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Making Hay while the sun shines

Posted on 5 June 2010 | 11:06am

I was slightly dreading my session at the Hay Festival last night. Such a long way to go (Wales, and the part of Wales that is motorwayphobic). Plus I was expecting the massed ranks of anti-war, anti-‘spin’ Guardianistas, like a Lib Dem conference in the days before they realised politics is about the pursuit of power not merely the art of protest.

The scenery made up for the distance. As a country, we don’t make nearly enough of our natural beauty. So did my overnight lodgings, Moccas Court, a stunning Georgian house ten miles out of Hay, with a lovely view from my bedroom over the river Wye.

And whilst there were plenty of Guardianistas around, both those who work for it and those you can spot as Guardian readers even before you see the paper protruding from their recycled cloth bag, the ‘real people’ mixed in among the hacks and the over earnest (not that Guardianistas aren’t real people of course) made it a rather good audience.

I was taken aback by the scale of the whole thing. It’s a small town, but a big event.

The audience was overwhelmingly middle-aged, middle-class, almost totally white, and the questions ranged widely over the political and the personal, the serious and the trivial, past, present, future, the supportive and the critical.

I get asked a fair bit about the media and its role in politics. I do think that one of the reasons these book festivals seem to get bigger and bigger is that people really are tired of the rata-tat-tat nature of the modern media, the sense that it can only deal with one big story at a time, can only allow the same voice (unless a journalist’s) to be speaking for a few seconds without interruption, and operates on the assumption that we all have the attention span of a gnat.

There are exceptions of course, but the trend is all in the direction I describe above.

What I think large audiences at events like last night’s show is the desire for deeper engagement, and an interest in real conversation as opposed to the manufactured nil-nil draws that most political interviews have become. The audience seemed amused and bemused by the fact that the interview which worried TB more than any other in the period covered by Prelude to Power was the one he did with Des O’Connor. How could anyone be scared of Des, when they have had so much experience of the Paxmans, Dimblebys and Humphrys of the world? But that is the point. Politicians – the good ones – have so much experience of the so-called tough interview that they become almost routine. Of course you prepare for them, think about them. But by and large you can always work out where the question is coming from and where the next one is going. The interviewer wants to make an impact, either by getting you to say something unexpected or getting you to cock up. It becomes a bit of a game, often a tedious one at that, and most do indeed end in a draw.

So Des O’Connor, or Frank Skinner (the other one TB moaned about for ages before doing it) take you out of the comfort zone. What I find about most of the extended sessions I do at book festivals is that the public, in the main, want a proper conversation, neither Paxo nor Des, just a conversation where one question leads to an answer which leads to another question, and then bring the audience in and let’s see what they have to say.

So it was all very enjoyable, including the critical bits, and thanks to Francine Stock for kicking it off and chairing it so well.

I did not have a clapometer on me but I reckon the loudest applause came for a defence of Labour’s record, and the observation that once the coalition gets going, ‘you’ll miss it’ (Labour in power) and the loudest laughter (mixed with panto-style ‘oooohs’) possibly for my tweaking of the tail of The Guardian in pointing out its role in supporting the party that helped deliver David Cameron as our PM.

Alas, I had to get up at the crack of dawn to get back in time to talk to Ken Livingstone on his LBC show this morning.

But despite the mild sleep deprivation, I feel moderately energised by my visit to rural Guardiana, which I was not expecting when I set off yesterday.

So thanks to my agent Ed Victor for bullying me into going.

*** Buy The Blair Years and raise cash for Labour

*** Buy Prelude to Power here at Amazon.


  • Laura Park

    Lovely post. I have always wanted to go to the Hay Festival since reading a Sandi Toksvig article on it in Good Housekeeping a few years ago, it seemed like such fun, but perhaps a bit too much rah-rah for a Northerner like me.

    Re: Des, I can understand the apprehension. One only has to look at his “interviews” with Freddie Starr to see why it could be a daunting experience. As much as I like Des, I am slightly frightened by someone who finds humour in Freddie Starr pouring orange juice onto a table. Still, enough of my political observations for one day…

  • Shibley

    Hope they bought your book though! I did last week, and, as for the Hay, I agree with Ed.

  • olli issakainen

    John Gray talked about extremely important questions at the Hay festival.
    He said that it is illusory to think that we could return to the type of growth we had pre-crash. Politicians in Britain do not understand this at all. Or they are too afraid to tell the truth.
    Mr Gray also predicted resource wars. The Iraq war was, of course, part of USA´s wider strategy of controlling resources in the Middle East and Asia. There will be wars about oil in the future.
    John Gray also saw widespread economic collapse. This will surely happen if we do not make changes into the pre-crash model.
    We simply cannot go on producing, consuming and borrowing the usual way.
    But the Con-Lib government is in denial about all this!
    New Labour leader must also come up with convincing economic answers.

    Ps. A good show by you on the Daily Politics.

  • Colin Hope

    Was on waiting list for your event and got in last minute just by walking past steward! Enjoyed it. Agreed that people like to see people who are high profile in the flesh. Man behind me in queue for booksigning afterwards said ‘he is much nicer in the flesh than on the TV’. So what it is about the TV that changes the perception? answer, in my view, what the papers say. Thanks for coming to Hay (I live not far away in Brecon)

  • Heath Grant

    People are tired of the current news formula. Wham bam fact, whoosh, over excited report, over excited analysis, blame game interview. Booooooring

  • Colin

    For a “washed up”, “has been” and “yesterdays man”, you seem awfully busy.

  • Em

    I’ve never seen book festival crowds to be hostile. I’m sure they were more than willing to be charmed by you. I’m glad you enjoyed it. That being said…

    In a sense, the lack of hostility is what’s wrong with book festivals. I remember you mentioning the whiteness, the middle-classness of another book festival you attended last year. I’ll save you the trouble: they’re all like that. White wine, totebags, autographed copies and benign conversations with the douchoisie. I used to work at a book festival and sometimes wished the Hells Angels would breeze in and smash everything to pieces.

    Part of me is grateful that I live in a society where people have the time and disposable income to indulge in this. There’s nothing wrong with nice, pleasant events. But part of me thinks the novel as art form has no business inspiring events like Hay which promote a social status quo and the invisibility of the non-white and non-middle-class. And, no, a handful of post-colonial novels don’t make up for it.

    The only time we’ve had trouble at my festival was with Bret Easton Ellis on account of American Psycho, more than a decade after its publication. Interesting that white, middle-class so-called feminists who protested his presence never took time to read a book which is probably the most scathing criticism of consumerism and misogyny ever published. The middle-class doesn’t read American Psycho because it’s not pretty. It’s fucking awful. A bit like awfulness of misogyny and the awfulness of consumerism which these days comes with photographs, hardcore pornography of dying pelicans in the Gulf. Future generations are going to mock us for not understanding the very blatant message of this book. But I digress.

    Your benevolent willingness to see a grand desire for people to connect… well, maybe. When you think about it though, book events are just acceptable and refined versions of teenage groupies waiting outside hotels to meet rock stars. I know that what festival attendees find the most satisfying about book events is access. In this celebrity world, no celebrity is more accessible, more intimately accessible than the author at a book festival. In other words, you’re a Mick Jagger substitute for the Aga woman, a title which I’m sure you can bear to live with.


  • Jacqui Rafferty

    I was there, and it was indeed enjoyable. I don’t believe that the audience was 100% on your side, but there was engagement, and the conversation went on after the event. So, thanks for an enjoyable hour, am now looking forward to reading the diaries.

  • Clare Jenkins

    Thanks for coming and discovering rural Wales. Interesting to hear your perspective on how it want. Hope you come back next year for Volume II or III or perhaps to promote a new novel?

  • DJL



  • Ben Taylor

    I am having a silly amount of difficulty getting hold of your book. I live in middlesbrough and have looked in each book shop, i also asked in Harrogate and was told that they have not been sent from the publishers and they in fact don’t know when they are arriving. i think you ought to be aware of this as the publishers seem somewhat lazy!!

  • Jane

    I go to the Hay Festival most years. I love book festivals and books!! Yes we are all very courteous as we like to listen even if we do not share similar views. I wholeheartedly agree with you about nasty interviewers when the audience is interested in the opinion of those being interviewed. Also the many interruptions. I blame MPs for interruptions as they rarely answer the question and spout out nasty comment about the opposition courtesy of the briefing sheets handed out by No 10.

    I look forward to reading the Guardian’s view of how you got on. Oh forgot – I am a Guardian reader but much too old and experienced to be swayed by which political party they support.