York will be fizzing with ideas during a two-week festival in June. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.

IDEAS don’t come much bigger than the Big Bang: the now generally accepted theory of the beginning of the universe which says, basically, that everything – the universe, the galaxies, the stars, our planet – started with a giant explosion about 15 billion years ago.

It is appropriate, therefore, that York’s second Festival of Ideas, which runs through the second half of June, will start with its own mini Big Bang.

Carlos Frenk, the cosmologist from Durham University, will use the latest ‘immersive’ technology to recreate for an audience in stunning 3-D the beginning of our universe.

It promises to be an explosive start to this year’s festival.

“He’s a fantastic speaker,” says Joan Concannon, the University of York’s director of external relations. “It will be visual, and tactile, and utterly thrilling.”

The professor, one of the world’s leading cosmologists, has spent his career building model universes in supercomputers, to understand how the universe we know evolved.

He will use all that experience to recreate the Big Bang in miniature in the 360 degree in-the-round demonstration space at the Sir Ron Cooke Hub on the University of York’s new campus.

It will be a must, says Ms Concannon, for anyone interested in space, or time, or the origins of the universe – or even the curious ‘dark matter’ that makes such an elusive appearance in the novels of Philip Pullman.

They call it the Festival of Ideas – and while it will certainly be fizzing with them (ideas, that is), that doesn’t really do justice to this festival.

There will be ideas aplenty: about art, music and cutting-edge science. But this is a festival that aims to get everyone involved, from children to centenarians.

There will be creative writing courses, great music and a series of events looking at the problems and opportunities caused by our ageing society and our attitudes towards old age, with a marvellous new poem by Sir Andrew Motion at their heart.

For children, there will be a bug-hunt in the Museum Gardens and a week of storytelling, interactive play and theatre at York Theatre Royal.

Jane McAdam Freud – the daughter of the artist Lucien Freud – will introduce an exhibition of powerful drawings and sculptures she made of her father in the last weeks of his life.

The author Anthony Horowitz – creator of the children’s spy thrillers featuring Alex Rider – will talk about his life and his writing. There will be a Brazilian carnival day at the National Centre for Early Music; a ‘rock ‘n’ roll politics brunch’ with Helen Boaden, the BBC’s head of news, and Steve Richards, The Independent’s chief political correspondent; and a discussion of how Charles Dickens became England’s greatest novelist.

Chinese writer Jung Chang will read from her book Wild Swans; and there will be a public debate on the financial crisis and an ‘architecture day’ looking at the impact good buildings can have on the people who live and work in them.

More than 50 events will be held all told in the two weeks of the festival, from June 14 to 30. They will be held across the city, at the university, the Theatre Royal, the National Centre for Early Music; in the city’s art galleries and museums; and even in the street.

The festival was launched last year by Joan Concannon and Professor Jane Moody, the director of the university’s Humanities Research Centre who died last October after a four-year-battle with breast cancer. Her spirit will hover over this year’s festival, Ms Concannon said. And while it is co-ordinated by the university again this year, it is very much a festival for the whole city.

Organisations throughout York are involved, from the city council and the York Museums Trust to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, private galleries and the Civic Trust.

The aim is to put York on the ‘ideas map’ as a centre of innovation and thought and great ideas. But it is also to inspire the people of the city, Ms Concannon said.

There really will be something for everybody – and every effort is being made to keep as many events free as possible.

“So come along and try it. We want to showcase the city: but we also want people to be part of it!”

Some highlights of this year’s festival

The York Festival of Ideas has some way to go yet before it will rival the Edinburgh festival, admits Joan Concannon. But the aim is to make it an essential part of the nation’s cultural calendar.

“Our ambition is very big!”

There are some amazing speakers and events lined up this year. The theme of the festival is metamorphoses, or changes – and there will be a number of strands to the festival, including the evolution of the human condition; the perils and perceptions of ageing; the power of architecture to transform lives; the effect of film, music and theatre on the quality of our lives; the financial crisis; and cutting-edge science.

The more than 50 events include:

Jane McAdam Freud

The daughter of the renowned artist Lucien Freud is herself a sculptor of rare skill. After years of estrangement from her father, they became close towards the end of his life, and he agreed to sit for her.

The result was a series of powerful drawings of the artist made as he neared death, which Jane then turned into works of sculpture.

To get these works for an exhibition at the New School House Gallery on Peasholme Green is a real coup, says Robert Teed, who runs the gallery with his partner Paula Jackson.

“We’re thrilled that she agreed to come,” admitted Mr Teed. “We will get national coverage for it, and we believe it will bring people to York.”

Following a private view on June 1, the exhibition runs until July 21.

Little Feet, York Theatre Royal, Monday June 18 – Saturday June 23

York Theatre Royal and tutti frutti productions are collaborating to bring some of the best theatre companies in the country to present work for children, young people and families – plus the whole theatre will be transformed into a place to play, participate and enjoy.

“With roving storytellers, craft activities and participatory sessions happening throughout the week, there will be lots to do,” a spokesman said.

The perceptions of ageing

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is preparing a programme of activity that seeks to challenge perceptions of ageing.

Details are yet to be finalised, but there will be a public debate at the Ron Cooke Hub at the University of York at 6.30pm on Tuesday June 26 hosted by Julia Unwin of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and featuring, amongst others, Professor Lewis Wolpert, the renowned biologist and author of a new book on ageing, You’re Looking Very Well.

The foundation is also planning a series of exhibitions on ageing, an online storyboard capturing older people’s observations, and a major new art installation celebrating a new poem by the former Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion.

The poem, Better Life, was commissioned by the Foundation, and is a powerful meditation on the often patronising way we view older people.

“I am Richard and I am perfectly able, thank you, and also of perfectly sound mind,” reads one stanza.

“What can I do for you? The chances are I know more than you about most things. I landed on Gold Beach on D-Day then worked as a brewer. It was a useful life. Defending the realm, then making beer...”

Brazilian carnival day, National Centre For Early Music, 10.30am – 3.30pm, Sunday, June 16

“Join us as we bring the excitement of the Brazilian carnival to York,” says the blurb.

“Composer/ percussionist Claudio Kron from Brazil transports us to Latin America through a series of workshops exploring Brazilian arts and sculpture.” The day includes sessions for nine to 14-year-olds on percussion music samba dance and capoeira (a mix of martial arts and samba dance).

Architecture Day

Public debate and exhibitions at the Ron Cooke Hub at the University of York from 12 noon on June 30, looking at the power of architecture to transform out lives.

The public debate from 3.30pm will feature some of the architects and developers who were responsible for the new-look King’s Cross.

Other events include:

Carlos Frenk: “Where it all began”. Recreation of the beginnings of the universe by one of the world’s top cosmographers. Ron Cooke Hub, University of York, 6pm, Thursday June 14.

For more details of the second York Festival of Ideas, or to book tickets (some events charge, though many are free) visit yorkfestivalofideas.com, or call the University of York events office on 01904 324466.