buying. R rate. Social distancing. New normal. Working from home. Face masks. Isolation. Just some of the words now considered ‘everyday’ that we had never known as such before March 2020.

And so we faced a new, frightening and unknown world, a very different world both immediately from March 18th 2020 and a very different world in the weeks, months and years to come thanks to COVID 19. For us as a festival it was no different than everyone else who had planned to deliver events, performances, experiences where people would come together, share, dream, be entertained and inspired: it all had to stop, be postponed (or at least that was the hope in those early weeks post the first lockdown) and then cancelled, this was clearly a very different challenge than anyone had faced before and something without any benchmark or reference point,  scary, destabilising and absolute. Though enormously challenging the festival team worked with focus, commitment and remarkable positivity despite the personal stresses and strains, to respond as the COVID environment dictated. Reflecting now as we hopefully move towards better times ahead, perhaps we didn’t always get every decision 100% right amongst the turbulence of spring 2020, but we know that every decision made, each action taken was only ever with the best intentions, the most admirable motivation in-spite of the uncertainty surrounding us all which dictated a complete rethink to what would have been an incredible festival programme in 2020 and to try and not lose sight of looking to the future with hope and optimism when we could return.

And remember there was no playbook on how any of us had to deal with what this last, terrible 18 months, no handy manual of how to deal with a global pandemic: ‘same storm, different boats’ I think someone said early on as the crisis hit, truly the perfect description of what we all faced.     

Before we had a chance to look up it was August 2020. We’d done all we could to tie-up, tie off and say good bye to the 2020 programme and support each other and those around us, as we all continued to face the pandemic and all the life-changing effects it was having on society at large. On a sunny day in in the middle of that month, as people cautiously returned to the city centre and what semblance of past normality they could try to find, as hopeful news about a vaccine started to appear on the media and even pubs re-opened, maybe there was just the faintest glimmer of better times ahead, so our thoughts at last turned to the future of the festival and what we should do. What would be right to do.

After a lengthy, imaginative and often quite heated team meeting, the shape of our own ‘new normal’ as a festival started to emerge, topical at least if nothing else. Always trying to be bold, innovative and unafraid, we felt the return of the festival in 2021 had to take on the beast that was COVID, the pandemic, the impact on all of our lives in so many ways and take it head-on with a boldness and ambition that could play its part in contributing to a post-pandemic world and bring people together once again. And thus the Leeds International Festival of Ideas was born. Firstly at this point I should say we realised no matter how enthusiastic and bold we wanted to be in taking this horrible COVID beast on, we couldn’t do it all, let’s be realistic if nothing else!  Key themes did emerge however and around this we have built our 2021 programme, curated our speakers and assembled something we hope that will bring inspiration, education, wonderment and challenge to some of the main areas of our lives and society that COVID has had a significant impact upon over the last 18 months and indelibly into the future.  

These themes, these areas of life we felt had experienced major COVID impacts were:

Sociological – are we more lonely given the isolation, mental health stress and ‘stay at home’ mantra we all had to obey!?

Environmental – to consider our continued struggle to correct the decades of damage we have caused to the planet & how differently we must live in the future to correct them?

Identity –as a perennial struggle in society and sadly showed that even under the pressure of a global pandemic, too many humans continue to exhibit the most appalling prejudices to each other, how do we change this?  

Media –  whether the debate around Government led propaganda or how microscopically we gained even more access into each other’s lives via endless days on Zoom etc, what has COVID done to the UK media, who is writing and controlling the news?

What we eat, grow and consume – the huge changes in diet from people’s lives changing under lockdown as just one example, new strains and stresses that emerged on food supply and retail and how do we produce a new and sustainable food production plan for the world in the future?

At this point as a brief pause for thought,  remember this is in mid-August 2020 and just in case you’d forgotten that was before all the new wave of nightmares  that would come under the second Tier system, the restricted opening that would return in the autumn, the mid-winter lockdown and before Boris cancelled  Christmas on Christmas eve!!!    

All that aside, which seems an extremely glib way to refer to it, we had to crack on, we had to start reaching out to all these amazing speakers, most of whom of course had not had any events to deliver like the rest of us for a year, if we going to book any of them. At least that was an element of ‘normal working life’. So we hadn’t thought of everything COVID had ransacked, by no means the whole tsunami of change the pandemic had brought,  but we thought these were a good starting point of crucial topics that needed to be discussed, debated, argued about to try and present a new future, a potentially brighter and better dawn after the darkest of nights. Most of all we felt they were areas of life so important to us all and that have all gone through a different level of change than any of us have experienced before, a deeper scrutiny, different reflections and outcomes, and areas of our society that will be forever different in a post COVID world.

We hope you agree, we hope you can join in the debate, we can only offer the platform of for these powerful subjects to be discussed and hope that people want to engage and contribute, as well as have a good time, enjoy being part of it which is as important now as it has ever been.

To showcase, deliver and bring to life these compelling conversations, we have assembled a powerful array of some of the brightest minds in the UK and from across the globe. Writers, thinkers, performers, academics, doctors, journalists and social commentators who between them present a truly outstanding and provocative range of perspectives and insights.       

On September 13th the festival sparks into life and after all we have been through we are so happy, proud and more than a little excited to be able to present this programme and once again put Leeds on the map as an innovative, creative, confident and frankly outspoken city, unafraid to lead the conversation on what that ‘new normal’ needs to look like. So come along, get involved, speak out and we hope you will be inspired, uplifted, maybe a little challenged and uncomfortable at some of the debate; but most of all join us in illuminating the discussions because let’s face it, if we all need to do one thing after this horrendous last 18 months it’s talk to each other and build a better future together’.