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 Labourhttp://www.alastaircampbell.org/bookshop.php.
*** Buy Prelude to Power here at Amazon.