Cheltenham Literature Festival 2019 – part two

Back to Cheltenham. It’s now the second weekend and I’ve returned for a few more events, including (and all referenced below):

Simon Schama (as himself)

Booker Prize 2019  shortlist preview

The Times Debate: ‘The best and worst prime ministers’

The Times Debate, ‘Is the party over?

India Now

I’m staying with my earlier theme of language. I have no choice after listening to Simon Schama (promoting his new book of newspaper and magazine articles, from the last few years,  mainly from the FT, entitled ‘Wordy’). He has, as he put it, ‘always loved literary abundance’. He quoted Erasmus, and a book which had escaped my knowledge, ‘De Copia’ (of copiousness), from 1512. Think of words ‘surging in a golden stream, overflowing with an abundance of words and thoughts’. With the qualification that all this abundance should not be confused with’ futile and amorphous verbosity’.  Richness of imagination and elasticity of argument should be the key. 

A strict Zen approach might argue for less is more! But I love listening to Schama, and there’s not a word wasted. He loves lists, and they take you down surprising byways. (For example, the multitude of colours available to an artist’s palette, and their provenance.) Explore these byways, and you learn. Stuff you don’t need to know, or didn’t think you did. Schama has a facility of memory, and a certainty of recall, and a sureness of argument that is unusual. Maybe your dad reciting Shakespeare and readings Dickens to a young child helps a little.

Someone with a similar facility mentioned by Schama is Salman Rushdie. Rushdie’s love of lists and popular culture can wear you down, but, again, nothing is wasted.

Another event at the festival, the following day, was the Booker Prize 2019 shortlist preview, and Rushdie is on the shortlist. His new novel has a 1950s American quiz show as its setting-off point. Schama chucks in a few references to popular music, but high art is more his focus. On Rembrandt he is peerless.

Talking of lists, Lucy Ellmann’s Booker-shortlisted book is ‘Ducks, Newburyport’, and that is one long list, each item beginning with ‘The fact is that…’, all one sentence over 1020 pages plus. Surprisingly easy to read, and non-repetitive, but a 1020 pages list is a stretch…

But I’m one day ahead. After Schama I had one of those events that you don’t have to go to. But it sounded fun. ‘The best and worst prime ministers.’ Daniel Finkelstein, Times columnist (who I used to read before they put the Times online behind a firewall), Anthony Seldon, biographer of every prime minister since the year dot, including Mrs May, and Deborah Mattinson, one-time pollster for Gordon Brown, and now running ‘Britain Thinks’. And what does it think? How do we define leadership – dominant, assertive, quick-witted, on the one hand, listening, engaged, persuasive, on the other – these may not quite be her categories. But close. You can place PMs on a spectrum extending between the two. Churchill comes out top as best PM, of course, Attlee, in the second camp, not far behind. Blair doing well pre-Iraq. Brown, as Anthony Eden, cursed by an over-long wait, and an urge to make an impact when he finally took on the role. The worst – Goderich, who cried when making his resignation speech after seven months in office. Bonar Law.

Gladstone got a mention – but what about Disraeli? The original one-nation Tory. Jewish, becoming PM against all the odds. The great sparring partner of Gladstone.

What wasn’t directly addressed was the effect that the pursuit of power, and the exercise of power, has on people. Has on prime ministers. Success in politics has a short timespan, it’s normally a response to events – to war, to the unions (in Thatcher’s case), maybe a new vision which the public buys into (Blair). Cameron might have refashioned the Tory party had the imperatives of austerity (as he understood them) not got in the way. Callaghan, the last of the old-school trade unionists politicians, wise, avuncular, but brought down by the unions. Harold Wilson, presiding over a powerful cabinet, but sterling was his undoing, and it’s his ministers who these days get the accolades.

I missed an intriguing panel discussion on PMQ – prime ministers’ questions. The worst, of British politics, or the best? Adversarial, a bear pit … but also a game, and a good one, played within the rules.  But now played out for media soundbites.  And, back to my theme of language…

… what of a PM who uses terms likes ‘surrender’, to the EU, and ‘collaboration’, with an enemy, the EU, and sees no issue with the glib use of wartime language. In the way that Trump uses terms like ‘traitor’ and ‘spy’ of his opponents in the impeachment proceedings. This crosses a threshold.

The one-time (and still?) journalist who is happy to mis-speak, and shrug it off, thinks he can still play the same game in high politics, as PM, no less.

Not only have we lost integrity – we’ve also lost oratory. Does that matter? Back to Schama. The ability to use language, to inspire, and at the same time to put over arguments cogently, and honestly. Passion and intelligence. Churchill had it. Michael Foot had it: you listened, you might not agree – but you listened. Where are they now? The orators. The Obamas. Do we have any? It’s impressive to strut up and down a stage, speaking without notes, but it’s a feat of memory, not oratory. Parliament should be a place for oratory. Maybe not PMQ – but PM and opposition leaders who could rise above point-scoring – that would be a transformation.

Inbetween all this I tried an oddball item. There are many such at Cheltenham. ‘The role of the poetry critic.’ I am no wiser.

Back to politics, and our big event on the Saturday, the Times Debate, ‘Is the party over?’ A pollster from Populus, Andrew Copper, placed parliamentary seats on a grid, with income levels one axis, and social attitudes from liberal to small-c conservative on the other. The analysis was intriguing. ‘Recent polling has shown that voters identify more strongly as Remainers or Leavers than with the two main parties.’ The Tories are now chasing the lower-income socially-conservative vote, they’re on Brexit Party territory, Farage territory. They may win traditional Labour seats, with new-style more socially-conservative MPs – and where then the more open social agenda Johnson talks about. Five, make it six, parties are in contention – more if we include Northern Ireland.

This was simply the best panel discussion I’ve been to – at Cheltenham or Hay. Chaired by Justin Webb, with acuity and affability. Philip Collins provided perspective, and Jess Phillips and Rory Stewart were the politicians. Jess Phillips out of tune with her leadership, but in tune with her constituents in Birmingham. And open and honest because that’s the only way she knows. Leave her party? She’ll hang on in there, hoping it will switch back from its Momentum ways to something still socialist but within the old parameters of parliamentary discourse. Rory Stewart has given up on his party. He’s now standing as an independent candidate for London mayor. Intelligent and totally on the ball. And damn it, like Jess, likeable. And like Jess, not playing games with the audience, and trying to be something he isn’t. As either Andrew or Philip remarked, he’ll get a ton of second preferences, and may win on a run-off as the second-favourite candidate. Sadiq Khan is weighed down by Corbin as party leader, the Tory candidate by Boris. Rory is a free agent. (It seems I’m on first-name terms with everyone!)

As Jess pointed out, she couldn’t do anything like that. Abandon party, stand as an independent. Rory has the dosh. He’s an old Etonian. If he may/may not have the money, but he has the connections. He can build an online base with ease. Jess has no such advantages, save for her political and personal skills. She literally couldn’t afford to re-invent herself.

As someone said – it would be good to see the two of them in the same cabinet. Sanity would prevail. One hopes.

Language – focus on language – in life and politics. The ability to express yourself cogently and honestly. We all fall short.  The danger is now that were all so inured to misuse and abuse of language that we go along with it. With Boris, a small-scale operator, for now, and maybe always too innocent – and Erdogan, Modi, Trump on a rising scale. And Xi Jinping at the top, with ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ now forming the preamble to China’s constitution.

That takes me to Narendra Modi and a panel discussion on India, entitled India Now, chaired by the director, Robin Niblett, of the think-tank, Chatham House. My friend, Hazel, wa,s in the meantime, enjoying the ‘Sunday Times Culture Discussion with Andrew Lloyd Webber’. Would have been – and was, I gather – fascinating. But politics came first.

The tenor of the discussion was well-caught by the title of book by one of the panel, Kapil Komireddi, ‘The Malevolent Republic’. Modi didn’t come off well. A Hindu nationalist wanting to re-shape India as a Hindu state, creating a hostile environment for dissent, building a personality cult, undermining the open democracy which India has, despite its size and convoluted history, managed to maintain, revoking the status of Jammu and Kashmir as a province, an unconstitutional act, upping the stakes in the hostilities with Pakistan. Playing the populist, embracing, literally, Donald Trump.

It would have been good to have someone on the panel just a little bit more onside with Modi: the growth rate is still 5%, could go higher, he’s strong in infrastructure projects … And we should remember, India will soon be, at 1.4 billion people, the most populous nation on the planet. Put against that – the question I’d meant to ask and didn’t – will India be able to feed itself in future, and water itself – will the rains and aquifers hold out?

Where are we, the UK, in all this? We were advised by the panel that, yes, there’s still a kind of fondness for things British in India, but the idea that the old ties of Empire would help us ease our way to post-Brexit deals with India is patently absurd.

I’ve hardly mentioned Brexit. The festival by and large avoided it. Negotiations this week may or may not conclude with a deal, which may or may not pass parliament. And that is all there is to say.

Cheltenham has been a wonderful few days. It rained and it poured, and the tents fluttered in the occasional big gust. But the place was teeming. And we had fun.

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