I have attended four events at the Festival this year and not one of them could be classed as about literature – writing, yes, but literature, no. One was a debate on “The Brexit“, one a talk on the “State of the Middle East“, another a talk on the 17th century billed as “The Age of Genius” and finally a discussion on “Understanding China“. Bath has turned itself into a sort of Mecca for festivals. So much so that it has an umbrella organisation called Bath Festivals under which all and any festival can shelter and benefit from the combined marketing effect. Bath being Bath I cannot help saying that they are intensely middle and upper-middle class affairs. I am not sure about the age demographics although anecdotally the sort of events which I tend to attend seem to attract, shall we say, an older type of person.
The blurb for the “Great Europe Debate” ran: “Are we better off inside Europe? Or is there a strong case for leaving? Vince Cable and Christina Slade argue for “In”. Labour MP Kate Hoey says we are better “Out”. Chaired by Financial Times columnist Stefan Stern.” There was also a chinless wonder of a Tory on the “Out” team but I can’t remember or even find his name with help from Mr Google now. Interestingly, Christina Slade is the Vice Chancellor of Bath Spa University and a bona fide Aussie although she proudly acknowledged that she would soon be taking British citizenship. Do people really do it that way round? I wonder if Clive James or Germaine Greer have done that.
I can’t say that I really learnt much from the debate other than that the “In” team were more convincing, not just in their arguments but in the sincerity of their personalities, if that makes any sense. Kate Hoey is not at all articulate in her position and seems to be more caught up in the politics of the various “Leave” campaign groups while the Tory, well, how could you trust anything a Tory said? By far and away the most interesting aspect of the evening was that the chairman took a show of hands for In, Out and Undecided both before and after the debate. I’m not sure that I would have had any real sense of how a Bath Literary type audience would divide on this topic but I was nevertheless surprised to find that before the debate it was roughly 70% for remaining in, 20% for leaving and 10% undecided and this really didn’t change much after the dust settled. If only this could be reflected in the country at large.
My third event was an accident as I was directed to the wrong room and didn’t realise that, instead of a fascinating talk on “Alternate Histories”, I was confronted by A C Grayling talking about his book “The Age Of Genius“. Now apparently: “In a riveting lecture, Britain’s most publically engaged philosopher, AC Grayling explains how this turbulent period became both the crucible of modernity, and an age of genius.” Of course being English I was far too polite to leave the room and meekly endured the hour of hundred mile an hour talking as he rushed through his potted history of the intellectual achievements of Britain in the 17th century. Far be it from me to dispute that this was an enormously important watershed century for Britain and the world. We moved from a pre-modern to a modern society balanced on the fulcrum of the execution of Charles I and the English Civil war alongside the emergence of modern experimental science with figures such as Newton, Boyle and Hook and the foundation of the Royal Society. My unease about Grayling is that he is a populariser but one without a base in his own work. He is a little like an upmarket Alain de Botton if that makes sense. There is a huge market for information brokerage in the modern world and he is effectively a brand in this market. Sorry I sound a little cynical.
My final event was a conscious follow up to one I attended last year with the same title. That one was, if I remember, more about the rest of the world coming to terms with China’s massive economic growth. How quickly do times change. Now the world is terrified that that growth is coming to a grinding halt crashing the global economy with it. The programme stated: “After last year’s exploration of China’s culture, join us for another foray into the mind and heart of the Chinese people. Tim Clissold, author of ‘Mr China’ and ‘Chinese Rules’, is joined by acclaimed writer Xinran (‘Buy Me the Sky’; ‘The Good Women of China’) in a conversation about recent political and cultural developments” and a large part of the discussion was around Xinran’s work on the history and effects of the notorious One Child policy. It is going to be a very sensitive topic in China for at least another generation maybe longer until the effects begin to work themselves out of the system.
The other participant, Tim Clissold, spends his time in China trying to assist western businesses understand how to do business in China and more importantly how to negotiate a way around the failure of what they thought were binding contracts. This single point, that in China there is no such thing as a legally binding contract in business, is, it seems, the most common cause of failure for western companies in China and there is a market in helping them to re-build a business relationship in the absence of this concept so central to western business.
As a side-light to this talk, I was on the platform of Bath Spa station buying coffees while waiting for the train up to London for the Castle Reunion weekend when I realised that the lady in front of me was none other than Xinran. I could not resist being totally un-English and actually speaking to her without being introduced. Can you imagine it? I thanked her for her talk saying how much I enjoyed it and much to my delight and surprise she asked me if I was also an author attending the festival. What joy, to be mistaken for a real writer. Perhaps it is enough just to be mistaken for one? Clearly it is all in the look. The investment in my existentialist philosopher black glasses wasn’t wasted after all.