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Free Thinking 2013 at Sage Gateshead - day one

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Rosalind Porter is our regular Free Thinking guest blogger. She's in Gateshead for the 2013 festival and is going to bring us a daily blog post rounding up the intellectual action.

Once again it is time to wake up the little grey cells and head to Sage Gateshead for a feast of Free Thinking. This year's theme is ‘Who's in control?" and ironically our speaker for the Free Thinking Lecture – the internationally renowned medical researcher, Sir Michael Marmot – demonstrated how easy it is for us to lose control of our own lives, by being delayed due to train problems.

However, it was well worth the wait to hear Sir Michael's thoughts on the question: 'self control - the key to a long life?" He started by giving us some truly shocking statistics demonstrating social inequality in health and a quote: 'social injustice kills on a grand scale" which certainly made an instant impact on a packed Hall 2 audience. It was revealing to learn from him how the process of social disempowerment – in other words, not having the self control to influence our lives - drastically affected the health of diverse communities in different but equally devastating ways.

Without doubt the most inspiring part of Sir Michael's lecture was discovering how social empowerment can be facilitated in practical terms and the strikingly positive results that such plans will have. I especially appreciated the story of the impoverished self-employed Indian women selling vegetables by the side of the roads. How a few basic steps such as ensuring fair prices for growers and sellers, setting up a credit union and providing child care for their children enabled the women to dramatically improve their health and wellbeing. Ably demonstrating another of Sir Michael's beliefs that: "Poverty is not destiny" and that empowerment for women is vital for improving health in poorer countries.

It was easy to be swept along with the optimism of Sir Michael's philosophy of social action for improving health and presenter Philip Dodd tried his best to be a Sancho Panza to Sir Michael's ever enthusiastic Don Quixote, but without much success. This fascinating lecture was an excellent opener to what looks like a lively, challenging and entertaining BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking weekend. Download the lecture on the Radio 3 web site.

Rosalind Porter 

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