The great literary debate

Tuesday, 08 December 2009


Human rights issues were the central theme of the Chancellor's Debate when Shami Chakrabarti visited Brookes.

Human rights formed the central theme of the Chancellor's Debate when Shami Chakrabarti visited Brookes to talk books.

She was joined by Vice-Chancellor Professor Janet Beer, author Philip Pullman and the Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police, Sara Thornton.

The four talked about literature that had inspired or informed their lives in some way and discussed works by mystic William Blake, the former slave Frederick Douglass and Penelope Mortimer's The Pumpkin Eater -; as well as a JK Rowling novel about the boy wizard Harry Potter.

The choices provoked lively discussion and at one point, when talking about Frederick Douglass, Shami asked the audience: 'Does anybody know when UK parliament first made it a criminal offence to hold someone in servitude?' Before giving the answer: 'Two weeks ago.'

She believed literature has the power to change the world like nothing else: 'Creative writing is more powerful than the law,' she said.

Philip's choice was Auguries of Innocence by Blake.

'Blake has always been for me a guiding light, a beacon, a touchstone,' said Philip. 'He was someone whose perceptions of things seemed almost flawless.'

The poem moves between the very small and the very large.

'When you're in connection with something it's a moral connection.'

Blake was fascinated by what he called 'minute particulars'. 'That's where things exist,' said Philip. 'That's where we exist.'

Janet chose a powerful book outside the literary canon by a slave who inspired the abolitionist movement: 'The slave narrative is probably the only genre which is unique to America.

'It's part confessional, it's part adventure story and it's also cultural critique.' She added: 'His final message is no one is free if anyone is enslaved.'