Mary Portas was appointed by Steve Hilton in David Cameron’s office, to look at how we might revive the British high street. Most of the country is desperate to regenerate the high street, she believes and she’s speaking in a town where feelings are running high on that subject. The people of Hay, perhaps as many as 85% are opposed to the arrival of a new supermarket, which Portas was careful not to name, but is known to be Tesco.
She has spoken to the campaigners leading ‘Plan B for Hay’ and is clearly sympathetic and supportive. Her views nationally and their’s locally are clearly aligned. She does however express some concern as to whether ultimately the people of Hay can have an effect.
Portas turns to the question of manufacturing and acknowledges that we will never match the capacity of India and China to produce low cost high volume clothing but she points out that designer manufacturing has also moved offshore from the UK. She believes that with the right strategy we could bring as much as 30% of fashion manufacturing back to the UK, but we only have 10 years in which to do it before we lose our native skills. She tells us how delighted she was to hire a former seamstress for her Kinky Knickers project who had been stacking shelves for Tesco.
Internet has replaced mediocre retailers and for many chains has reduced their need to be in as many places. We need to better define what the high street is for. Last year’s rioters were people with no sense of belonging, we need to create community by turning high streets into multi functional civic places.
Portas shows us a short film about Margate, which shows just how far decline of the high street can go – she will be working with Margate to attempt to arrest that decline an involve the retailers are the core “decision making should be the responsibility of the people of that town”.
She believes she is making inroads with the government but some of her more radical proposals are “still under review”. The scale of her task is brought into sharp relief when she mentions that on her visits to number 10 she is “always bumping into the head of publicity and marketing for Tesco”.
She finishes with a quote from Gandhi relayed to her by David who drove her to Hay “be the change you want to see”.
The sun is out and it makes it somehow even more appropriate to head over to HowTheLightGetsIn, the fringe festival that sprang up in Hay four years ago.
We’re in the more bohemian surroundings near the centre of the town to hear Michael Eavis, Hilary Lawson and Melvin Benn talk to Mary Ann Sieghart about Festivals. Lawson is the founder of HowTheLightGetsIn, Benn is the man behind Latitude and Eavis, well you know who Michael Eavis is.
We begin with a short history of the beginnings of Glastonbury. A little over 42 years ago Eavis attended the Bath Blues Festival and decided he could do something similar. T-Rex was on the bill for the first Glastonbury, entry was just £1 and Eavis gave away free milk, illegally as it turned out as the milk was not pasteurised. Clad in tweed jacket and denim shorts Eavis also talked about the bleaker years of the festival such as 1985 when a bunch of barrier jumpers attempted to set fire to Michael’s house. Despite some ups and downs Glastonbury holds a special place in the hearts of everyone who has been there. Hilary Lawson thanked Michael for “many years of wonder”.
Lawson spoke of the great community that characterises the best festivals and their levelling nature. Benn spoke about how he set out to create a live version of a Sunday review section with Latitude. All of the panelists talked about the tough economics of the festival business. There was agreement across audience and panel alike as to the special experience you get at festivals. How wonderful to be at one, in the sunshine.
He talks about religions as dishes at a buffet or cafeteria where we can select what we like from each. He makes cultural reference to literature and music stating that we wouldn’t listen to a single musician or composer or read a single author. Comparing Catholicism to The Beatles would seem to be something of a stretch.
The essayist and philosopher turns to religion and education. He suggests that the secular approach to education is mechanistic whilst religious education plays to the fragile reality of human existence. He talks about ritual in religion that harnesses the community to deliver truths to the inner self.
Oratory in the Pentecostal church creates a far greater response and involvement than the average university lecture.
Another station at de Botton’s imagined buffet is the one where we consume art. He argues that art does not realise
its potential to move us. When art is combined with religion the messages are simplified and more effective. Alain de Botton was confused by Rothko when he first saw his work at The Tate and believes that his messages have been obscured by an ideology of coolness.
He comes closest to describing religion when he talks about them as institutions and organisation and when he references religious community.
His arguments were carefully constructed but ultimately very narrow. He focuses on the structures and cultural outputs of religion but avoids entirely both the intentions and purposes of religion.
Alex Crawford opens with a stunningly frank and raw passage from her book Colonel Gadaffi’s Hat. With her colleagues and facing death in Libya she contemplates fear and regret thinks of family and friends then realises she has a phone signal “shit if we are going to die I’m going to let people know about it… I phone the office and ask to be put live on air.”
The war was ugly and disorganised. The rebel army didn’t even have a communications network at the beginning. Even the conclusion of the war was messy. After Alex Crawford had entered Green Square in Tripoli with the rebel army the fighting flared up again and Saif Gadaffi gave a defiant press briefing from the leader’s compound.
Amongst the horrific stories of witnessing brutal killing at the closest of quarters and losing “eleven of my nine lives” there is humour in a story about her family. Naughtie asks what she tells her children “well I did say to my one child that the children in Iraq would love to have the food on her plate ‘take it to them then’.”