ALI SMITH (PEN / HG Wells Lecture): The ‘Not Yet Written’ Lecture
2.15pm on Saturday 15th of August 2015, Garden Theatre
By Beatriz Lopez
‘Can we get the lights up so that I can see you’re not asleep?’ This was the beginning of Ali Smith’s playful lecture on the legacy of H.G. Wells, whose fierce defence of the freedom to write and read – as evidenced by his expelling of the German PEN from PEN International after the Nazi book burnings – has remained a constant inspiration for writers and readers alike.
Drawing on personal anecdotes, Smith enthusiastically demonstrated the contemporary validity of H.G. Wells’s ideas. She positioned the writer as a visionary who ‘drew a thin line between fantasy and reality’, foreseeing unprecedented inventions that would radically change the world, such as the internet – which he called World Encyclopedia –, global warming, mass surveillance, and the atomic bomb, among others. Coming from an unprivileged background, Wells stayed apart from modernist elitism and managed to express the experience of the outcast in his novel The Invisible Man.
His books, said Smith, ‘are full of people who would happily eat each other’, yet his pessimism is useful, for it serves as a warning that the worst may still be to come, unless we do something about it. Most importantly, she drew attention to H.G. Wells’s enormously influential declaration of human rights, first ratified by Britain in 1951. Setting the author’s progressivism against the current political situation in Britain, Smith voiced her concern that ‘the appearance of “scrap”, “human”, “rights” and “act” in the same sentence evidences evolution going backwards’.
Although she spoke awfully fast, and her rapid change from anecdote to the historical and literary context of H.G. Wells was sometimes distracting, she managed to make her lecture deeply entertaining and humourful, even when drawing attention to the bleakness of the Wells’s concerns and the prospect that in our contemporary crises the worst might be ‘Not Yet Written’.