A Leamington musician and writer joined some exulted company last month by giving a talk to some of the world’s most innovative thinkers. Peter Ormerod joined him on his journey to the TEDx conference in Cyprus
Bill Clinton has done one. As have Stephen Hawking and the founders of Google. Bill Gates has done quite a few.
They’re quite intimidating names to follow, but that’s what a musician and writer from Leamington managed to do last month, when he was invited to give a TED talk.
You may not be familiar with TED talks. The acronym stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, which isn’t especially appropriate: the most popular tend to be concerned with broader ideas of science, art and philosophy (SAP talks, anyone?). There’s an annual TED conference in the USA, and various gatherings throughout the year in other parts of the world; these are known as TEDx events. Each speaker gets 18 minutes, and is typically of a particular calibre (although they did let Bono have a go once). Every talk is streamed live online and is free to view. They’ve been watched more than a billion times. The whole thing is like a live-action Wikipedia, only with less stuff about Star Wars.
I somehow ended up accompanying a friend of mine from Leamington to a TEDx conference in Cyprus a few weeks ago. He’s called Andy Mort; he records and performs music under the name Atlum Schema, and runs a blog and a podcast (called sheepdressedlikewolves) and an online community aimed at encouraging introverted and highly sensitive people to embrace their creativity. The circumstances of his invitation to appear were about as meritocratic as it gets: the organisers happened to like a song of his they heard on a Greek radio station that Andy, being not exactly a media whore, had done nothing to court (one of his songs is among the favourites of BBC 6 Music’s Tom Robinson, but Andy’s unlikely ever to tell you himself). He was to speak as well as sing. Through nothing other than being good at music, he was to become one of those people who does a TED talk.
But it very nearly all went wrong. We arrived in Cyprus on a Thursday to be told that our luggage was in Paris. I got an E in geography at A-level but even I was aware of a certain distance between the two. As if that were not discombobulating enough, we then learned that our belongings weren’t going to reach us until after the conference the following Saturday. There was a time in my life - about 20 years ago - when wearing the same clothes, undergarments included, for three days running might well have been considered normal, desirable even. Now a domesticated 35, the thought made me come over rather icky. Yet it was far worse for Andy: in his luggage was much of the equipment he’d need to perform. By some outrageous fluke, his guitar had made it to Cyprus, but the gadgetry that enables him to craft great wafts and waves of sound was probably having it large along the Champs-Élysées as we sweated and fretted.
It’s funny what can make a trip abroad truly remarkable. The inconvenience to which we were put served only to bring out the best in our hosts, and led to our experiencing a level of generosity we might never have otherwise. The organisers of the conference did all they could to alleviate our difficulties: the next day involved very busy people taking the time to ferry us quite some distance so we could buy the feeling of being human again (the revivifying power of a fresh pair of socks cannot be underestimated). Then they managed to find someone with just the equipment Andy needed, and drove us out to a school that afternoon to collect it. Later, they overheard us muttering that it needed new batteries: within ten minutes, a man presented Andy with eight Duracells he’d just bought. They needn’t have done any of this but gave the impression of genuinely wanting to. A delightful bunch, the lot of them.
The Friday having been filled with rehearsals and catching up with where we’d hoped to be on Thursday, the Saturday came with a sense of relief. The kit was working; Andy’s talk needed no revisions (a ‘speech coach’, who had been fairly scathing of some other people’s run-throughs, could say of Andy’s only that it was “too loud”); everything seemed to be going to plan from the organisers’ perspective. And a tremendous day Saturday proved to be.
This TEDx (theme: Look Deeper) was organised by the University of Nicosia, but it was far from dryly academic. Nor was there any attempt to ease us in gently. Following the bewilderingly virtuosic and percussive musician Dimitris Spyrou, who can make his mouth sound like a warzone, were two unsparing talks: the first entitled ‘Challenging the normalization of sexual violence against women’, the second ‘Sexual dysfunctions: an evolutionary perspective’. Strong stuff to take before 10am but suitably bracing. Then came Nassos Zervopoulos, a charmingly gregarious, charismatic and good-natured sea diver from Greece, who enlightened the 400-strong audience with lessons he had applied from his job to wider life (top tip: breathe properly). And after a short break came Yonderboi, a Hungarian composer and artist, who bombarded us all with artfully crafted Massive Attack-esque beats and mesmerising visuals (like many, his imposing on-stage demeanour was nothing like how he was off-stage, where he was smiley and affable).
By now it was 11.30, and with Andy due on after lunch, some preparation time was needed, so we ducked out of the auditorium. For some reason, the whole convention centre - modern and more personal than many - smelled of nuts, and I had the M People song Don’t Look Any Further in my head; it occasionally and involuntarily came out of my mouth. It was absurd. The backstage area was a strange mix of the deeply nervous and the profoundly relaxed, depending on who had already done their turn. Then, after a lunch break that felt longer than the Greco-Persian War, it was Andy’s time.
And he was ever so good. His talk was called ‘There is an artist in everyone: notice what you notice’, and explored the relationship between his creativity and his experiences of caring for a friend with dementia. It was moving, powerful, thought-provoking and only six minutes long. He then performed a couple of his songs. It all seemed to go down marvellously with everyone. He’d pulled it off. He’d done a TED talk. Well done him.
The rest of the day looked and felt different. Andy was repeatedly complimented by passing audience members: one of the crew told him, casually, that he’d listened to one of one of his songs 20 times the previous evening, having heard the rehearsal; on another occasion, Andy was asked to sign the effects pedal he’d borrowed. It was great to see.
We were able to enjoy the remaining presentations in a state of relaxation and mild exhilaration. Nicoletta Demetriou spoke beautifully about how to find your own writing voice; Fabian Sixtus Corner amused and enchanted with tales of his travels, which sculpted him into a better person; Blaine Price taught us how to use everyday technology to make us fitter and happier; Adam Price, a former Plaid Cymru MP, achieved the feat of speaking about architecture and ‘creative spaces’ without sounding pretentious; Prof Panos Zavos gave a glimpse into the future of stem-cell technology (hint: it’s going to change everything); Ken Hughes, a ‘playologist’, detailed his experiment of trying something new every day; and Word Of Mouth finished things with an innovative and imaginative demonstration of the art of beatboxing.
It was all most enriching and entertaining, and held together ably by the endearingly plummy-voiced host Andreas Araouzos. It seemed that hundreds of people - many of them volunteers - were involved in some way, and they should be proud of their efforts. Later that evening, Andy and I were reunited with our luggage, which we greeted like lost pets.
True, none of the places I visited would make it on to a list called The Best Of Cyprus. But we did enough to get an impression of the place. A few observations: the air feels soft and pleasant; the buildings look like they’ve erupted from the dry land, as if they’re somehow naturally occurring; a bad November day in Cyprus is like a good spring day here; pretty much every Cypriot has studied in Britain (I expected to be asked whether Leamington was near London; instead I was asked if it was near Loughborough); the British influence is evident in ways that are comfortingly mundane (the road signs look British, the registration plates look British, the pedestrian crossings look British, the plug sockets look British, they drive on the left).
They’re curiously levelling, experiences like this. You realise that even those who seem almost superhuman on stage are often deeply human off it, racked with doubt and nerves and feeling like impostors. Literally and metaphorically, TED talks put people on pedestals. Andy’s talk opened with the words “all people are artists”, and it’s true. So the next time you watch one, don’t be intimidated: it could be you up there one day.
And among all those who felt like impostors was a genuine impostor: me. I had no role to play in the conference at all; all I could offer was the hope that I’d write about it. They had me along regardless and treated me as well as they treated all the speakers. So in a way, without wishing to gush, I did see the best of Cyprus. I saw its people.
* The talks are due to appear online in the coming days. See www.tedxunic.com/ for details.
* Slideshow picture credits: Rehearsal and setting-up pictures by Peter Ormerod, conference pictures courtesy of TedXUnic