Yesterday evening I joined 10,000 others in a ‘virtual’ audience for a talk by Simon Schama at the Hay Digital Festival. The talk was titled Return of the Tribes : nationalism in the age of global disaster. It was a fascinating insight into the way that international crises have impacted on feelings of nationalism through history. Schama noted that one would expect that something as all-embracing as a pandemic (the very word implies something that respects no borders) would be a force for bringing people together rather than driving them apart. And yet in reality, it has exactly the opposite effect as countries have closed borders and (in some cases) actively withdrawn from co-operation in international endeavours to control the virus or its consequences. Thus, the UK (in a flush of post-Brexit nationalist fervour, declined the opportunity to join EU initiatives to procure ventilators and PPE; while the US had withdrawn funding support from the World Health Organisation at the very point when the virus was spreading exponentially from across the country.
This behaviour is a form of nationalist exceptionalism – a concept that conceives of nationalism as us against the other. It is an exclusionary, narrowly drawn version of nationalism that reached its peak manifestation in the fascism of Mussolini’s Italy and the Nazi Party in Germany. Defined in this way, nationalism has been conflated with extreme right wing politics, and is used as an argument against independence in places like Wales and Scotland. Even within the last two months, Mark Drakeford, the Labour First Minister at the Welsh Parliament, said in an interview on the BBC that : “[nationalism] is an inherently right-wing creed that operates by persuading people that they are because they are against what somebody else is.” In pursuing this line, Drakeford is simply the latest in a long line of Welsh Labour politicians who believe that it is only through uniting working class interests across the United Kingdom, that those interests can be advanced to fullest effect. You can read more about the debate around Welsh nationalism and whether or not it is consistent with socialism in a fascinating blogpost from Nye Davies for the Wales Governance Centre here.
Schama’s views on the possibilities for progressive nationalism are more nuanced than Drakeford’s. In acknowledging that nationalism is often viewed through lenses that seek to distinguish on the basis of history, language, music, geography or topography, it need not be the case that the undoubted differences between nations should mean that they cannot work collaboratively together. There is no conflict inherent in the statement that a liberal, pluralist democracy can also retain a nationalist identity. The United States itself was formed through the patriotism of immigrants!
Schama opened and closed his talk in typically positive fashion. At the outset, he reminded us that infectiousness is not exclusively a bad thing. We can enjoy infectious enthusiasm, laughter or excitement. Similarly, there must be some hope that a longer term outcome from the current pandemic might be greater international co-operation to improve the health of the planet and that of all the people who live on it.
That is a vision of progressive nations joining together to pursue an internationalist agenda that has real appeal.
An undoubted sliver lining of the coronavirus lockdown has been the digitalisation of the Hay Festival this year. Since yesterday’s review of Stephen Fry’s reading from his new book Troy I have joined three further sessions. Each of them has been fascinating in it’s own right, but they have also given some pause for thought about the major UK new story of the weekend : the decision of the Prime Minister’s senior adviser to travel 260 miles from London to Durham to self-isolate at his parents’ home at the height of the crisis and when the official guidance was to Stay Home, Protect the NHS, and Save Lives. More on that later.
Yesterday afternoon, Professor Dame Sally Davies, formerly England’s Chief Medical Officer and now the UK Special Envoy on Antimicrobial Resistance, delivered a lecture on the challenges facing us as bacterial infections become more and more resistant to the antibiotic drugs that are available to us. Dame Sally highlighted the fact that the World Health Organisation in December 2019 issued a report on its latest risk assessment for global health that identified a viral pandemic and increasing antibiotic resistance as the two biggest threats for the coming decade. The report was published before we properly understood the significance of covid-19. In fact, although covid is a viral infection, the two threats are interlinked in so far that many people who are ventilated in intensive care develop secondary bacterial infections that require antibiotic treatment. The ‘take homes’ from the lecture for me were that antimicrobial resistance has been accelerated by the choices that were made in so many aspects of society : the use of antibiotic drugs in the animal food chain as a cheaper option to good husbandry and high animal welfare standards (thankfully now much improved in Europe but still a major issue elsewhere in the world); the demand for antibiotics by members of the public even where they are ineffective (eg for viral infections) and poor practice by healthcare professionals in prescribing them; and the operation of market forces in some healthcare systems around the world that leads to people only being able to afford partial courses of medication, which in turn contribute directly to increased bacterial resistance.
Thankfully, the position is not hopeless. Changes in practice in UK agriculture has seen antibiotic use in animal production reduce by 50% in the past 4 years; and Scottish fisheries have now stopped using antibiotics in their salmon farms altogether. At the same time, public awareness campaigns have reduced antibiotic prescribing; and there is a co-ordinated push to support research and development of new types of antibiotic that will replace some of those that are no longer effective in their use. The UK is a world-leader in supporting other countries around the world to embark on similar action plans.
Asked specifically about coronavirus, Dame Sally was clear that there might never be an effective vaccine and that it was far from clear whether having had the disease was a defence against future infection. The science was clear : preventing the spread of coronavirus required good personal hygiene (hand washing and not touching your face), and social distancing, and isolation when unwell.
Straight after Dam Sally’s lecture, I joined an interview conducted by Guto Harri (formerly of the BBC and subsequently Boris Johnson’s Press and Communications Director during the Mayor of London years) of John Sopel (the BBC’s Washington Correspondent). Sopel has just published a book entitled A year at the circus – inside Trump’s White House. The book chronicles some of the events and intrigues that have played out in the West Wing over the past twelve months, and draws on Sopel’s inside track as one of a very small number of journalists who have been afforded ‘access all areas’ passes for the White House.
Having spent so much time very close to both the President and his closest advisors, Sopel’s insights were fascinating. He absolutely disagreed with Harri’s suggestion that Trump is in any way stupid or ill-informed. Sopel describes a man who has a keen sense of what will appeal to his supporters and the personal conviction to act quickly on those instincts even if this wrong-foots advisers and opponents alike. Sopel pointed to Trump’s recent announcement that he wanted all churches in America to re-open for worship even while the covid-19 death count went above 100,000. This had gone down incredibly well with southern Republican states where the religious right is crucial to Trump’s chances of re-election in November. In addition though, it had seriously discomfited Democratic state governors who were now placed between the rock of their religious voters and the hard place of lockdown restrictions to control the spread of coronavirus.
The problem for Trump is that his instincts are sometimes much less reliable. The recent press conference where Trump suggested that bleach or sunlight introduced inside the body might be ways in which coronavirus could be overcome was a good example of this. These suggestions came as part of a marathon press briefing in which Trump relished his central billing. Sopel suggested that this is where Trump is at his happiest – within the White House circus, he is not a clown (as many would claim) but rather the ringmaster, the wheeler-dealer pulling the strings and leaving others to sort out the fine detail (or the mess!).
There are undoubtedly times when the President has said things that are demonstrably untrue. Sopel was clear that in those circumstances it is the role of the press to call these things out, to speak truth to power in a fair, impartial but resolute way. Interestingly, though, Sopel stopped short of calling Trump a liar. Trump has undoubtedly said things that are not factually correct, and he has made claims that are demonstrably untrue, but Sopel was very clear that this did not warrant the description of Trump as a liar (which would be to denigrate his character rather that to hold him to account for specific incidents of lying). It’s a very fine distinction, and I’m not sure personally that it’s one that holds up to very close scrutiny. I do accept though, that it might be a necessary fiction for Sopel to maintain in order to avoid incurring the wrath of a President and/or his Press Secretary who might otherwise withdraw that sought-after pass. There is a balance to be struck between having the access to call out the specific incidences of lying, and being denied this if that leads to a withdrawal of access altogether.
Sopel’s analysis of the state of US politics was also revealing. He was clear that Trump had won in 2016 because his campaign was demonstrably more effective than that conducted by Hilary Clinton and the Democratic Party. Trump had connected with some of the most visceral beliefs of blue collar Americans around immigration, taxation, and the creeping interference of the state into all aspects of their daily lives. There was every likelihood that Trump would have gone into the 2020 election with a lead in the polls had it not been for covid-19. The virus has been a more effective opponent to Trump than any Democrat in the past three and a half years. As well as 100,000 deaths, millions of Americans had lost their jobs and hundreds of thousands were now dependant on food banks to feed their families. This was not the economic miracle that Trump had promised, and it was from clear that the US economy would recover quickly or easily from the shock that covid had delivered to it. What was clear, however, was that there was no viable alternative to Trump as the Republican candidate. The Good Old Party was effectively now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Trump Organisation.
The third speaker of the weekend was Dr Adam Rutherford, a geneticist and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science. Rutherford’s talk summarised some of the key themes from his book How to argue with a racist which uses concepts from science, genetics and history to factually debunk a lot of the fundamental underpinnings of racism in Western society today. Rutherford was prompted to write the book in part because of the highly dubious tactics that were being employed by far right white supremacist groups claiming that results from genetic testing services including Ancestry.com and 23andme were somehow evidence of their racial purity. Rutherford observes that – much like many of those at or near the heart of government who have recently been revealed to have dabbled in eugenics – there is “a danger of being bewitched by the science but without having done the necessary legwork to properly understand it.”
Rutherford notes that most racism is fundamentally centred around skin pigmentation, and that this has only actually been an issue since the start of the European Enlightenment about 400 years ago. Prior to that, different peoples were differentiated on the basis of religion, language or geography rather than the colour of their skin. Ironically, the science is now pretty conclusive that the greatest genetic differences within humanity now exist in and between Africans who still live on the continent. In fact, it is much more likely that any individual African will have more in common genetically with any other person in the world from outside Africa, than with somebody else who lives in Africa. The racism that is based on skin pigmentation is effectively a social construct with no scientific basis to it whatsoever; that doesn’t make it right, but it also means that concepts of racial purity or superiority have to be called out whenever and wherever they are found. Rutherford’s talk finished with a quote from Angela Davis: “In a racist society, it’s not enough to be non-racist, you have to be anti-racist.”
So what are the threads that I draw from this in considering the Cummings story over the weekend? It is a fact that Cummings drove from his main London home to Durham with his wife and child while she was already displaying symptoms of covid infection. He did this at a time when the official advice was to stay at your main residence and self-isolate if you or any member of your family was symptomatic. The excuse offered that he was concerned for the welfare of his 4 year old son does not stand up to close scrutiny. Literally thousands of people up and down the country in similar or parallel circumstances did as we had been instructed and stayed put. We did not visit family members; we did not decamp to be closer to family members of friends. We did this because we were told that we were all in this together – the fight against the virus gave us common cause. It was painful but necessary. We followed the science – we washed our hands; we socially distanced; we stayed in if we developed symptoms. We did this not because the law required it; we didn’t look for technical loopholes to justify ‘stretching’ the rules – we did it because it was the right thing to do. As a country, the UK has a long tradition in this regard – something that Dame Sally Davies continues in her international work to promote research and practice to improve antibiotic usage and reduce antimicrobial resistance.
Dominic Cummings selfish behaviour in driving 260 miles with a symptomatic family member against the spirit of the lockdown advice and guidance, displays the same narcissistic tendency that personifies Trump’s tenure at the White House. The rules are for other people, not for us. Boris Johnson’s appalling defence of his adviser at the daily briefing today demonstrates that – like Trump – his political instincts can also go badly awry. It is interesting to see journalists from across the spectrum of press and media outlets finding their professional nerve and holding Johnson and Cummings to account for the obfuscations and half-truths that have littered the official responses to the story to date. It is interesting to note that in Cummings’ case, his apparent interest in eugenics seems to lead him to a belief that he is inherently superior to others. He is the very embodiment of a man who has been bewitched by the science without bothering to properly understand it.
“How lucky are we to be alive in the time of Stephen Fry!”
So went one of the live comments during Stephen Fry’s extended reading and question and answer session as part of the Hay Digital Festival. Declaration of interest : Stephen Fry ranks right up there as one of my all-time heroes, alongside the likes of Peter Ustinov, Clive James, Sandi Toksvig and Mary Beard. People who have read and studied across a broad range of subjects (they would have been labelled polymaths in the 19th century), and who have an uncanny ability to connect up all that learning and knowledge in a way that makes it accessible and relevant – whether is writing or in person.
I’m not even going to attempt to describe the energy and passion and sheer love of the subject matter that Fry invested in the reading from his new book Troy last night. Suffice to say that what was billed as a 35 minute broadcast from 9pm became – in a way that only Hay Festivals event can – a 90 minute tour de force that started 20 minutes late! You can watch a recording of the event here and I cannot recommend it enough – but be quick, it will be gone by tomorrow morning!
A couple of things really resonated with me from the session. The first question that Stephen addressed was whether or not teaching of Greek mythology should be compulsory in all schools. His answer was brilliantly balanced. Making anything compulsory in education (behind basic literacy and numeracy) is fraught with risk – mainly that being forced to learn something actually makes it into a chore rather than something to be cherished and enjoyed. But – and its a big but – so much of the whole canon of Western art, poetry, music and literature is directly or indirectly influenced by the Greek myths that NOT to have at least a basic understanding of and familiarity with them is a huge disadvantage in trying to fully understand and appreciate all later art forms. As someone who was exposed to no Greek mythology at all in formal education, I have always felt this huge gap. I have previously reviewed Fry’s Mythos on this blog, and I commend it to anyone who (like me) wants to fill a gap in their mythological education. I will be purchasing Heroes and Troy – the next instalments in the series – immediately after publishing this post.
The second thing that struck me was Fry’s incredibly sensitive and tender response to a question about the failings of Hollywood portrayals of Greek myths to properly represent the LGBTQ themes that are repeated throughout so many of the stories. Fry reflected both that those themes could be argued to be underplayed in many of the big-screen adaptations; but also made the point that the themes themselves were not actually made a great deal of in the myths themselves. This was probably because the ancient Greeks deemed all love – whether physical, homosexual or heterosexual, or platonic and philosophical – as being the most natural thing in the world. There was no need to overplay it because it was just what it was. The reason why LGBTQ activism is so necessary now is because somewhere along the line we lost sight of the beauty of love for its own sake, and persecuted those who didn’t conform with a much narrower definition of what was acceptable.
The third thing that really struck home was a question about how the Greeks would have interpreted coronavirus and which of the gods would have dealt with it best. This was a perfect cue for Fry to relate a tale of immortal revenge dished out by Apollo for a perceived slight of one of his followers. Apollo – the golden archer – had at his disposal plague arrows that would rain down illness and disease on individuals or cities that displeased him. In the particular account related by Fry last evening, Apollo chose not to directly infect a city, but rather to loose a plague arrow into the cows that provided milk and food for the inhabitants. It was through eating and drinking from the herd that the plague decimated the population. If you thought zoonosis was a new thing, then – as is so often the case – Greek mythology serves to remind us that there is nothing new under the sun!
Hay-on-Wye is a beautiful market town nestled on the Wales : England border roughly a million miles* from everywhere. For fifty weeks of the year, Hay’s main claim to fame is the number of second hand bookshops that occupy buildings dotted all around the town. The only thing more eclectic than the appearance and architecture of the shops, is the breadth od subjects covered by the books for sale within them. I have loved Hay from the first time that I visited as a teenager, and it continues to hold a very special place in my heart.
For two weeks each year (around the late spring public holiday at the end of May), Hay plays host to a literary festival that pulls in visitors and speakers from all over the world. We try to get to at least one of the ‘big ticket’ events at the festival each year (even driving from Bristol to Hay and back on the same Thursday evening one year to see Dara O’Briain perform his stand-up show).
This year, the Festival has inevitably fallen foul of the restrictions that are in place to help us manage the coronavirus threat. It has therefore taken the decision to move completely on-line, and the full programme of events can be found here. As well as the main Festival, there is also a Programme for Schools that will involve free films targeted respectively at primary and secondary children, with associated activities as a contribution to home-schooling.
The main Festival programme contains the usual incredibly broad range of topics from current affairs (Welsh, British and beyond), through science (with a particular focus on issues arising from the covid-19 crisis), through literature (ancient and modern) to comedy and music. Those taking to the digital stage include Stephen Fry, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, Vanessa Redgrave, Dame Sally Davies, Afua Hirsch, Tori Amos, and Hilary Mantel. Most of the sessions run for around forty-five minutes, and all of them will leave you much better informed afterwards than you were before.
If you’ve never heard of the Festival before, and fancy seeing what it’s all about; or if – like me – you have always wanted to attend more sessions but the challenges of geography and timing have made it difficult, the this year’s digital Hay Festival is a fantastic opportunity to give it a go. I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed!