Hay Festival 2023

My thoughts and responses to some of the events at the

Hay Festival 2023.


I have grouped these thoughts into five categories: Necessity; Now; Revision; Being and Afterthoughts.




George Monbiot and Minette Batters - Unnecessary Confrontation


Minette Batters is president of the NFU. She talked of farming as a passion and a link to the land. She isn’t good at quantifying but good at quoting reports. She seems to want change to happen but says farmers must be involved at the forefront. I'm impressed by her commitment to wanting to change the system to ensure net zero but not sure she is going to be able to take the farming community along.


George Monbiot was and is very agitated and evangelical about the single cell ‘revolution’ of precision fermentation. He thinks this is the only way we can make the necessary transition to net zero food production. He too doesn't take people along. He criticises even small scale, organic farming as being incapable of providing food 'at scale' yet unfortunately, he doesn't seem to realise that precision fermentation itself is likely to have a long way to go to become sufficiently 'at scale' - on a number of fronts such as consumer resistance, the agrochemical lobby, and romanticisation of the 'cuddly lamb' countryside beloved of TV documentaries set in Cornwall or Yorkshire!


He criticises the NFU in many ways - some telling, some less so, but she doesn’t respond in any logical way to any of them. Just because she says we are better than other countries doesn’t mean what we are doing is right or enough. She and George are pushing an either/or position which is a bit depressing.


Actually its a lot depressing. That shouldn’t be how a Hay presentation should be set up. Neither are trying to seek common ground - even though there is some if they bothered to look. George undoubtedly has done his homework. Minette perhaps has not - she just refers to various government reports without explanation as to their salience to the argument.


It seems to me that you have to maintain and support and cultures and livelihoods as well as address the problems to achieving net zero. George doesn’t seem at all sympathetic to the impact of his approach on the farming community. And Minette doesn’t seem to want to listen to the science. I left feeling angry the session was put together in the way it was and angry two very prominently and passionate people refused to find grounds for agreement. It made me think that if George could embrace the calm, measured, conciliatory approach embodied by David Olusoga, he might get a lot further to convince more people than he is doing.






David Olusoga with Colin Grant, Joseph Harker, Kavita Puri and Marcus Ryder - Necessary Perspectives


David is a Hay Festival 2023 Thinker in Residence, which means "questioning norms, finding new perspectives and challenging us to action" according to Hay literature. He observes that we are living in a world of accelerating change regarding race. But it is necessary not to get blinded by notable exceptions that stand out against the background of the general disregard of black lives. The current cabinet is diverse but not inclusive and there is a tension between wanting more diversity and wanting a balance to be redressed. So it is necessary to have more of the later as well as more of the first. Since the Black Lives Matter movement, debates about race have very quickly moved into debates about history. We inhabit a hinterland that’s doesn’t teach a history which fully captures the truth about empire and imperialism. Any history is black history. We need a full spectrum history - not de-colonising history but enhancing a broader, additional view. If we don't, we can’t know each other. Our education system is failing for all children - not just children of colour. We all need to acknowledge the possibility of holding some element of racism in ourselves so we all need some self reflection - and our children have to learn this by better adult examples than we very often have. Partly, this is because we inhabit a media space where less than 3% of the population decides the news agenda - all predominantly white and Oxbridge 'educated'. We need more platforms for pluralistic voices (like we need a more pluralistic understanding of history) What creates identity has moved beyond geography and TV (like the media in general, and our education system) has struggled to cope with that.


Lyse Doucet - Necessary Presence


Doucet says that throughout her career as a foreign correspondent, finding and emphasising the hopeful and the positive is proved to be a powerful advocate. Her role is to bear witness to the truth even if, as Orwell observed, liberty means telling people what they do not want to hear. In this digital and virtual world, she emphasises the importance of being there. There used to be five checklists for good journalism - the what, where, when, how and why. Recently there has been added - for good or ill - the need for a Wow! as well. Even more recently, there has been a need to add a seventh - the WTF! And an eighth - Witnessing. She is passionate about the necessity of being there, and bearing witness. This allows us to see the world differently because the journalist was there.




Oleksandra Matviichuk, Halyna Kruk and Serhiy Zhadan - Myth of Peace


Oleksandra is a Ukrainian human rights lawyer. Halyna and Serhiy are Ukrainian poets and writers speaking Ukrainian through an interpreter.


Oleksandra gave a comprehensive and impassioned analysis of the immorality of the war against Ukraine which began in 2014. What we often forget about war is that it is about people. People whose lives have been wrecked beyond measure. She heavily criticises western governments who espouse the myth of 'peace' in Ukraine. They forget that if Ukraine concedes territory to Russia, that territory would be under occupation, and she has seen and documented the brutality of Russian soldiers in subjugating local people in those occupied lands.


She also says that bringing war criminals to justice cannot be left to a Nuremburg-style trial after the war. The need is more urgent, as the evidence more immediate and comprehensive given the use of mobile phones to take videos and photos.(Clearly it does not help - indeed it is hypocritical - that the US refuses to sign up to the International War Crimes Tribunal). Above all, the world needs to agree to bring into being a court to prosecute those such as Putin charged with the crime of aggression. (Phillipe Sands is doing something on this I think).


The war is between authoritarianism and democracy. (Is it also between myth and truth?) And between the past and the future. Russians look to their 'glorious‘ past because that is what they are told and taught in schools - that is their mindset, their Weltanschauung. Ukrainians look to the future which is free, democratic, with an independent judiciary, an accountable government and accountable policing. It was the prospect of Ukraine turning this way after regime change in 2014 that 'provoked' Putin to invade Crimea. She says he is not afraid of Nato (but perhaps he should be) but is afraid of freedom.


Ukrainian culture is changing rapidly and the place of literature in that culture is increasing strong. The same is true for the Ukrainian language in a country that is used to using Russian (I think). Because for hundred of years Russia has invaded, occupied and tried to subdue Ukrainian language and culture. The change towards the use of Ukrainian is happening organically and not as a result of government diktat. It’s a question of identity. So it’s a war of culture as well. I guess that they are saying that the growth of Ukrainian culture is instrumental in expanding the use of the Ukrainian language.

Poems can spread more easily because they are not easy to censor.


Timothy Garton Ash talking to Misha Glenny - Myth of Nationalism


Garton-Ash's book Homelands is a history of Europe since 1945 but interspersed with personal experiences. There are lots of ‘Europes’ - economic, political, geographical but essentially we live in a Europe of shared lived experience - the experience of being abroad but feeling at home. Hence ‘Homelands’.


There is a balance between unity and divergence in Europe - too much divergence leads to instability, competition between nation states which eventually leads to overt Nationalism and even war - as against Ukraine. Too much unity, and people feel their identity and culture is being sidelined. Because of this balance and because of the plethora of its languages (and cultures?), Europe will never become a United States.


He wants Britain to do well but he wants Europe to do better and that people in this country will want to join in with that betterment (as some people in Northern Ireland want the betterment they see in the Republic).


It is a myth that nothing in history is inevitable, including 1989 and Brexit. Just a few factors could have turned the Brexit vote the other way. Just a few factors could change the European experienced over the last eighty years into one based completely on the mythological nationalism of Orban, Le Penn, Erdogan, Farage, National Conservatism and Putin. If Trump gets the US presidency in 2024, that outcome becomes more likely, as does a critical diminution of support for Ukraine.


Gary Younge talks to Jeffrey Boakye - Myth of Orthodoxy


Gary Younge is a gentle, calm and unprepossessing presence. He challenges myths and naive assumptions about 'we' and 'us'. Some people claim that ‘we’ won the war, or 'we' won the World Cup in 1966 as if they were there but then claim that 'we’ had nothing to do with slavery because we were not there then. He counters the attack line of "if it wasn’t for us you’d be speaker German" with "If it wasn’t for you I’d be speaking Bajan (Barbadian Creole)".


Perspective is important and cannot be avoided. Journalism should be fair but can’t be objective (like research). He wants to question orthodox accounts, for example the Rosa Parks story (she was not the first to refuse to move seats on a bus). It’s always more complicated. He wants to question what isn’t being said. He doesn’t set out to be contrarian. Professional contrarians are a bit tiresome.


Gaia Vince talks to Tom Bullough - Myth of Migration


Vince talks about our current time on earth - the Anthropocene age - when heat, fire, flood, and draught are the new four horseman of the apocalypse. She says that we desperately need to have an honest conversation about the impact of the climate emergency on the need for people to move to escape unliveable conditions. Mass migration is a very likely fact. So we need to plan for it instead of ignoring it or reacting in panic. We must do what we can - and much more than we are doing - to avoid irreparable damage to lives, communities and to cultures. The problem needs the precautionary principle but for some reason we don’t apply it, probably because the problem needs a radical systemic change.




AC Grayling - Being Aware


AC Grayling's latest book, Philosophy and Life, argues for more pluralistic voices. He argues we should be aware of a greater diversity of experience such as questions about Asian conformity as opposed to our western ideas about self awareness and individual agency. He says we are all caught in the spiderweb of society, culture and history so are we really able to exercise free will? And is there a balance between conformity and non-conformity? He argues that the spider web is real, not always as a trap but sometimes as a network - some people are more embedded and limited by it than others who have the cultural and personal resources to pull away if not fully escape. And we can’t fully escape or we’d be nothing. I am because of you. Morality is behaviour and comes out of the logic of being human. He says that Socrates is the most up to date thinking on secular morality that we have, because everything after it is coloured (poisoned?) by religion. The aim should be consideration - of oneself and of others. Being aware because the considered life is the life worth living. But (quoting Bertrand Russel) most people would sooner die rather than think. (Not always or even often their own fault though, if they are too tightly bound into the spider's web).





Margaret Atwood and Rob Delaney - Being Who I Am


Both talk about their loss in a very off script way: Margaret about the death of her husband, and Rob about the death of his son. Margaret talked about the importance of being there - echoing the comments of Lyse Doucet - and talked about the importance of the writers who reacted to the Black Death given there were many different ways of reacting. Both talked about writing about themselves to tell their children - how did I get to be who I am and how did I get to be here.


Michael Rosen talks to Rachel Clarke - Being Angry


Michael Rosen contracted Covid 19 in March 2020 and was admitted to hospital and spent 47 weeks in intensive care. Rachel Clark is an inspirational palliative care doctor, Guardian columnist and author whose book Breathless is a stunning and frightening account of how Covid 19 wreaked havoc and death in Britain. Reading it leaves you astounded and angry. Michael spoke very honestly and was very sad and very funny. Very forgiving. Shit happens. But he was absolutely scathing about Johnson's decisions during the pandemic. He found some sort of catharsis in writing Tweets about his experiences - perhaps as Rachel has done in writing her book.


Simon Armitage - Being Secret


Simon is the national Poet Laureate and has written very engaging books about walking the Pennine Way, and the South West Coastal Path. He sees writing as ways to investigate the orthodoxy even if it doesn’t set out to be subversive. Poets don’t need to be magi or shaman. Rather it’s more about style instead of content or attempts at wisdom. The key to poetry is subtlety. Poetry is a well kept secret.


Raynor Winn and Christian Lewis - Being Different


Like writing, walking is a very old thing. Like Armitage, they are both walkers, both writers. Unlike him, they both seem a bit unreal and a bit out of step with the normality of most people’s lives. Both have had horrors in their lives and both have used walking and writing to overcome these things. What’s bad in life is good in a book.


They say that it’s all in your attitude, all in your mind. I’m not so sure. Many people (too many) don’t have the luxury or the wherewithal to think positively. And not everyone has the luxury or wherewithal to create literature out of their lived distresses.


Why do some people feel they are exceptional enough to ignore the social norm? Or society's orthodox explanations? Both overcame such framing, such stereotyping. It must be a very strong force of will - which is probably a good thing - but can have its downsides - which probably isn't. At the time I wrote "They exude a deep commitment to command the floor, but I felt they did not understand that they were in danger of abusing the power they have been granted by the use of the mic". But I'm not sure what I was getting at here and maybe I'm being too harsh.





Andrea Wulf talks to Misha Glenny - Being I


Wulf's book Magnifying Rebels reminds us about the most important ideas of Romantic philosophy and how they have influenced our thinking. She relates a fascinating story of the origins of the romantic idea(s) in Jenner a small town 150km south west of Berlin. Romanticism's focus was on the centrality of the self-being-I, which was a revolutionary idea at the time. She gives lots of details of the colourful and bohemian life of poets - poetry a term which then incorporated several arts - but not music. They became the centre of not just German romanticism but romanticism per se. So the English Romanticism of Wordsworth, Coleridge and (later) Blake and Turner is an import. The village became a magnet for liberal thinkers like Schiller. The church wasn’t interested enough to object, and there was little in the way of censorship due to the separate German dukedoms and principalities.




David Wengrow and the late David Graeber - Rethinking


Their book, A New History of Humanity, address myths about the agricultural revolution, hierarchical societies and trade. The agricultural 'revolution' was not a singular event but a series of stop start experimentations over maybe 3,000 years in at least ten different locations all over the world. Ancient societies were not always hierarchical even if some were. And some societies changed their power systems frequently over short periods maybe every few months. Hunter gatherer societies were not all egalitarian even if some were. Trade is not always as we think it - ideas and materials can travel around great distances without there being transactions we would call trade. We shouldn’t believe the history we’ve been told. We should rethink.


Mark Jones talks to Georgina Godwin - Revisiting


Jones revisits the history of the Weimar Republic in the 1920's Germany. He argues that there was nothing inevitable about its demise. The Republic can be seen as the beginnings of classical modernity. He asks why the Weimar Republic survived in the 1920’s but not in 1932/33. The French occupation of the Ruhr was a significant factor especially as it used its colonial ie Black soldiers to do so, and the experience of white Germans being told what to do by Black French soldiers was inevitably inflammatory. The republic’s democracy failed when in the 1930’s the conservative right in Germany began to undermine its democracy - (like the Tory right is doing today, as are Orban, Erdogan, Trump, Bolsano et al.)



Simon Schama - Retelling


Schama gives lots of answers as to what history is for but he emphasises it being a thorn in the side of orthodox ways of thinking.


His focus is on retelling often forgotten stories about cholera and bubonic plague epidemics in India. Waldemar Haffkine developed the first widely used vaccine against cholera and he achieved monumental success in vaccinating against cholera in India at a time when orthodox British medical opinion was very much against it. British response to plague outbreaks was to tear down and set fire to property inhabited by infected people. (The British were also addicted to carbolic acid as a sterilisation method rather than sterilising by flame as Pasteur recommended - which was far superior). However, Haffkine's methods did gain an acceptance in the Indian population because it was nothing new. Vacuolation as it was known, was common in the Ottoman empire, and often practised in religious settings. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu observed its effectiveness in Constantinople in 1717, and brought it back to British high society. A rare example of Western medicine begrudgingly learning from the east.


Suzannah Lipscomb, Alice Loxton, David Olusoga and Sathnam Sanghera talk to René Olivieri - Revisioning


Lipscomb argues strongly that revising the history of empire is not about removing anything, but adding to that history. Olusoga, echoing Schama argues against the view that history is some sort of comfort zone. It is important to enrich history and to present complexity, nuance and conflict eg Churchill was both an inspirational war leader and a unreconstructed racist. They all argue that it is important to call out and challenge the lies in the culture war eg that historians want to make white people feel guilty - a claim for which there is absolutely no evidence.


Paterson Joseph talks to David Olusoga - Retelling

The actor Paterson Joseph has written an imagined diary of the relatively famous Charles Ignacious Sancho who was born on a slave ship and then brought to England aged three. He became a writer, composer, shopkeeper and abolitionist, and was celebrated in the late 18th-century as a man of letters, a social reformer and an acute observer of English life. We know this from a 1782 biography but Joseph adds vibrancy and life to a remarkable story retold brilliantly as historical fiction. He says that historical fiction should take equal place with academic history, because people remember stories more than facts.




If I can’t tell the difference between talking to a human or to an AI then that is the end of democracy. And the end of all we hold dear. Lyse Doucet


Populist politics is based on self pity and victim hood. A populist government doesn’t care about governing. It ignores evidence and rational argument. You can’t rationalise with the irrational. Fintan O'Toole.


The life of the Italian women 16th century composer Francesca Caccini illustrates the importance of a supportive, immersive environment to enable creativity to develop. BBC Radio 3 Classical Fix.


It is remarkable - and certainly not recognised by the right - that the meaning of ‘small boats’ has transmuted from the Dunkirk spirit to a hatred of migrants. Marcus Brigstock.


Poetry can spread more easily than prose because its not so easy to censor . Halyna Kruk and Serhiy Zhadan.


In the west everything works but nothing matters and in the east nothing works and everything matters. Philip Roth.


There are a small number of times when hope and history rhyme (as they did in 1989). Semus Healey.


Patriotism is a love of your country, nationalism is a hatred of everybody else. We made a mistake of leaving talk about patriotism to the right. Timothy Garton-Ash


We have to make political discourse sophisticated again. Mark Jones.


History has to polish the lens of the past. Andrea Wulf.


We should 'dig down into the weeds. AC Grayling.


Current political language is threadbare. Simon Armitage


Being a historian is being a thorn in the side. Simon Schama.


Digging in you find a politics of emotions. We have to find an effective emotional response. Orlando Figues.


We need to read across the grain of documents. Caroline Dodds.


We have to lower the microscope on history. Mark Jones.


Looking at the statistics you get depressed, look at the people you get hope. David Milliband.


Looking at Tory politicians you get ......?


Glenn MacDonald-Jones, July, 2023; amended May 2024.

Hay Festival 2023