Chris Garrard is an activist and composer who was lucky enough to have a ticket to the sold out Margaret Atwood talk last night at the Southbank Centre. You can read Chris’ blog here and an interview with him about his chamber-opera version of The Handmaid’s Tale here.

Last night, I went along to see Margaret Atwood at the Southbank Centre as part of a UK tour to launch her latest book, MaddAddam. It completes a trilogy of books which explore a future dystopia, where corporate control, bioengineering and environmental decline have taken hold. As with many of Atwood’s novels, she prefers the MaddAddam trilogy to be seen as ‘speculative fiction’ rather than ‘science fiction’, because the technologies and cultures she features already exist in our present-day world in some form.

During her conversation with Peter Kemp, the chief literary critic from The Times, they began discussing this issue of corporate control and the nature of the online battles across firewalls that happen invisibly above our heads every day. Shortly after, she announced that she had promised her twitter followers that she would highlight Shell’s sponsorship of the Southbank Centre, and posed the question:

To what extent should the arts be funded and by which corporations?

Given the themes of MaddAddam, her other novels and her own environmental interests, it was a pertinent question that was met with applause. She referred to the plot of MaddAddam which features an imagined church, the Church of PetrOleum, led by a preacher who worships oil. It revealed something of the context behind her tweet to the Southbank earlier that day:

During the subsequent Q&A session, one audience member took her up on her invitation to discuss the sponsorship issue more. She suggested that, ‘this is not a simple question of right or wrong’. She said, ‘it would be pleasing to think energy companies are investing in what we need, in non-carbon energy…of course, they’ll tell you they are.’ For Atwood though, this question was part of the broader issue of how we shift away from oil and fossil fuels more generally, as she put it, ‘how do we kick the addiction without the spasm?’

Earlier in the Q&A, Atwood has been asked about the question of dystopias and the appeal of them in literature:

I think the biggest thing on people’s minds is climate change… Our entire Western Civilisation is based on the idea of endless energy.

She suggested that people often like the opportunity to ‘walk through’ dystopias in their head as a way of being prepared or rehearsing what they might do in such a situation. For Atwood though, it was the power of nature to take over in the absence of human interference that intrigued her. As a child, she was influenced by her father’s work as a biologist and the notion of rewilding permeates the trilogy and her own environmental interests:

The amazing thing about when advanced technology fails, is we revert to a couple of phases back.

The value of being close to the ground and close to nature was also important, delivered in her characteristic wit:

The moment before the lights go out, it might be good to live in a 45th floor condo. The moment after, it’s not…

It was exciting to have such a highly regarded and exciting author recognise the importance of the cultural sponsorship debate and feel able to raise the issue confidently and publicly. As is often the case with her writing, Atwood’s insights are not just in the answers she gives but also in the probing questions she leaves us with. In the context of her wider discussion of corporate control and environmental change in the MaddAddam trilogy, the question of Shell’s sponsorship took on a deeper meaning.

In their earlier conversation, Peter Kemp observed that at the end of the MaddAddam trilogy where a pandemic has spread across the world, that situations had changed – ‘even the nature of being human has changed.’ To which Margaret Atwood simply replied, ‘Don’t you think that might be a good thing?’

Some more tweets from the event: