Three days at the Cheltenham Literature Festival 2019

I read that Ian McEwen has read everything on Brexit, admitted to being an obsessive. He’s just written a book, Cockroach, about a cockroach which wakes up to find it’s become prime minsiter. He admits to a lack of subtlety.

I keep reading on Brexit. Never was a subject so pervasive and invasive. But any kind of orginality requires deep reading. And life just now has other attractions!

What can a literature festival offer? The Cheltenham Literature Festival is on my doorstep. One of the great advantages of living out of town, in the country, but not as much in the country as you might think. Maybe the Hay Festival is my favourite, by a small margin – the scale and vibe is overwhelming, and I love it. Cheltenham is urban, and you’ve a cafe and street culture which sets it apart.

I’ll take language as my theme. Not maybe what the organisers of the Cheltenham Literature Festival had in mind. They’re celebrating their 70th birthday. But what is literature if not language. Though language may not be literature.

It’s Saturday morning. I’ve yet to read David Nott’s book, ‘War Memoir’, about his life as a frontline surgeon, operating, literally, in the world’s most violent places. He was our first event, and he came across, initially, in interview, as out of his element. But honest. He’d found when working under fire in Sarajevo a kind of high, an excitement, this was where he wanted to be. Less a moral compass than a vocation. But he found that compass and now trains surgeons to work beyond the specialisations into which they’re shoe-horned by modern hospital practice. He has met Mullah Omar, met ISIS, and his dedication to life made his denunciations of those who seek and exercised power and the language of power for its own sake, careless of death, all the more powerful.

Our next event, the debate ‘Populism: Death of Democracy’, was topical, though there was always the danger we’d simply be re-visiting well-trodden territory. So it proved. The debate was chaired by Leslie Vinjamuri, of the think-tank Chatham House. Matthew Goodwin brought a British perspective to the subject, and Amy Pope, ex Obama advisor, an American perspective. Do the origins of populism lie more in cultural or economic issues? Identity or issues relating to jobs and income? Populist leaders exploit both – the apparent undermining of national cultures, of ways of life – being left behind – victims – of a political system, of elites operating in their own interest. The issues are real, and the crisis, with hindsight, inevitable. But the debate went round in circles.

Focusing on language would have helped. The misuse of language has turned a crisis which might have brought people together in a common understanding into conflagration. Language brings together, its misuse divides. Post-truth was well-established before 2016. Fake news and disdain of real expertise took hold in 2016 and beyond. Current parliamentary debates have coupled disdain and anger in a way that challenges truth in language still further.

Amy Pope contributed an American standpoint: she sees hope in the wider race and gender representation in the House of Representatives. But as she admitted, that doesn’t address the issue of the resentments of the ‘flyover states’, everything, that is, between the East Coast and California.

Sunday morning. Time for my next event, a celebration of the life of the American novelist, Toni Morrison, who died in August. As an editor at Random House, the first black editor in US publishing history, she opened doors for black writers, and she herself opened up the realities of Afro-American life as never before. She didn’t whitewash, or glorify, or sympathise. She allowed language to tell it as it is, and as she saw it. And the language is wonderful, inspired, magic passages of writing which capture all the hurts and hopes and failures, resignation on the one hand and the search for identities and roots on the other. The panel were black women, writers and publishers, and I’m a white and male, and in a big minority in that Cheltenham tent. But I came away inspired. The panel spoke Morrison’s language – Miss Morrison as two of then called her. They quoted favourite passages, and the most resonant was the speech she gave at the Nobel-Prize-giving ceremony.

‘…the recognition that language can never live up to life once and for all. Nor should it. Language can never “pin down” slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.

Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction.’

‘We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.’

Next, another debate, ‘Who’s Next for the White House’. Leslie Vinjamuri again, joined by Sarah Baxter and Adam Boulter, both now of the Sunday Times, festival co-sponsors. As a choice, this was interesting, intriguing, but probably a mistake. We were on the same ground as the populism debate. And the same radical uncertainty of outcome. I may for my part see hope in a new and raised awareness coming through, or at least a cause we can identify with, in the opposition to populism. But where lies hope in the battle to be president? The Democrats are divided centre and left. Theirs is at least a debate I can connect to. Elizabeth Warren a powerful candidate, but with big-state ideas which could panic centrist voters. Trump is Trump, widening his river of no destination ever further and carrying his supporters along in the turbulence. We were asked for a show of hands at the end. Who do you think will be the next US president? Two-thirds, at least, thought Trump. Not me. I’d thought – Trump, no way, last time. Not again, that I cannot believe. Though were I to expect a Trump victory maybe my penchant for guessing wrong would somehow influence the outcome – and Trump would lose …

In the evening we had ‘An Evening of Joni Mitchell’. Note the ’of’. She is recovering slowly from a brain aneurysm, re-learning how to walk. She is not travelling. I knew that. Some didn’t. They expected Joni to be there. A 40-minte four-way ‘expert’ conversation talked about her childhood polio, speculated on its influence, touched on her relationships – but never on the detail of her songs. We’re back to language. They never touched on the language of her songs. What inspired her to write them. They are her legacy to the world. Would that come over in the second half? No. Her songs were given the full jazz band, wild sax, treatment, and the words got drowned. Very occasionally her rhythms came through. But while the music was almost OK, the treatment was a travesty.

And, finally, two events on the Monday. Smaller venues. The first in The Pillar Room, in the Town Hall. Two writers. Philip Marsden writing about a single-handed boat journey from Cornwall via the west of Ireland to the Summer Isles (the title of the book as well – I love the name) off the north-west coast of Scotland. You’re face to face with the sea, with the world, when single-handed. He’d walked with his aunt who lived in the North-West Highlands, and she’d died out there in an accident. Her library was full of books on (if I recall aright) on simplifying life, on Zen. Also talking at the event was Dan Richards about his book, ‘Outpost’, where he writes about bothies and cabins and lighthouses and even sheds at the bottom of gardens – your stepping-off points, as an explorer, of wilderness, or as a writer, the open spaces of the mind. The idea appeals, and I will buy the book. The authors are different as personalities,  Marsden aspiring to the slightly grizzled loner, Richards rather more (if he will forgive me) urbane. But for both experience is everything, and truth to experience, and truth to the way it’s expressed in language.

And finally, Laura Cummings, chief Observer art critic, and her family memoir, ‘On Chapel Sands’. Another smaller venue, The Nook: we sit round small tables, in greater comfort and more intimacy than usual. This was better for a writer whose book is about the brief and unexplained disappearance of a little girl for five days from a Lincolnshire beach, when she was only three years old. The little girl was the author’s mother. A long-time unsolved family mystery. She bravely followed the story where it took her. The small venue allowed intimacy and author tears.  In pursuit of the truth about the abduction, she dug behind family stories, as we’d expect, but she also interrogated family images. Her art critic skills proved useful. Photos can tell lies, or they can be bland – just another family photo. Or they can, as in this case, hide secrets which only a practised eye can reveal. A husband and wife photo from 1910 – but posed like a Vermeer, but Vermeer was all but unknown in England back then.

So, three days at the festival. For me it’s been, so far, above all about language. About the integrity of language. The natural substrate of a book festival you might think. But what’s struck me this time around is the importance of awareness of the role of language. A surgeon whose role would be so much less needed round the world if only power was subservient to truth. Politicians will, they must, use language as best they can to put an argument across. But to weaponise truth, which quickly becomes weaponising untruth, is a very different story.

Toni Morrison, and Philip Marsden and Dan Richards, opened/open up not narrow down the world. Language and shouting don’t go well together. Toni Morrison – a writer who engaged with an agonised world with extraordinary honesty – a writer of genius. And two writers who talk of quieter times, sailing or walking or writing. They’re not out to change the world, they don’t insist or demand. But they tell it like it is.

Voting ‘no’ – Chile 1988, UK 2016

I’m off to Chile for two weeks next week, and I’ve been casting my mind back to 1973, when Allende was overthrown by Pinochet, and to 1975 when I backpacked on my own down from California to Bolivia, then across to Rio and Buenos Aires – but I never made it back across the Andes to Chile, or saw what Santiago was like, two years into the Pinochet regime.

Pinochet wanted legitimacy, and in 1988 held a plebiscite: ‘Yes’ and he would stay in power for another eight years, ‘No’ and there would be a full presidential election the following year. This is the subject of Pablo Larrain’s Oscar-nominated movie, simply entitled ‘No’, which I watched last night.

The No campaign had all the media and institutions of the state ranged against them, but were allowed 15-minute of TV time each night in the weeks running up to the vote to get over their message. Gael Garcia Bernal plays Rene Saavedra, a creative guy brought in by the No team fashion their message. The team instinctively wants to focus on the horrors perpetrated by the regime, the murders, torture, incarcerations, the simple brutality of the army. Rene suggests a radically different tack, a future agenda – what a No vote might ultimately achieve by way of escape from the repressive and still brutal Pinochet regime – he argues for ‘joy’ or ‘happiness’ as the primary theme, depending on how you translate ‘alegria’. (‘La alegría ya viene’ was the slogan.) The message is to be upbeat. With music and dance, street life and country picnics – life with the shackles removed.

Bernal portrays a broody, introspective guy sharing custody of his son with his estranged wife. The ads may sing, but he never smiles. Rene himself may be a fiction, but the wider story is hard fact.

They won, of course. The message – never allow an insurgency gain too much momentum. Chile was all the more remarkable because it was a military dictatorship.

It is quite a story. But Yes/No – haven’t we come across that recently? ‘Yes’ protecting the status quo. ‘No’ the outsiders, the left-behinds, now the insurgents, with all to gain. ‘Yes’ focused on all the dangers of change, ‘No’ promoted a brave new world free from shackles.

And the differences? They are radical of course.

The Brexit insurgents (allowing for some generalisation) are the old(er) stagers, the over 50s and 60s, sensing they are neglected or somehow left behind, believers in older, stricter values, self-reliance – wary of new ideas, identity politics, immigration, the younger generation.

They had, or were presented with, an enemy – the EU, portrayed as the source of manifold evils.

The Chilean insurgents were the younger generation, or at least their agenda was dictated by the younger generation. The older generations of socialists and communists came on board, most but not all, and with hesitation. Pinochet had privatised, brought in overseas and especially American investment – Chile was, as an economy, prospering. The No campaign never suggested rowing back to the old times – they were all about opening doors on the new.

Their enemy was the army and repression – the EU doesn’t quite compare. (Though some might argue it does…)

Both the similarities and the radical differences intrigue. Above all, how the insurgents in Chile were broadly speaking from the left and centre, in the UK from the right.

Insurgents do have a big advantage. I doubt if Remainers in 2016 thought to look to Chile. Just too far way, too off the map. Had they done so they’d have appreciated the dangers of focusing on a safety-versus-risk agenda, looking to hold on to the past rather than focusing on a brave new future. The greatest danger is in thinking that, surely, you can’t possibly lose. Yes, a charismatic leader would have helped the ‘Yes’ campaign – but in the end it’s the message that counts.

Could the Remain campaign have sketched out a brave new future, as opposed to the Leaver’s ‘brave new past’? Maybe not. The time when anyone in Europe thought the EU or European cooperation was exciting or sexy is long past.

But excitement will always beat down gloom. It was the two ‘No’ campaigns that got the blood racing.

Reporting back from Cheltenham 2018

The Cheltenham Literature Festival that is – they also have music and jazz and science festivals!

It is wet, thoroughly so, and there is a wedding in the village, and the mist is down, a still presence yet the wind blows the leaves in the ash tree, and the lawn, emptied of leaves when we mowed it close yesterday, is now covered again. We have a talk at the literature festival, Neil MacGregor, late of the National Gallery and British Museum…

We parked nearby, and scurried to the food tent, where we drank coffees without any form of literary aid, not even a newspaper. Though The Times sponsors. Where were they? Then another scurry, across the gardens to the Town Hall …

MacGregor subject in his recent radio programmes and new book is on sacred objects, and their place in society. They focus the connection between religion and community, whether it’s the Lion Man, carved from mammoth ivory, discovered in a cave near Ulm, dating back 40,000 years …  or a 19th century model from Siberia (a Siberian people under threat from Tsarist expansion putting down a marker) of a celebration of the solstice, also made from mammoth ivory, this time recovered from the melting permafrost… or Our Lady of Kazan, the protectress of the old Russia, and the new, with a photo of Putin and his torso bathing beneath the icon. (Not the original but a 16th century copy, but that hardly matters – and even the copy has a remarkable story.)

The icon supports power, and the state, whereas the Virgin of Guadeloupe marks a vision of a local peasant boy of the Virgin, which a reluctant church accepted as genuine, and it then became the symbol of all Mexicans, of the Mexican people. MacGregor also highlighted the statue given decades ago by America to France representing the flame of the Statue of Liberty, but given its situation above the tunnel in Paris where Princess Diana died, now a shrine to Diana, who has become a modern protectress for many.

What I wondered is how a resurgent China fits into this picture. China has its own symbols, establishing continuities with the past just as the Cultural Revolution tried to remove them. This is the all-powerful State overriding the local and the individual – co-opting the individual. Will we, can we, ever re-establish our connection with the sacred? Will state symbols come to dominate? Or the symbols of mass culture? Will they be the limits of the sacred?

To the festival the following afternoon, for a debate on the financial crash and its continuing legacy, with Alastair Darling, Kamal Ahmed and Rachel Lomax, former deputy-governor of the Bank of England. A high-quality discussion, with the hard experience of the first two providing insights – for example, the instant support from the USA when asked by Darling to keep the support going for RBS after the markets closed in the UK – would that kind of cooperation happen now? As for the banks, punishment has been meted out on a much bigger state in the USA, but accountability has hardly changed. And as for future issues – fintech, automation, AI – they didn’t really come to grips with any of this. But they only had an hour…

Back home, and hour or two’s respite, supper, then into Cheltenham again for a Leonard Cohen evening, with a conversation between three Cohen devotees, a rock musician, a music journalist, and a wonderful white-haired 70-year-old Canadian, Ted Goossen whose main job is translating from the Japanese (the new Murakami novel also features at the festival, and he’s translated) but he’s been singing Cohen songs in clubs since he was 16 – which suggest 1964 or 1965, beating me by a year or so.

Suzanne remains the first love of many. Chelsea Hotel was the journalist’s favourite – she focused on the word ‘that’ when Cohen says in the last line he doesn’t think of her (‘her’ being Janis Joplin) ‘that often’. Cohen returned to meditation seriously in his last years: Goossen spoke movingly about this side of Cohen, and the Zen connection. Likewise mention of Cohen’s love of Lorca, and duende, that mood of celebration and dance and melancholy that is so much part of Andalucia.

The second half of the evening had a big amateur orchestra and singers, The Fantasy Orchestra, combining in crazy yet wonderfully musical fashion to play and sing a variety of songs, memorably a big and bubbling lady in a cotton ‘William Morris’ dress who belted out So long Marianne, and had us singing along with the chorus… ‘Ring the bells that still can ring’- the message hit home. ‘There is a crack, a crack in everything,’ words that have cheered me through the recent dark times. They ended with Hallelujah – what I hadn’t realised is how long Cohen had laboured over the lyric – some eighty versions.

We all sang the chorus … not quite the usual Cheltenham event!

 

Infrastructure and the Genoa bridge

Infrastructure hasn’t over the years been a topic of too much debate. It simply went on, all around us, yet curiously out of sight. We’d complain, some of us, about HS2 and Hinckley Point, but these are new glamour projects. Not the day to day. The day to day is about detail, hard graft, the invisible – and the maintenance of what we have.

All has been suddenly thrown into a much sharper perspective by last week’s collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa. The human cost is terrible, the economic cost (access to Genoa’s port, north-south communication) serious, the political cost (Italians disillusioned with government now even more so – but to whom do they turn?) likely to be high.  Italy’s interior minister blames the Eurozone’s strict rules on budget deficits – but as the Financial Times points out ‘a bigger constraint is the crushing burden of interest payments on Italy’s public debt’, 132% of annual economic output. (Source: Tony Barber, FT 18/19 August.)

Italy is not alone. Germany has bridge issues of its own. Obama’s transportation secretary described the US as ‘one big pothole’. Much of the road network across Britain, once you leave the motorway system, is in a poor state of repair: not dangerous, but a significant impediment to good communication.

(How many other bridges small as well as large on motorways across the developed world are suspect? The Genoa bridge had passed all its tests. I’m reminded of the long-term roadworks on the M5 just south of the M6 junction. You see few workers on the motorway itself: there are 40 or so (notices tell us) out of sight, working below the road surface. That at least is re-assuring.)

Quoting Tony Barber again: in the UK, ‘governments of all political stripes tend to neglect unglamorous small scale infrastructure projects and repair work in favour of ostentatious schemes with predictably spiralling costs.’

HS2 (high speed rail link) is a case in point. Local infrastructure (taking in the north-west, north-east, south, and south-west of England, and Wales and Scotland – HS2 may in twenty years time, with a following wind, just about reach Manchester and Leeds) and high levels of maintenance of existing infrastructure would be a far wiser way to spend money. In the case of Hinckley B (our very own Chinese-financed nuclear power station), funding requirements have trumped political considerations – and reduced our scope for independence and influence in the world.

One other consideration, which Italy’s situation highlights. Massive infrastructure self-evidently requires massive maintenance and repair costs, and that assumes continuing stellar economic performance. Will we need our skyscrapers in fifty (or a hundred) years’ time? Will our road networks be underused, radically underused, as we develop new modes of transport?

We move too fast, too blindly, and that won’t stop any time soon. The Chinese Belt and Road initiative is one guarantee of that. Development is driven as much by political and strategic as well as economic considerations. (One powerful reason why we need to be part of the EU – only that way will we have serious political heft in the world.)

What we can do is hold to the simple truth that infrastructure requires maintenance, and put aside the money in national budgets across the world to ensure that it is carried out to the highest level. That is the imperative now. (Easy to say, immeasurably harder to ensure it happens.) As for the future, we cannot simply rely on continuing high levels of prosperity as a guarantee of the required levels of funding, via taxation and borrowing or private investment.

If we cannot be confident in the long-term maintenance of our infrastructure, then we shouldn’t be building. One day our leaps into the dark will come to haunt us.

Impermanence

We conjured a turtle on a Cornish beach last Sunday, and slates gathered on the beach were scales for its back. Five hours later, in the gloaming, I watched the incoming tide, the waves creeping, maybe one in three or one in four, a little closer, until they trickled into the ditch we’d dug around the turtle. The shell held out a little longer, maybe ten minutes, until a small wave sloshed gently over the top, and then the undermining was really underway. By the time I took my leave, reluctantly, ten minutes later, there was barely a hump to be seen, as the tide pushed further in.

Impermanence… I’ve also been walking the coast path, from Trevose Head to Morgan Porth, and back, the same terrain, yes, but different perspectives, as if two separate journeys. The coves bite deep, and the caves and sink-holes provide sounding-boards for the waves. The rocks break and twist, as the strata and lines of weakness, and all the vagaries of weather and climate over many millions of years, dictate. And yet it all seems so permanent. Even the flock of oyster-catchers, which piped on a rock platform far below: they were there both outward and inward, though inward the black-backed gulls had flown.

Looking down on Bedruthan Sands from the cliff top, the sand was fresh-swept – the tide bites the cliff, no soft or littered sand, and four girls were playing boule, and their cries just carried to me. The waves which had been a high surf were lapping low, or seemed to from my elevation, and all seemed … well, yes, permanent.  I didn’t want to walk on, and lose that sense of forever.

I found a grassy slope, and sat and looked out to see, blue under blue, aquamarine closer in, where it shallowed, and the rippling smoothness extended in a great curve around me. Another cliff, another cove – snorkellers were taking advantage of low tide and swimming out to a sandy beach.

Where the cliffs come down to Treyarnon beach there’s a steep gully which you can swim through at lowest tide. This, my imagination tells me, is what they do, what I could do, as the observer, every day, and yet – such moments, such times, are rare. The tide will rise, the mists sweep in, and the storms, and the winter …

Joy and a gentle melancholy combine, and a sense of peace, and fragility … that sense of living in the moment, and yet living forever.

 

 

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.

Among the islands

What’s in a name, Juliet asks, as I did in another post, seven years ago, which I’m sure you’ll all remember… or maybe not.

I’m in the Scilly Islands, among the islands and the rocks and ledges, and stories of wrecks abound. Even the smallest rock it seems has a name, testimony to their place in island life. They lie on the horizons, east, west or north, and between them run narrow channels through which for three hundred years pilot gigs (powerful six-oared boats) guided ships coming into harbour at Tresco or St Mary’s.

There are rocks, out-there, obvious, unmissable, save in a storm … and there are ledges, underwater ledges, underhand, lurking as might a shark, and jagged as shark’s teeth.

And the names – I’ll start out west – Great Minalto, Little Minalto, tiny islands with ledges adjacent, and further north, south-west of Samson (an island with its very own tragic story to tell), Castinicks and Peaked Rock. I wonder at Castinicks… To the their north, between Westward Ledge and Middle Ledge, we’ve Stippit, Maiden Bower, Picket Rock and Illiswilgig. There’s deadpan, deadman humour here, Maiden Bower would shelter neither lover or beast, or anyone in between, and what mysteries lie in Illiswilgig?

Off the Bryher coast Moon Rock and Buzza Rock … Why the moon? A crescent moon, above a wave-ripped sea? Who was Buzza? On the coast there’s Droppy Nose Point, which just might be descriptive, if I knew what a droppy nose was. Drooping or dripping….

To the north, Westward and Eastward Ledges, and nearby North Cuckoo and South Cuckoo, and to the south of South Cuckoo, an island or ledge simply named The Flat.
Kettle and Kettle Bottom welcome sailors entering the channel between Bryher and Tresco. The channel is protected by the two large islands east and west, and Hangman Island doesn’t seem quite as ominous as the name suggests – might it just have reminded someone of a gibbet? To the south Appletree Point and Puffin Island seem to welcome you, but beware Great Rag Ledge – and Paper Ledge – I sense understatement here. South of Tresco, more ledges, Conger, Yellow, Mare. And Tobaccoman’s Point.

North of Tresco, Men-a-Vaur reminds us of a Cornish language past. To the south, south of St Helens and Tean, we have yet more ledges – Little Cheese, Great Cheese, Rascal’s, Dog and the disappointingly prosaic Long. South of St Martin’s, Broad and Pigs and Wra lie in wait. And why the name Damasinnas, for a small group of islands? Suggestive of both sin and damnation, and probably having no connection with either.

Ganinick and Ganilly lie west and east, in the Eastern Islands, but what of Great and Little Arthur? Shades of Lyonnese, Arthur’s ancient kingdom, which lies forever drowned between the Scillies and Lands End. Maybe the Seven Steps, also the name of splendid pub on St Martin’s, roughly marks the location.

To the east of Ganilly, Great and Little Innisvouls, to the south Menawethan, to their north, Hanjague (most names have an almost lyrical feel, not this one), and then Hard Lewis Rocks brings us down, down to earth, or to rough water. Far out east, beyond Ganilly, we’re into the wild sea, beyond any island shelter.

Between St Mary’s, Tresco, St Martin’s and the Eastern Isles there’s a wonderful protected space, an ocean Shangri-la, where waves don’t beat and the storm waters don’t surge as they do beyond. A safe haven – but first you have to find your way in.

Finally, circling round, south of St Agnes and Annet, back to extreme danger. The Bishop Rock lighthouse warns you. Rosevean and Rosevear tease you with their gentle names. Trenemene suggests a gentle soul…. and Rags and Inner Rags sound as if they should be good friends.

What should I make of the Biggal of Gorregan – probably my favourite name of all? Jacky’s Rock and Jolly Rock sound cheerful, but I wouldn’t be too cheerful here. I could write a children’s novel with the title ‘The Round Rock of Crebawethan’, I just love the name. I will have to think of what it might be about. To its south is Crebawethan Neck, a narrow and risky-looking channel. And just west of the channel we have Wee, yes, Wee.

Close to St Agnes there’s Menrounds, Menpingrim, Great Menbeam, and to their south, Doctor’s Hole, to their north Old Woman’s House and finally – something simple and brutally honest, Hellweathers. South of St Agnes, another favourite – Great Wingletang, next to Grandfather Hugh’s Point.

And that, my friends, is it. We’ve come full circle, back where we started, to the North West Passage, Minalto to the north, Annet (and Minmanueth and Butterman’s Point) to the south, and The Road, heading hopefully into St Mary’s and Hugh Town, to the east.

But better if you can to skirt all this trouble, head to the north, with your cargoes of spices and other Eastern wonders, or to the south, heading for the English Channel. But countless ships never made it, and their wrecks make for wonderful stories, read by the firelight, on a stormy night… and so too the names of the rocks and ledges that brought them down.