Interview with Chris Woods

By Virginia

I was intending to go to Chris Wood’s talk tonight as my husband Chris Cole (a drones researcher and campaigner) speaks highly of him and has raved about his new book ‘Sudden Justice’. So I was very grateful that Chris Wood agreed to meet me this morning for what proved a fascinating discussion about war reporting, drones, and what next for America.

Woods was a journalist for the BBC, who has reported most of the major conflicts of the last 25 years. He became interested in drone warfare in 2010, when working in Pakistan, after an official told him they couldn’t use an airbase to help flood relief because the US had appropriated it for their drones programme. He began to investigate and when he left the BBC for the Bureau for Investigative Journalism he set up a team to report on US drone strikes.

When he moved on from the Bureau, Woods decided to write the book in order get a wider sense of the story. The result is a holistic modern history of armed drones, that examines the effect on civilians, shows the way the battlefield has changed and the people who operate drone warfare. Late into the research, he was given an endorsement from the airforce book support programme which got him in the front door and gave him access to former senior officials in the military, government and intelligence services in the US, UK and military. As a result his book shows both sides of the story and allows the reader to form their own judgements of the ethics and appropriateness of this way of waging war.

The author’s interviews resulted in surprising conversations. Dick Armitage, a hawk in Bush’s government, supported the idea of targetted killings as he believed the US was justified in their actions. It was only when he visited Pakistan in 2009 that he realised the extent of killings and how the programme has spread so far that the CIA can’t always say who they’ve killed, a revelation that filled him with horror. Cameron Munter, former US ambassador to Pakistan stated that he should have had authority in the region, and yet the CIA effectively ran the show.

Much of Wood’s research has uncovered how the ‘war on terror’ has been a ‘tit-for-tat’ affair. Extraordinary rendition, began under Clinton, and resulted in alleged militants from Bosnia and Albania being taken to Egypt where they were tortured. One of these militants was the brother of the Al Qaeda no 2 El Zawaihari who ordered an attack on the US in Tanzania in revenge. In response, Osama bin Laden was put on the kill list. 9/11 soon followed, with the first US targetted drone strike happening a month later.

Woods also had access to ordinary drone operators, describing their tedious days, waiting for the CIA to tell them what to do, and working in a hierarchal structure that is both demoralising and disempowering. One interviewee’s description of how seeing a dog killed led to huge negative comments when an excerpt of the book was published in The Guardian. Woods felt this was unfair because he saw it as a moment when her humanity was able to express itself. He was glad that she still appreciated being quoted, and being given a voice in a situation where she felt powerless.

What is clear from Wood’s work, is that if Clinton and Bush began dronewarfare, with Bush being the ‘occasional assassin’, it is Obama who has institutionalised it. Drone killing is now part of US foreign policy alongside, diplomacy and trade. The difficult thing once you start such a programme, is how to turn it off. The next US president will have that choice, but is likely to feel compelled by the strategic imperatives to continue.

Woods has recently been on a book tour in the US where the drone programme is the support of 60% of the population. As he arrived the big story was that a drone had killed an US civilian, and yet the question was not about whether the strike was legal, but whether it was effective. Woods argues that this is because the media and government have a firewall in place that prevents proper reporting of the issues. With ‘remote reporting’ from journalists in Washington,who don’t see the impact on the ground, ‘remote warfare’ is distanced even further. He is encouraged by TV series such as ‘Homeland’ and the recent Ethan Hawkes film (which uses one of Woods true news stories as a plot line) which are beginning to air the issues for people, but even so, many Americans don’t know what is going on.

If America is to choose a different path, its citizens need to truly understand what is being done in their name. Which is why ‘Sudden Justice’ is such an important book as it allows a light to be shown on a killing programme that for too long has operated in the darkness. So if you’re at Hay looking for a thought provoking talk, I highly recommend you going to his event and buy a copy of ‘Sudden Justice’. You won’t regret it.

Chris Woods will be in conversation with Chris Hunter and Nik Gowing at the Llwfan Cymru – Wales stage at 8.30pm tonight.

Letters Live with Stephen Fry, Jude Law, Sandi Toksvig

Photo: Finn Beales

Photo: Finn Beales

My first event and my first ever experience of the Hay Festival and I knew it was going to be amazing. Having followed Letters Live for more than a year and finally receiving a copy of Letters of Note at Christmas; the anticipation was immense. As we stood in the queue to the Tata Tent, Stephen Fry strode boldly by, we gazed in awe. The excitement was at fever pitch and we were not disappointed.

Heartthrob Jude Law read beautifully and my favourite of all the performances was his narrative of Sol Le Witt’s letter to Eva Hesse, where Sol tells Eva “you belong in the most secret part of you…if you fear, make it work for you – draw & paint your fear and anxiety” and ultimately “Stop it and just DO”. Law’s delivery of the letter was enthralling, he executed the grammar perfectly and with a theatrical edge that brought the content to life.
Fry narrated a timely and moving “Dear Mama”, an honest and touching coming out letter where the subject says that his homosexuality has taught him the “limitless possibilities of living”. Fry begun his narrative by warning listeners that he may cry, as he’s a soppy bugger. This emotional connection was felt throughout the reading and there were many a tear from the audience. Within the letter, the subject says that coming clean about his true soul means that he no longer has “to lie to the people who taught me the value of the truth”.
Sandi Toksvig was another star of the show, bringing the house down with theatrical and hilarious renditions of letters including “The Matchbox”, where Sylvia Townsed Warner describes all the things she likes most about the matchbox her friend has given to her as a gift. The humorous writer uses a brilliant sarcasm and over enthusiasm saying that the best thing about her matchbox was that it was empty.
Letters Live was an emotional journey, at one point tears of sadness and heartbreak and the next of joy and laughter. One cannot help but wonder if today we are more reserved about our feelings, as Charlotte Bronte once wrote with raw truth about her feelings since the passing of her sister Emily.
The show stars the most incredible performers and allows us to appreciate the purest form of the written word. I recommend it to anyone and cannot wait for next year.

“What do we want? International law” Thomas Buergenthal, Brian Leveson and Richard Goldstone talk to Philippe Sands. 

A respectable panel of Judges chaired by Philippe Sands discussed the relationship between international and domestic law with a specific focus on criminal and human rights law.

Thomas Buergenthal’s personal experiences as “A Lucky Child” surviving Auschtwitz, served as a reminder of the origins of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). He expressed his “sadness and surprise” to learn that UK MPs had suggested repealing the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA). He stated that “every country has skeletons in their closet” and only International Law can hold countries to account when atrocities are committed against its citizens. 
Practicing Judge Leveson was comically careful not to contribute any political opinions during discussions and humorously restricted himself to the facts.
National sovereignty was the only argument raised in favour of the retreat from the ECHR and thus the panel discussed the way in which international law impacts the domestic courts. They highlighted that international law is put into effect through domestic enactment and that British judges are not directly bound by Strasbourg.
The panel stressed the need for the UK’s contribution to international law and the importance of mutual respect between the domestic and international courts. It was felt that a repeal would set a bad precedent, being a declaration of independence by the UK.
A memorable comment from this inspiring event was that “a country cannot exist alone as an island in the modern world”.

Andrew O’Hagan Illuminated

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I entered this talk (to my shame) largely ignorant of the work of Andrew O’Hagan. However as I often discover ignorance can also mean no pre conceived ideas or expectations, which in turn can lead to wonderful surprises.

This was certainly my experience of Andrew O’Hagan in conversation with Rosie Boycott. These two clearly go back a long way and consequently the tone of the interview was relaxed and informed as Rosie interviewed him about his latest novel ‘The Illuminations’ and so much more besides.

O’Hagan is a journalist by trade and consequently his novels are largely informed by journalism. ‘The Illuminations’ is very much about the effects of the war in Afghanistan on one particular soldier; something O’Hagan knows much about having spent time with soldiers in Kabul.

Interesting conversation emerged about the lack of literature that has come out of the conflicts the UK has been involved in for the last 25 years compared to the wealth of stories, essays and novels that draw on World War I and II as inspiration. O’Hagan made that point that “we are living in under described times” . He is clearly bemused by this listing recent events such as the recent vote on Scottish Indepedence as providing enough material to keep novelists going for years.

I could have listened to Andrew O’Hagan much longer than the allocated hour, he was interesting and engaging and hearing him read a particularly tense scene from his novel was for me the highlight as I suspect it was for much of the audience. I stole a moment to glance around and saw an audience listening in open-mouthed rapt attention.

I left this talk feeling thrilled by the power of fiction and excited to have discovered another author I had not read before

Jon Ronson with John Mitchinson

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The Psychopath Test is Ronson’s last book and that’s where he starts. Labelling people as mentally ill can be highly problematic, but we all like a “mental health check list” he says. There’s a parallel with his new book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.” The public shaming that takes place on the internet is a form of labelling and it is intentionally dehumanising.

The book contains chapters based on a whole series of examples of public shaming. One of these was about Justine Sacco, who sent an ostensibly racist tweet whilst on her way to South Africa. She believed she was making a joke exposing a passive racist bubble in which many white Americans exist. That’s not what the twitterati believed. The shaming took place whilst Justine was asleep on the plane with no access to the internet. By the time she landed she was the focus of worldwide hatred and had lost her job.

After Ronson took us through his book-centred performance, and performance it was, with timing and humour honed over an extensive promotional tour, John Mitchinson’s interview was completely on point.  If you didn’t have tickets for Texas this was a fine way to end a Hay day.

We are defining the boundaries of normality by terrorising and humiliating the people who stand outside.  Social justice is being defined by people who care more about ideology than they do about people, says Ronson.

Nick Cohen talks to Sarfraz Manzoor

20150525_174454“Whatever else this man is he’s not a politician.” Nick Cohen begins by saying that left wing journalists failed in their duty by not saying that Ed Miliband couldn’t win an election because he wasn’t convincing as a prospective prime minister.

Cohen argues that 2015 was also a turning point where the traditional progressive majority in the UK was eroded and the parties on the right gained over 50% of the votes (58% if you include the Liberal Democrats).

Manzoor invites the audience to ask questions during the discussion to be “part of the conversation”. It has mixed results and the discussion becomes more than a little fragmented as a result. We move onto Tony Blair, there is a sense that the audience is skeptical about him and that both Cohen and Manzoor believe he is the sort of leader that the Labour Party now needs. Manzoor challenges a Tory voter in the audience “did you feel the Conservative campaign was full of love?” She responds by accusing him of being patronising and a vocal section of the audience agrees.

Bizarrely many of those speaking from the floor say that they voted Conservative but few of them seem happy about it. That could be a “Hay effect” but begs the question as to why they grabbed a microphone.

Another member of the audience takes a swipe at the chair, this time taking offence at being addressed as a lady. “Dimbleby never gets this kind of shit” says Manzoor.

Nick Cohen has some very interesting and insightful things to say but the early evening session is dominated by people from the floor. They completely ignore Manzoor’s request that they ask questions rather than take the opportunity to give their own, far from original or insightful, opinions.

Andrew Keen and Robert Phillips talk to Sarah Churchwell

Andrew Keen is the author of ‘The Internet is Not the Answer ‘ which argues that the internet is having a negative effect on our culture. Robert Phillips, ex CEO of Edelman, a leading global PR firm, has written ‘Trust Me PR is Dead’.

I have to declare an interest here; I’m a PR person and I’m on the board of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, so I don’t entirely subscribe to Robert’s assertion.

Actually he starts by saying that PR isn’t dead. What Phillips asserts is that the problem is that PR doesn’t speak to the common good and doesn’t focus enough on trustworthiness.

Whilst Robert Phillips is concerned with a failure of trust revealed by the transparency brought about by the internet, Andrew Keen believes that internet itself is a cause of inequality and injustice. The internet does away with top down elitist structures but it also sweeps away the trusted frameworks that support society. Keen described the world as flat, one in which we have contempt for leaders yet long for leadership.

Leadership failure is a subject that Robert Phillips covers too. He cites the recent disastrous corporate performance of Thomas Cook.  It has been characterised as a PR failure but as Robert implies, it was actually a corporate failure.

Andrew Keen has the final word and applauds Robert’s appeal for greater values and morality but also says we must become less self obsessed. The problem with the Internet is that when we look at it we see ourselves.

It was a captivating, intellectual debate, but I’m no more convinced about the failures of the Internet or the Public Relations industry, than I was at the beginning. Who would have imagined.

Jesse Burton with Georgia Goodwin

By Virginia

4134909_origBeing  a writer, I’ve been closely following the stellar rise of Jessie Burton, author of the 2014 sensation ‘The Miniaturist’.  I follow Jessie, her agent Juliet Mushens and editor Francesca Main on twitter, so it’s been exciting to watch the story from the description of her submission letter to Mushens, the auction that followed, and publication that led to the book being on bestseller lists across the world.

And whilst it’s easy to get snarky about another writer’s success (read David Mitchell’s ‘The Bone Clocks’  for an excellent example of writerly envy), it’s impossible not to enjoy Burton’s. Not only is it a book worthy of the plaudits, but the author comes across as a genuinely lovely person who appreciates the wonderful and ‘discombobulating’ experience she has been having.

In this session with Georgia Godwin, she discussed both the busy promotional schedule of the last year, which has led to headline articles, personal interest in some countries, intellectual in others, but also some of the background to the book. She talked about how seeing the real miniature doll’s house in Amsterdam inspired her to explore a seventeenth century society that was both similar and different from ours. How wealthy women could walk the streets openly with their husbands, and could be members of guilds, and yet also had to fight the reactionary forces that pushed them back to the hearth.

She also talked about the complexity of her characters, how Nella is struggling to make sense of her world, and combative with her new  family and how Marian’s kindness is buried in years of repression. And how the characters keep secrets from each other, sometimes because of the moralistic society they live in and sometimes for protection.  How none of the characters can be fully known and some things are left half open.

I was also fascinated with her relaying how food becomes a status symbol in the book. Having sugar and spice meant people being able to show they were wealthy enough to flavour their food. Burton also noted that they would paint meals much in the same way people instagram them now.

This was a great interview, Burton is warm, self deprecating and  an intelligent and thoughtful writer.  I could have listened to her for hours. As a reader, I can confirm she writes beautifully. The Miniaturist isn’t my usual reading fare, but she drew me into the mysteries and secrets of her characters and describes the world so well,  I really enjoyed it.  As an aspiring writer her extraordinary rise to the top of the charts fills me with hope, not because I expect the same, but because it shows it is possible to be taken from the slushpile. And I love the fact she is so dumbstruck but the whole thing and was so excited by the size of her audience she took a selfie with us.

Her next book ‘Belonging’ will cover the Spanish Civil War and another set of secrets. It should be out next year – I’m already looking forward to it.

An evening with Jude

A most entertaining and very moving hour was spent last night in the company of Jude Law as he performed in an ensemble reading of My dear Bessie, the letters that passed between two lovers during the last years of the Second World War, and which now form the basis of a book of the same name.  

Many a festival goer will have left this event with a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye. I know that I did.  Such was the popularity of this particular piece that the scrum for seats was a little unseemly as the doors opened to permit admittance. Many a sharp middle class elbow was brought to bear as certain of the Friends of the festival showed that they were able to behave in a rather unfriendly fashion in order to bag a prime position. Such, I suppose, is the allure of Mr. Law. Normal civilised behaviour was resumed as he took to the stage, although the rapid beating of adjacent female hearts was almost audible.

Simon Armitage – ”What I did on my Holidays’

IMG_1060Probably our nation’s greatest poet, Simon Armitage has published a follow up to Walking Home called Walking Away – a very entertaining travelogue of his walk along the south west coastal path as a modern day troubadour, reciting poetry to groups of people in exchange for bed and board. He undertook the challenge after getting ‘itchy feet’, he confessed, needing to get out into the world in order to discover things to write about. The south west path was almost the same distance as the Pennine way, and although it seemed to be an easier walk, it required a great deal of concentration, as in one direction was a steep cliff and the sea beyond…

He read an extract detailing a horrendous night spent at a Butlins Holiday Camp, which, he admitted ‘could have formed a book on its own’ During the walk he encountered the generousity of strangers and met some good people, and it was these experiences that kept him going despite the tiredness and melancholy that often accompanied him. Walking gives him a balance between writing in solitude and being out in the world, finding and experiencing things to write about. Training for the walk wasn’t something he thought about; ‘walking on day one is training for day two!’

After a slide show of photos (‘what I did on my holidays’) from the walk, he confessed that he probably won’t be writing any more fiction or non fiction, feeling that he is more ‘wired up for poetry’ Either way, I still remain an avid fan.