The Hay Book Festival 2017 

It’s May 2017. The Hay Book Festival surprises yet again. You know it will, one of the great joys is turning up to talks you may have booked in advance – but you never quite know what to expect.

And what you can do of course is not book in advance, head for the box office, see what’s still available, which is most talks, if you’re early enough, and simply take pot luck. Serendipity can have big surprises in store, and rarely disappoints.

Hazel and I took in some talks together, for others we split up and compared notes afterwards.

For anyone interested in getting a flavour of Hay Festival, and not averse to reading something of the ideas and arguments, and the sheer variety of subjects, and the passionate advocacy of many of the speakers – please do read on!

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Wednesday 31st May

11.30. I began with Cambridge historian John Guy on the subject of Thomas More. He traced the remarkable history of More’s ‘Utopia’, its influence worldwide, and disabused us of the notion that More was a serial torturer. John Foxe in his Book of Martyrs, hagiography of the Protestant reformers who suffered in Catholic hands, had a vested interest in accusing More. Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall follows Foxe, but Guy holds back from criticising her too harshly. Like all of us he’s in a little in awe of her ability to brings characters to life. Guy is also an admirer of Paul Scofield in ‘A Man for all Seasons’, but he stressed that More as a man with an individual conscience that he could not deny (Robert Bolt’s spin on More in his play) is a misrepresentation. More belonged in a 1500 year old Catholic tradition, and his conscience was formed within the church’s teaching.

Why did More write ‘Utopia’? A radical democrat? The reverse is closer to the truth.  He was an elitist, who feared the demos, just as Plato had done, and saw a guardian class as the natural protectors and rulers of the land.

Hazel skipped Thomas More and took in Artemis Cooper (biographer of Patrick Leigh Fermor) on Elizabeth Jane Howard, author The Cazalet Chronicle, the wife of naturalist Peter Scott (when she was still a teenager) and Kingsley Amis, and lover of Arthur Koestler and Laurie Lee. Sounds like someone it would have been interesting to know….

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1pm. We followed with Alistair Sawday, famous for his Special Places travel guides. What struck me above all is Sawday’s ability to talk in a relaxed conversational way, and I could imagine him talking to hotel and inn owners all over Europe, charming, enthusiastic, interested. Pulping 25,000 copies of an early travel guide almost brought the company down early on. He’s an enthusiast for earth closets. He fears that special places, which aren’t smartened up and denuded of character, are getting fewer. But they survive. Telling a wider world where to find them is a double-edged sword – great for the hotels, helping them survive, but a wider awareness and clientele can damage that sense of places apart.

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2.30. My day’s highlight was Cambridge lecturer (in public policy), Finbarr Livesey, in conversation with Andy Fryers. ‘From Global to Local.’ Is globalisation the only paradigm, is hyper-globalisation inevitable?

Livesey puts up powerful counter-arguments, well summed up in one comment: ‘As countries commit to harder, binding targets for emissions reductions, the ideas of reuse, remanufacturing, circularity [as opposed to the linear nature of globalisation, long lines of travel across the ocean] and zero waste will all gain more currency and increase the uptake of these ideas across industry.’ In the light of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement (yesterday, 2nd June), Livesey’s comment finds an even sharper focus. Industry around the world, we must hope.

Hazel took in Mary Aiken on The Cyber Effect, on how human behaviour changes online, taking in the impact on the developing child to teen sexting. Quoting the Hay programme: ‘She examines the acceleration of compulsive and addictive online behaviours (gaming, shopping, pornography) and the escalation of cyberchondria (self-diagnosis online), cyberstalking and organised crime on the Deep Web.’

Hazel was impressed – wished I’d been there. An example of how you can’t be everywhere at Hay!

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4pm. We ended our afternoon with Hazel listening to Roy Hattersley talking too fast and quietly about his new book in The Catholics, ‘history from the Reformation to the present day’ – and I took in (Thomas More enough for me for one day!) Jeanette Littlemore, professor at Birmingham University, with a talk entitled The Way You Tell It. Her subject being non-literal expression, in this case metaphor, metonymy, irony and hyperbole, in everyday life. College students who don’t have English as their first language can radically misinterpret metaphor. Parents can enjoy themselves on touchline shouting encouragement to their children – but do their children understand? Advertisers have thought it through rather more – one example was a wonderful Boddingtons ad from the 70 with the head (appalling froth to the modern ale drinker!) combed into a quiff, with a comb nearby.

She brought in a wide range of research findings, could have been too many, but she was mistress of her subject, and handled questions brilliantly. Makes you all the more aware of the way we use language.

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Thursday 1st June

We stayed down in the Usk valley, amid pasture and woodlands, with a trip in bright morning sunshine through the Black Mountains back to the Wye valley and Hay. Valley to valley…

11.30. We began our day with an inspiring talk by doctor and pyschiatrist Lynne Jones on her work with her work in disaster zones from Bosnia, to Indonesia, to Haiti, to the Jungle in Calais. The title of her talk (wait for it!): Outside the Asylum: a Memoir of War, Disaster and Humanitarian Psychiatry. PTSD and counselling is what a lot of funding goes into, but Jones provided ample evidence that listening, patient listening, is what’s required more than anything else. She recalled how a Bosnian man apparently objected to her taking photographs – it turned out he wanted his photograph taken, in front of the ruined house where his mother had been killed. He wanted someone with whom to share the experience. Where there are real and serious psychiatric problems it’s above all medication that’s needed.

Jones has a history as a passionate activist, doctor, psychiatrist. She was probably the highpoint of our Hay visit. She is only happy when involved, when engaged, and she puts politicians who rejoice in a narrow homeland focus to shame.

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1pm. Jeremy Bowen talking about his many years as BBC Middle East Editor was next. Title: Our Man in the Middle East. He’s informed, wide-ranging, tolerant, a natural talker, and I’m sure a listener, and one of the wisest voices on the BBC. That came over strongly. I’ve been critical of (sometimes angry at) the BBC’s coverage of the Middle East over the years – too much focused on immediate calamities and picking up the latest Western government line, which has often been too much focused on the horror of it all, and apportioning blame, at the expense of hard and difficult talk about solutions. Talking to a Hay audience Bowen allows himself a broader understanding, the Saudis in Yemen and Assad in Syria both perpetrators of appalling violence – taking sides and demanding retribution something he avoided. Bowen has to practise his trade in a world of instant news which sometimes runs counter to a proper understanding of the issues – and he copes with this probably as well if not better than anyone else. In short – he’s a good guy.

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4pm. Hugh Warwick, on Linescapes: Remapping and Reconnecting Britain’s Fragmented Wildlife, was our next port of call. Passionate and amusing, he’s probably our greatest expert on the hedgehog which for him is an emblematic animal, which has suffered more than most from our practice of dividing the land by way of roads, canals and railways. Hedges, walks, ditches and dykes are a man-made but natural landscape in which wildlife flourished. Take out a hedge and build a fence and wall – and don’t expect to find hedgehogs in your garden. Warwick is passionate about raising awareness, and optimist about solutions such as the wild areas left by motorways along which wildlife can travel, and green areas left on the margins of cropped fields in which plants and habitats can flourish. He argues passionately against the fracturing of ‘wildlife habitats into ever smaller and increasingly unviable habitats’.

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5.30. At the end of the day Hazel headed for ‘Countryfile star and visionary farmer’, and all-round good guy, Adam Henson, on the subject of his Cotswold farm park, set up by his father (‘Like Father, Like Son.‘) And I went for something TOTALLY DIFFERENT! Physicist Roger Penrose talking to Marcus du Sautoy about string theory, which posits too many extra dimensions to be convincing for Penrose, though he’s a fan of the theory, as a theory… about quantum mechanics and Newtonian physics and their incompatibility when it comes ‘reasonably massive objects’, and the predilection among many scientists that it must be Newtonian physics that ultimately must adjust (must they be compatible?)… and about cosmology, and the origins of the universe, and his own theory that mass may ultimately simply fade away, with only photons surviving, and at that point the universe returns to a singularity, out of which a new universe is born, and that process is beyond either birth or death of the universe… I don’t claim reliability or accuracy for my summary!! Roger Penrose is like Stephen Hawking a marvellous example of mental acuity remaining as sharp as ever with advancing age. And good to see Marcus du Sautoy, who took over as Oxford’s professor for the public understanding of science from Richard Dawkins, and whom I’d not come across in person before.

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Saturday 3rd June. We decided two days were not enough. So on a brilliant sunny morning we took the road to Hay in time for a coffee and then three more talks.

10am. We began with Nick Crane and a talk based around his new book, The Making of the British Landscape. We’re back post Ice age, after the Younger Dryas period, 9,600BC and a time of rapid warming, then almost 4,000 years in the blink of an eye to the major inundation (possibly the result of giant landslides which saw 180 miles of Norwegian coastal shelf slip into the North Sea) which finally put the Dogger Bank under water, and turned us into an island. An island of only 12,000 people, on one estimate, no towns, so Roman towns were a radical landscape change. I’ll have to read the book to discover how he thinks villages changed the landscape, and to compare with WG Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape, which has always been my bible in the subject. One question I tried to ask – but you have to be aggressive waving your hand! – was whether he thinks the proposal to make the Lake District a World Heritage Site is a good thing. George Monbiot in a powerful and I think misguided piece in the Guardian argued against. Monbiot fears stasis, and would like to ‘re-wild’.

Crane, intentionally he said, didn’t mention either the Bronze Age or Iron Age. He put his reason in the context of politicians misrepresenting history. I should have asked a question – I am of course with him all the way. I’m assuming the issue for him is too-easy and misleading labelling.

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11.30: Hazel checked out a hero of hers, Noel Fitzpatrick, Channel 4’s Supervet, on the subject of ‘Global Health in Man and Animal’. He’s arguing passionately for ‘a single shared medicine linking human and animal health’. Cancer in a dog is almost identical to cancer in a human. Medicine would be shared between species, not one species exploiting another for its own gain. How this might work in practice I don’t know – again, wish I could have been there.

Instead I chose almost on a whim to head off to hear the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak talking about her new novel, Three Daughters of Eve. It was an inspired choice. She talked brilliantly about Turkey, about the language (modern Turkish has been pared back to exclude Persian and Arabic words, to its great detriment), about liberals and academics operating in a hostile world where loss of job or imprisonment could follow any kind of mis-step. (Turkey she pointed out has long had a sense of being threatened by hostile countries on all sides, which puts recent events in an interesting context.) English is a third language, and yet she writes her novels in English – writing in a foreign language heightens your awareness – translating, from my very limited experience, does likewise. But Shafik is operating at a whole other level.

Her novel has three Turkish girls, brought up in Istanbul, studying in Oxford. She describes,a seminar where the lecturer tries to separate the pursuit of an understanding of God from religion. Without success. I’d have asked her about the Sufi tradition in Turkey had I had the chance – how it links with the current resurgence of Sunni Islam. Shafik had earlier brought the 12th century poet and mystic Ibn el Arabi into her talk.

If you think that all this suggests she lives in a rarefied world, you’d be wrong. She’s a powerful advocate of feminist and minority including LGBT rights. A long queue formed for her book signing: when we returned to the bookshop 1 ½ hours later she was still signing – and still talking.

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1pm, positively our last talk! QC and human rights lawyer Dexter Dias talking about his new book, The Ten Types of Human. Trying to illustrate some of the ten types in response to questions from an interviewer initially made it hard going. What Dias has done is use the structure of the ten types, all the product of human evolution, to produce a 800 page book passionately arguing for our engagement – the engagement of all of us – with human rights. The case he took up for the mother of a 15-year-old boy who died in custody, the victim of prison officer violence, was his starting -point for both his advocacy of human rights, and for the book.

I found this summary online of his work, and it’s very helpful as background to a remarkable man: ‘As Queen’s Counsel, he has been involved in some of the biggest cases of recent years involving human rights, murder, terrorism, crimes against humanity and genocide. He chaired and co-wrote the influential Bar Human Rights report to the Parliamentary Inquiry into FGM, has briefed and written reports for the UN around gender-based violence, and works pro bono internationally with survivors of modern day slavery, human trafficking and Violence Against Women and Girls.’

It’s encountering people such as this, and being inspired by them, that’s one of the glories of Hay.

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And that’s it. Another Hay, another year. If you’ve stayed with me this far, thank you – and well done. If you not a Hay habitue, then do head off there, one year, some time soon.

Hay’s slogan this year is Hay 30: Imagine the World. Hay is thirty years old this year. But Hay does more than encourage us to imagine – it inspires us to change it. Advocates of the status quo, or turning inward, of identity politics and self-interest, would get short shrift.

The Big Short (and a little short digression on Brexit)

Reading the book, and watching the film. Focusing more on the book, for there the characters are real, not fictionalised.

There’s something about the financial crash that grabs you. Now almost ten years ago, a mortgage securities crisis for heaven’s sake, we think this is someone else’s bed, but we’re all tucked in, and we’re all sucked in. There are big personalities, outsiders, outlaws almost, and big banks, and tanking economies. Michael Lewis makes a brilliant job telling the story, dissecting and explaining. I am now a little wiser, but not out of the wood.

We didn’t know it was happening. Quoting Michael Lewis:

The monster was exploding. Yet on the streets on Manhattan there was no sign that anything important had just happened. The fire that would affect all their lives was hidden from their view. That was the problem with money. What people did with it had consequences, but they were so remote from the original action that the mind never connected the one with the other.

Will Brexit just somehow slide into place, we’ll be a little bit poorer, but hardly notice, or a whole lot poorer, but we won’t notice because there won’t be too many crises on route, it won’t be harum-scarum? ‘(People) were so remote from the original action that the mind never connected the one with the other.’ Or maybe we will notice – maybe the crises will be more immediate, urgent, and hit our pockets in very direct and noticeable and politically-accountable way.

Playing with risk, at other people’s expense. Or in the case of Brexit, at a nation’s expense.

Compare Wall Street:.

Salomon Brothers transferred the ultimate risk from themselves to their shareholders. …from that moment, the Wall Street firm became a black box. The shareholders who financed the risk had no real understanding of what the risk takers where doing and, as the risk taking grew ever more complex, their understanding diminished…. The moment Salomon Brothers demonstrated the potential gains to be had from turning an investment bank into a public corporation and leveraging the balance sheet with exotic risks, the pyschological foundations of Wall Street shifted, from trust to blind faith.

Here, in the UK, we are the shareholders. (Sounds dangerously like Brexit speak!)

Back to the book…

The Big Short book brings you face to face with the detail, and it’s a mighty challenge to follow at times, when CDSs get gathered together into CDOs, and CDOs are packaged together, and sometimes different CDOs are packaged into new CDOs, and the old CDOs show up in the new CDOs as if they were in for the first-time. They were going round in circles, and if anyone cared they didn’t care enough to dig down and find out what was really going on – the money coming in was just too good, on a vast and pretty much unfathomable scale.

(CDO – collateralized debt obligations, CDSs – credit default swaps.)

So much investment bank activity is feeding frenzy. Maybe there’s no longer the same level of skulduggery. But there is the endless and needless creation of new financial products, and new ways to bet, to short, to take options…

Making money out of money, other people’s money, is still the golden road…