Diary - Joan Bakewell

At the Spitz gallery, I see the wall where Betsy Schneider's photographs of her naked little daughte

For, lo, the winter is past . . . and the season of Literary Festivals is come

With visits to Shrewsbury and Bath already behind me, next stop is Spit-Lit, the Spitalfields Literary Festival. This has the particular interest of being a celebration of women's writing, with names such as Jo Brand and Bonnie Greer and Linda Smith among the patrons, and a week of stories, workshops and lectures entirely by women. Something else interesting, too. My talk is to be given in the Spitz gallery, a name I recognise at once from a recent news story about photographs of a naked child being withdrawn from an exhibition for fear of breaking the law. What law, I am keen to find out. Arriving early, I am taken round by the festival's formidable organiser, Maggie Pinhorn, who explains the whole sorry saga. There on the gallery walls are the empty hooks and naked spaces, pathetic evidence of a lack of courage in the face of paedophile hysteria.

This exhibition is about childhood, and features photographs by six women celebrating their families and their relationships. Betsy Schneider's pictures of her naked daughter must have sat comfortably among so much maternal feeling, of which love for the nakedness of the body you brought into the world is a poignant part. The exhibitors had sought legal advice and been advised by Jonathan Caplan QC that the display would be breaking the law only if it was "obscene", and thus in breach of the Obscene Publications Act definition of "depraving and corrupting"; or if it was "indecent" and in contravention of the Protection of Children Act and Indecent Displays Act. Caplan advised that it was neither, and that "it would be absurd to conclude that a photograph of a naked five-year-old was indecent". Some reassurance, then, for doting parents who don't want their innocent pictures of bathtime contaminated by feelings that they may be doing something wrong.

Next, the Words by the Water festival in Cumbria, a country idyll in contrast to the city buzz. I am booked to speak at the Theatre by the Lake, in Keswick. The lake, Derwentwater, is about 200 yards away, the nearest railway 18 miles away at Penrith. How we all get there in time and in reasonable condition is a miracle; but once arrived, we are all set to enjoy ourselves and each other's company. Here I meet Josceline Dimbleby, whose good fortune it is to have uncovered a cache of family love letters between her great-great-grandmother and Edward Burne-Jones. Her telling of their strangely Victorian love affair in A Profound Secret gets its first review on the Sunday morning we are there. Its praises read over the phone elicit a squeal of delight. This is her first departure from a sequence of award-winning cookery books and she had been naturally apprehensive. No longer.

There are poets here, too. A pair of them - a Pole and an American - smoke together with the kind of brooding intensity I expect of poets. (Well, we are in the Lake District!) I attend a reading given by Mario Petrucci, an intriguingly elusive individual who refers fondly to the Italian peasantry of his background and turns out to be a physicist as well as writer-in-residence at the Imperial War Museum. He has written a poem sequence about the Chernobyl disaster which leaves us all moved and thoughtful.

I was here - at the Theatre by the Lake - years ago when the building was little more than a shed. Now it is a purpose-built theatre seating some 380 in the main auditorium and around 70 in a smaller studio, with its catering areas commanding beautiful views of the fells. It opened in 1999, built with Lottery help to a budget of £6m. Now it's open daily from 9.30am, and does roughly 600 performances a year. What a success story, and how good it felt to be part of it. Writers, poets, journalists departed singing its praises and hoping to be asked back again. For me, next stop: Oxford.

I have my doubts about breakfast meetings. They suggest wide-awake gatherings of those with crammed diaries, impelled by some burning urgency to assemble from their beds unfed but well-groomed for a day's frantic activity. They also hold out the promise of good croissants and fine coffee. The meeting at the offices of the Royal Shakespeare Company wasn't frantic, but it was full of good news. That was the idea. Michael Boyd is slowly rolling out his plans for the recovery of his company from the corporate madness that seized it a few years ago. Its retreat from one building, plans to demolish another, and the closing of yet another, left many former admirers gasping. Now we can begin to breathe again. But only slowly.

This will be no flamboyant firework recovery. Instead the steady laying down of groundwork for a future that will give emphasis to the training of actors, the recovery of the Shakespearean canon, the rebuilding of world theatre and, at its heart, the nurturing of an ensemble company to carry forward the work from one season to the next. There will be announcements soon: a new chairman, a new London home and new plans for Stratford. Black coffee wasn't enough to get Michael Boyd to spill the beans. But he could be the man about to retrieve the fortunes of the RSC.

This article first appeared in the 22 March 2004 issue of the New Statesman, After Madrid, does urban life have a future?