Book festivals are, to vary a phrase, a long time in politics. We’ve just emerged from the ten-day long Cheltenham Literature Festival. While we listened there were few ripples out there in the wider world. UK gilts prices were going through the roof. Markets were in turmoil.
First off Friday evening was Jeremy Hunt, yes, that Jeremy Hunt, talking about his new book ‘Zero: Eliminating Preventable Harm and Tragedy in the NHS’. The book has been described by a junior doctor (writing in The Guardian), one of the strikers who vilified Hunt during their 2016 strike, as ‘a thoughtful, serious and well-written book that tackles an immensely important subject’. That’s how he came over to us listening in the Town Hall. He’s serious, and means well. He was Health Secretary for six years, the kind of long stint more government ministers should have in office.
Hunt became Chancellor of the Exchequer just six days later. Looking back there was an almost charming innocence about proceedings.
Saturday lunchtime, we listened to Cheltenham-born writer Geoff Dyer talking about his new book, ‘Growing Old With Roger Federer’. We reach the point in life here we have to move on, admit the great days are past. Federer is the exemplar, doing it gracefully. He is 41, Dyer early 60s. Dylan, one of Dyer’s heroes is in his 80s. After the session we headed out into the sunshine talking about our own icons (Dylan being one), and the likes of Mick Jagger and how in that one case the rules don’t quite apply. (But, Mick, they will, in time, even to you!)
(As an aside, let me mention David Foster Wallace’s essay on Roger Federer quoted by Brian Phillips in a 2016 New York Times article: he ‘advances the impossibly ambitious, totally doomed and thrillingly beautiful idea that high-level spectator sports serve an aesthetic and even quasi-spiritual function, namely to reconcile viewers to the limitations of their own bodies.’ We can muse over that wonderful notion as we contemplate our own physical decline!
Later that afternoon we heard Justin Webb talk about his new book (‘The Gift of a Radio’) with a full-on chirpy Nick Robinson. Justin and Nick work closely together on the BBC’s Today programme and are obviously great pals. Justin smooth, with an upper middle-class mum who ‘lived’ that status. Nick set himself up as a northern terrier. Drives a Ford Capri. (No, he doesn’t, but Justin is a little bit on the smooth side, in, of course, the nicest possible way.)
Sunday evening, getting dark, and the festival site quieter. I drove in specially to hear Geoff Dyer and others talking about Jack Kerouac, author of ‘On the Road’, and leading figure of the Beat Generation. It’s one hundred years since he was born. ‘Still Roadworthy? was the title of the event. Yes, the answer, the book still strikes chord. I looked up quotes back home. How about, ‘What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? — it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.’
Back down to earth…
Monday, a panel discussion focused on the topic, ‘Can Economics Save the Planet’, with Oliver Balch chairing, and Gillian Tett in full flow. Can economics shake off its obsessive focus on numbers? Are we at another turning point, where the ‘dismal science’ experiences its own green revolution, going way beyond the ‘green-washing’ of ESG (Environmental Social and Governance). Can we really have ‘green growth’? And what of the ‘no growth’ school, which argues that we can only save the planet by adopting a no-growth approach. But is that, for a moment, given all our crises and our nine billion population, remotely realistic?
After regrouping for tea and cakes it was the turn Chris Patten and Hong Kong refugee and hero Nathan Lee, talking about Hong Kong, taking their cue from Patten’s Hong Kong Diaries. But their focus was on Hong Kong now, and Nathan’s experience, and the territory’s future – and should we ever have trusted the Chinese. And now of course we’ve Xi Jinping. We cannot hide from the threat he poses. Or autocracies more widely, BUT what impressed was how neither Nathan nor Chris seemed born down by gloom. Nathan is a fighter – as we must be, fighting for liberal democracy.
Tuesday drilled home the same point. It was ‘Ukraine day’ at the festival and we listened to novelist Oksana Zabuzhko (‘Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex’, ‘The Museum of Abandoned Secrets’) talking with Rosie Goldsmith. Oksana is unstoppable, she has to deep-think herself into her replies in English (Ukraine her first language, Polish second, English third, Russian fourth…) and then she engages, and talks non-stop. Western Europe doesn’t know Ukraine, doesn’t even connect to it as part of Europe. Security is what Ukraine’s needs once and for all, in the face of Russia’s repeated predations… We had to clear up after World War Two, now we have to fight and do it again. We haven’t faced up to dictators, in Russia or China, and (reprising last evening’s message) we must.
Thursday morning, it was the turn of Steven Pinker, talking about his new(ish) book, ‘Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters.’ He’s wonderful on cognitive biases, picking up from the work of Daniel Kahneman. His big question: can we by the exercise of objective reason get to something approximating to objective truth? After Chris Patten and Nathan Law, and Oksana Zabuzhko, he did come over as somewhat detached from the real world. Is the world really less violent? Can that argument be sustained? ‘Progress’ has surely only re-contextualised violence. Putin and even more Xi Jinping are by their own lights eminently reasonable.
Late afternoon, we’re into the festival again for the BBC champion ‘explorer’ (though that word almost demeans him) Simon Reeve. He was brilliant. The cerebral chat of Pinker replaced by the humour, the goodwill, the openness, the experience crossing frontiers, geographical and personal, of someone who has travelled where the world hurts.
That evening, the big news: Kwarteng is out, and our old friend Jeremy Hunt is in. And the great unwinding has begun.
Friday morning, a conversation between a long-winded Times writer (good for contrast!) and a brilliant, mercurial, unstoppable, wonderfully detailed and informed Anthony Beevor, author of ‘Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921’. Violence lay at the core to the 1917-21 implosion, Lenin single-minded in 1917, when everyone else hesitated. Single-minded again, Lenin and Trotsky, when the Reds took on the different allegiances that made up the Whites. A conflict characterised by the brutality which seems to be a continuing part of the Russian psyche when it comes to the exercise of power. Despite its length, 592 pages, a must-read: there are big issues involved, not least relating to Ukraine as it is today,
Saturday morning, a panel discussion with ‘Crisis: Ukraine and Europe’, as its subject. Bronwen Maddox in the chair. Support by way of armament is crucial. So too popular support, despite privations which lie ahead. Can we hold the alliance together? Is Macron, arguing that France wouldn’t use its nuclear deterrent in the current conflict, a weak link? Or is he just adding to the uncertainty – which is what we of course want Putin to feel. And what of those countries which still sit of the fence. Why, and how can we change their minds? We can’t change Xi Jinping. But what of the rest of Asia, and Africa?
Our last festival visit: the actor Hugh Bonneville, star of Downton, Paddington, and Notting Hill, and much else. A complete contrast – we were ‘VIPs’, courtesy of my friend Hazel, so got a free book. Hugh was brilliant: laid back, unassuming, funny, full of theatre insights and stories.
We needed that, needed him. Take a break! Even Rings of Power (Tolkien re-worked, re-fantasised for Amazon Prime) which we watched that evening is, if we take it seriously for a moment, about the rise and fall of civilisations, about good versus evil. I shall take one of Michael Bond’s Paddington books to bed with me tonight!