My highlights of the Hay Festival

Living in mid Wales, we are able to pop along to the Hay Festival, and take in a day of culture, politics and new ways of thinking.

On Saturday June 4th, I did 4 contrasting bite size chunks of life – past and present. The day started with Erwin James, a convicted double murderer, sentenced to life imprisonment 32 years ago, and former Guardian columnist. He started his session by saying that for the first 12 months of his sentence, he was locked up for 23 hours a day, which forced him to think about whether he was made to be a criminal or life had made him that way.  He produced no conclusions, save that he had a good childhood to 7 years old, and after his mother was killed, his life careered down the path of criminality, culminating in his conviction. He has chosen never to speak about his crimes in detail,  respecting the families of the victims, and a constant theme in his talk was that he will never be able to make up for taking the lives of two people.  He has a book out (as do most authors at the festival) called Redeemable, a title chosen because he feels all prisoners are redeemable. He even had a good word to say about Michael Gove, a Justice Minister who has commented on how society needs to value prisoners more and see them as assets to society.

Moving on to the next session and definitely not a good word to say about the Conservatives, nor any government of the past 20 years; Refugee Tales told the stories of refugees in the UK, experiencing multiple dawn raids, a dispassionate asylum system, and shocking treatment of children detained ( and we still do lock up child asylum seekers with their families in a place called Cedars – please don’t think that as Liberal democrats we have stopped this practice as this report explains.) A comment from a Welsh GP in the audience produced many nods when she stated that successive UK governments have aimed to have an asylum system that is as difficult and as incomprehensible as possible to deter people from seeking sanctuary.  The aim of this session was to raise the profile of a campaign to limit the detention period of asylum seekers – currently indefinite – to 28 days – just as it is for any other UK citizen.

The third session was a lecture by Jeanette Winterson on Shakespeare in Space, prefaced by songs all things lunar from the Carpenters and David Bowie, and excerpts from the film, The Martian.  Shakespeare in his space, in our space, in a woman’s space and in outer space were topics covered in Jeanette Winterson’s inimitable fashion.  Not sure where that left me, apart from stating the obvious that when he died at 52, Shakespeare had delivered many true words.

The final session was Niall Ferguson, the centre right historian, and one time adviser to Mitt Romney and John McCain, who was promoting his first  volume on the revered/reviled statesman, Henry Kissinger.  Kissinger was an immigrant, and Niall Ferguson’s most applauded contribution was an appeal for better facts on immigration in the UK.  He is married to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somalian refugee, and former MP in the Netherlands and author of 5 books on Islam; in 2004, she collaborated with Theo Van Gogh on a film critical of Islam and its treatment of women – Van Gogh was murdered in the street by a Muslim, and threats were made to her life. Niall Ferguson said that immigration made no difference to his life – he has a job, a house, and good lifestyle for him and his family.  But, he said, if you are poor, jobless and life seems hopeless, immigration and immigrants are the source of your anger and ire – more needs to be done to set the  matter straight.

As we walked out to a stunning Welsh sunset, I reflected on conversations covering  Michael Gove on prisons, refugees and indefinite detention, Shakespeare on women and a right wing thinker on immigration all rolled into a day at Hay.

* Jane Dodds is Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats

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  • Geoffrey Payne 7th Jun '16 - 3:59pm

    OK. Well Niall Ferguson, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Theo Van Gogh are all controversial people in various ways. It seems odd that you report what Niall said without commenting on what you thought about him and what he said. Did he inspire you or make you angry? It reminds me of what is sometimes said of Liberals; so good at understanding everyone else’s point of view that they forget to have one themselves.

  • @ Geoffrey Payne.

    Interesting to get your take on Ferguson. From my own standpoint I think his work on World War 1 (“The Pity of War”) is pretty shoddy. Indeed I’m not sure he even wrote it given it was written in five months by a team of assistants, and he seems to be making a successful financial career out of the counterfactual.

    Admittedly, Asquith’s Government might have been better advised to have stayed out of the First World War, but to claim German aggression had nothing to do with it is nonsense (as Fritz Fischer and many others have clearly demonstrated). To claim the roots of Nazism had nothing to do with pre-war anti-semitism is also nonsense. The Kaiser is well documented in expressing extreme anti-semitic views and frequently talked in terms similar to ‘The Final Solution’.

    Ferguson might be a ‘good’ business hedge fund manager but he’s a very poor historian.

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