Simon Schama and Teachers

The University Professor of History and Art History at Columbia University and host of the BBC documentary series A History of Britain promised to set a bomb under the Education Secretary’s plans for teaching history in our schools and he did just that.

The Telegraph’s Martin Chilton foreshadowed the the proceeding but asking the multitude entering the tent if “this was the queue for hating Michael Gove”.   It was described by Benedict Brogan live blogging for the Telegraph as “a blistering call to arms to Britain’s history teachers”.

Schama believes that there is simply too much in the Gove curriculum to allow for inquisitive young minds to become stimulated and ask the questions that teaching should inspire.   The fundamental problems with infrastucture the hours required and the lack of specialist teachers are not being addressed.  The new national curriculum for history is he says “‘1066 and All That without the jokes”.   In a sound-bite laden discourse he describe Gove’s vision for learning as “Gradgrindian” and “pedantic and utopian with a garnishing of tokenism”.  Schama invoked Heroditus, the father of history, who believed that at its core lies a fascination with other cultures not a desire for self-congratulation.

Some say that Gove has a eye on the top job as the whispering grows around the solidity of Cameron’s tenure but he may do well to look his current one and his relationship with the teaching profession.  History as Schama says should be “honest, tough-minded and should keep the powerful awake at night”.

Eric Schmidt – The New Digital Age

The Google Executive Chairman was at Hay to examine the future of a connected world.  Chaired by Marcus du Sautoy, Schmidt gave due credit to the UK’s role in creating the digital age, saying that the whole digital world was invented here in 1930s and ’40s by Alan Turing and the smart people who worked at Bletchley Park.

After a fascinating insight into our changing world from one of its leading change agents the atmosphere took on more of an edge when it came to questions.  “You obviously have a strong sense of responsibility for doing good in the world” said the person to ask a question “I just wondered where you feel paying tax responsibly come into that?”  There was resounding applause from the Hay crowd.   Schmidt claimed to be perplexed.  “If I were in charge of the international tax regime it would not be operating this way.  No rational computer scientist or mathematician would have erected such a system.”  He went on the that Google maximised its cash revenue in order to provide free services.  “We understand the complaint but we can’t fix it…the British government can fix it…the government should be in charge of the question.”  The audience didn’t let up and despite the Google boss saying “I do love your country” the second questioner up replied “we’d rather have you money than your affection.”

Eric Schmidt was resolute “It is normal for companies to do what Google is doing…If the government chooses to change the law we’ll absolutely follow it…we’ll do whatever you guys decide.”


Mary Portas – The High Street

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”.

HowTheLightGetsIn – Michael Eavis and the Paradise Hunters

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.

Alain de Botton – Religion for Atheists

Alain de Botton begins by saying that he does not believe that God exists, but moves swiftly on.

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.

Jim Naughtie talks to Alex Crawford

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’.”

Review: Lionel Shriver talking to Rosie Boycott

Lionel Shriver was a must see booking at this year’s Hay Festival and the event did not disappoint.  Shriver was here to talk about her ‘new’ novel ‘The New Republic’ – a book where everything is not as it seems.

First the book isn’t really new it was completed in 1998, written before ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’.  Secondly it’s a comic novel: about terrorism.  Third it is set in the fictional province of Barba, tacked onto the south of Portugal – though the narrative was greatly influenced by the writer’s experiences in living in Northern Ireland, her home for 12 years.   Shriver’s bitter distaste for terrorism came through forcefully.  The novel embodies that distaste “there are two things that terrorists can’t stand – being ignored and being ridiculed.”

As the session drew to a close Rosie Boycott asked Shriver what her text novel would be about “fat” said the author.  Boycott a journalist to the core responded without a beat “is that because of your brother?”.  Shriver was clearly unsettled, revealing that her elder brother had been morbidly obese and died as a result.  “We are meant to be hungry” the author says “being sated is unpleasant.”

Review: Andrew Marr

The weather is cold and Andrew Marr admits to having enjoyed a whisky on his way to the event. Not a problem at Hay, the great Christopher Hitchens liked to have a drink both before and during his eloquent despatches. Marr makes it clear that he is the right side of merry.

A republican turned monarchist, Marr is here to talk about his book The Diamond Queen. He sets up a debate with his 25 year old self. He talks about the “sticky little network of privileged elitists” in the country today but argues that has nothing to do with the Royals. In fact he argues that the British aristocracy have largely sneered at the modern Royal family.

The younger Marr has no idea says the present day Marr, how incredibly hard the Queen and Prince Phillip work. In addition to the interminable public duties she reads reams of government and intelligence documents on a daily basis.

The monarchy is one of the few institutions that unites the country, says Marr, something of great value as we face the difficulties of the next 10 or 20 years.

Peter Oborne, Simon Scharma, Emily Perkins, Kate Williams, Val McDermid and Max Hastings talk to Jon Gower


Peter Oborne won’t answer the question, Simon Scharma thinks he would be happy to be oiled up on a beach and Val McDermid thinks crime writers are amongst the happiest people around. We are in the Barclays Pavilion for the latest panel discussion and another selection of 25 Hay Questions about the way we live now.

The panels in these sessions are too big and the format is too rigid to allow the conversation and ideas to flow as they might. Despite that Peter Oborne brings the afternoon alive with his condemnation of teaching unions. I’m sure Oborne must know that this is half-term and teachers are disproportionately represented at Hay.
It turns ugly and the boos outweigh the claps by some margin, though I suspect that many aren’t actually listening to the politically conservative, socially liberal argument that Oborne makes.

The next time Oborne speaks the severe winds whip up and part of the tent dressing is blown over “is something biblical happening?” he asks.

Eva Gabrielsson talks to Phil Rickman


Eva was Stieg Larsson’s partner for 30 years before his death in 2004. She knows better than anyone how he wrote the Millenium trilogy. She has written a memoir ‘Stieg and Me – Memories of my Life with Stieg Larsson’.

Eva revealed that many of the stories that have become legendary about Larsson are distorted or untrue. He worked hard but he wasn’t a workaholic and he ate well, most of the time.

The books were written concurrently. The entire trilogy was complete before the first ‘Men Who Hate Women’ later retitlled in English ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ was published. As many know, Larsson died nine moths before the first publication. The stories were not fully conceived or planned out before they were written. “If something didn’t fit in one book then it might go into one of the others”.

The first book began with the simple story of a man who receives pressed flowers every year and grew from there.

When Larsson died nothing went to Eva as they were unmarried and he had left no will. Everything went to his family. Eva felt that many people rushed in to exploit Stieg’s memory and legacy. She invoked an ancient Nordic curse and she believes many have suffered as a result of that curse.

There is an incomplete fourth book. Two hundred pages are written and exist on a laptop that belongs to EXPO the anti nazi magazine that Stieg founded. It is set in Canada but as a book that was only a third completed it is unlikely to be completed or published. Using ghostwriters “would be just for business.”