Cambridge Literary Festival, April 2016

four and a half stars

four and a half stars

Cambridge Literary Festival, various venues, April 2016

George Monbiot – How Did We Get Into This Mess? 09 April 2016

Finding George Monbiot’s articles and occasional Newsnight appearances of interest was my only reason for booking tickets for this event. No preconceptions. So I was a bit surprised to find the often fairly unchallenging Q&A format ditched at the first opportunity. And then I was thrilled by what I heard. Monbiot simply stood and gave the most impassioned, completely cogent and articulate speech for 40 minutes. No notes, no faltering, just points made with staggering oratorical fluency. The Q&A in the final 20 minutes showed that a lot of people were affected by his speech and were receptive to his ideas on change. There was an almost palpable electricity in the room. A revolution might just have been seeded. As I left, the two women in front of me were seriously considering Monbiot’s suggestion of starting a political book group, starting with the reading list he’d recommended. I went and bought two of them straight after the talk, fired up with revolutionary zeal. His progress will be something to watch in the next year or two. He seemed slightly reluctant to be the leader that the audience was looking for. Whether he turns out to be Julius Caesar or Joan of Arc, he might find he doesn’t have much choice.

Erwin James – Redeemable 10 April 2016

Erwin James is another person whose articles I’d been fond of reading. He wrote intelligent, humane articles whilst still in prison but it was hard to imagine what kind of person he’d be. The man who stood up to speak was slightly guarded and reticent. Without a lot of therapy in prison, he wouldn’t have been able to be so brave, so frank in speaking about his life. He began by giving a 20-minute talk about the generality of life in prison, about having to find a way to get through the aggression or violence which cloaks the fear that underpins almost all aspects of prison life.

Professor David Wilson, a criminologist who became the youngest ever prison governor on leaving Cambridge after his PhD and who’s also a friend of James’s, then interviewed him for another 20 minutes. His questions were sensitive but probing, opening up areas James had deliberately not touched on, such as his childhood and, briefly, his crimes. It was a relief to hear that James had no desire to exploit his crimes for public ghoulishness (he simply refers people back to the newspaper reports) and objects to this aspect of crime reporting. His motive is to show that he had managed to move on and the importance of the prison psychologist who’d helped him. The crack in his voice as he related how he later tracked her down to thank her, but found out she’d died shortly before he went to visit her, was deeply affecting. The whole session was unexpectedly moving and touching.

Ken Livingstone / Owen Jones – The Resurgence of the Left? 10 April 2016

In some ways this seemed like a natural partner piece to George Monbiot’s advocation of the need for reform. Sadly, the contrast made it all the more disappointing. Where Monbiot advocated the need for a different economic model, Livingstone appeared still to be looking backwards to a traditional consumerist model. Manufacturing and buying more stuff, in other words – a model that’s increasingly falling apart. It was a great shame that more wasn’t made of moving away from these old ideas. Even bright young thing, Owen Jones, articulate speaker as he is, couldn’t manage to ramp up the passion sufficiently. It was hard not to contrast the electricity in the room following Monbiot’s talk with the rather flabby and stale feeling after this one.

Taking two questions at a time from the floor was a big mistake, since it required too much in the way of disparate answers. The audience questions were good, but it’s a pity that some of the questioners were too busy gossipping with their friends to listen to the answers.

Ken Livingstone’s scurrilous anecdotes and opinions were as hilarious as ever, with eye-opening tales from behind the political scenes. At times his tales have seemed like paranoia, but these days they seem more like valuable insights into just how dirty the game is played. He’s a man who knows where the bodies are buried: if only his lawyers would let him tell the rest of us.

On the evidence of these speakers, there’s still no more of a meaningful left than there was. What there is is fragmented where it should be unified, failing to act like a meaningful opposition party even as the government self-destructs on issue after issue. At the moment, there are so many open goals that Labour could score, but they’re not even close to having possession of the ball. Some of that may be a perception problem with the media of the right denying them an adequate platform. The in-fighting doesn’t help, though. And those deeming Corbyn unelectable seem to forget that the muddy New Labour (Tory-lite) policies didn’t win them the last election either. Any road to power for Labour will be steeply uphill.

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