Hay Literary Festival
Harriet Harman and Yanis Varoufakis may have warmed up the Hay audience earlier in the festival, but the fire was truly lit on the second Saturday with back-to-back events that even in normal times would have set the pulse racing, but in the context of the then approaching election offered real inspiration.
Giving the Aneurin Bevan Lecture, Michael Sheen (pictured) channelled the spirit of the iconic godfather of the NHS in a breathtaking address that was inbued with a passion and eloquence entirely lacking elsewhere in the political firmament over those six largely depressing weeks.
It may be true that as a hugely accomplished actor Sheen has the performance skills to add excitement to the most banal of words – and a native Welsh accent to provide added authenticity – but this was clearly not just thespian overkill. It was the heartfelt plea of a committed individual for the survival not just of the NHS, but the kind of social values and community spirit both derided and exploited by the smug, selfish, corrupt parasites who milk the poor and sick to feed their greed.
There was talk at the end of last year that Sheen was “giving up acting for activism”. He insisted he was just doing a bit less of one and more of the other. It seemed extraordinary that he had not been recruited to stand in the election (it would have been great to see him in Aberavon, for instance, instead of the loathsome Prince of Denmark), but who could blame him for preferring the silver screen and the soap box to the cesspit of Westminster. Still, if his ‘lecture’ had reached a wider audience than the Hay literati, May might have needed more than the DUP to give her a majority.
And having only just completed his own barnstormer, Sheen it was who welcomed Bernie Sanders onto the same stage. Now while we may have been attracted to his political positions in comparison to Hillary Clinton during the US presidential primaries last year, few in the UK would have seen more than brief clips of Sanders on the stump, so this was the first opportunity to discover what the qualities were that could, should (and would) have taken him to the nomination, had it not been for the gerrymandering of a terrified Democratic Party machine, and what so appealed in particular to younger voters.
Well, the answer was: many of the same qualities that make Jeremy Corbyn attractive, when he is seen unmediated by the forces that oppose him. There’s an inherent gentleness, an easiness of manner, a lack of pretension, a palpable sincerity and empathy, and a genuine, unforced passion. Sanders is a better orator than Corbyn, and his performance in answering audience questions off-the-cuff, after an engrossing scripted address, was deeply impressive. He was non-committal about whether a second presidential run is on the cards (he will be 78 in 2020), but we can only hope that if not, his influence will inspire an alternative candidate who can challenge the Democrats’ Wall Street bosses.
Michael Sheen didn’t have a book to sell, though Bernie did (Our Revolution: A Future To Believe In, Profile, £9.99), an account of the movement that took him so close to ousting Hillary. Other, less impressive politicians (or ex-politicians) had also been at their computers, checking the words others had probably put into their mouths, including Ed Balls (Speaking Out, Arrow, £9.99), Rory Stewart (The Marches, Jonathan Cape, £18.99), Paddy Ashdown (Game Of Spies, William Collins, £9.99), Roy Hattersley (The Catholics, Chatto & Windus, £25), Alan Johnson (The Long And Winding Road, Corgi, £8.99), and Jess Phillips (Everywoman, Hutchinson, £14.99). Balls was the most surprising of the bunch – he seems to have become a human being since his ejection from Parliament, with a nice post-Strictly line in self-deprecating humour. One was almost tempted to think it would be good to see him back, except, of course, that he would almost certainly revert to type. Johnson meanwhile was his usual self, selling his working class background for all it’s worth to disguise his deeply reactionary, largely anti-working class politics. At least he seemed to have realised the tide was turning against the anti-Corbynites, and was muted on the subject of the election. It was more fun to see him squirming a couple of weeks later on Have I Got News For You.
Like politicians, broadcasters are also frequent visitors to Hay. One bright idea was to have Jeremy Paxman (A Life In Questions, William Collins, £8.99) interviewed by comedian and satirist Marcus Brigstocke, a man who, despite his long association with Radio 4, Paxman appeared never to have heard of. The rather bizarre conversation (involving, among other things, underwear and socks), led one punter to inquire of Brigstocke later whether Paxo had been drunk. Brigstocke was noncommittal, though he did say he thought he was “a very, very strange man”. Anyone who saw Paxo’s election interviews with Corbyn and May a couple of days later would have regarded that as a very restrained description.
Other BBC stalwarts on board included Jeremy Bowen, John Simpson and Evan Davis. Bowen (War Stories, Simon & Schuster, £8.99) was quite impressive, and much more forthright about the situations on which he reports in the Middle East than he is allowed to be on screen. John Simpson (We Choose To Speak Of War And Strife, Bloomsbury, £9.99) was a disappointment – some previous books by him have been entertaining, instructive and insightful, but on stage he seemed rather dull and uninspiring, certainly not a great raconteur. Davis meanwhile (Post Truth, Little Brown, £20) was a bit of a disaster. Never good at hiding his contempt for those who question the neo-liberal ideology to which he is an enthusiastic subscriber, he didn’t appear to recognise the need to win over an audience to his point of view even when, as on this subject, they might have been particularly receptive. Tedious, repetitive and rather arrogant, I doubt he boosted his sales much.
Polly Toynbee and David Walker (Dismembered: How the attack on the State harms us all, Guardian Faber, £9.99) were also less than enthralling in their overly scripted presentation, though their work on the destruction of social welfare and health care is hugely important and ought to be widely publicised.
Highlights on Hay’s stages during the week including a perceptive, if somewhat apocalyptic talk by Stephen Fry on the future of the internet; Fry’s discussion with the impressive Australian writer Peter Singer on ethics, charitable giving and our treatment of animals (The Most Good You Can Do, Yale, £12.99); the always entertaining Colm Toibin, who has reworked the ancient Greek myths behind the Oresteia (House Of Names, Viking, £14.99); James Holland (The War In The West Vol 2, Bantam, £25), whose study of the relative strengths of Allied and Axis forces in the early part of World War II has produced some startling conclusions; James Hawes (see next issue), whose Shortest History Of Germany (Old Street, £12.99) ought to be a must-read for anyone even vaguely interested in European politics; and not least Ken Loach, who deservedly received the last of the week’s standing ovations – a true hero as an artist, activist and campaigner.
Somehow during the week, another Ken could be found on the same stage as these literary, artistic and intellectual heavyweights. Ken Dodd is hardly a typical choice for Hay’s entertainments, and, apart from the festival’s resident luvvies, like Tony Robinson, the audience was certainly different.
However, one had to admire the near-90-year-old’s stamina, especially as he seemed prepared to perform a whole 70-odd years’ worth of material, before being practically prised off stage with a crowbar in order to allow the stage crew, stewards, security and bus drivers to get some sleep before opening time next day. The audience would have stayed, and so would he. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.