Location, location, location
Attlee’s 1945 post-war manifesto ‘Let Us Face the Future’ was drafted at Dartington Hall, the venue for the Byline Festival, “a weekend of ideas, food, dancing and thinking about how we can change the world for the better”.
For many, the Byline Festival has become a welcome annual opportunity to focus on the pressing issues of the day and to consider our responses to them. Moving from its 2022 home at Acklam Village in Notting Hill, the festival is now partnered with the Dartington Trust in their historic house and country estate of 1,200 acres in Devon and ran from 14 to 17 July.
This move from London to the West Country provided a beautiful retreat from the metropolis but arguably served only to emphasise the lack of diversity amongst festival goers. The programme offered a generous blend of inclusive content to deliver on its own commitment to diversity, from refugee and migrant stand-up comedy to the panel on rebuilding trust in our policing. However, if Dartington is the intended long term venue, the remote location can only hamper efforts to increase diversity.
Pick and mix
With a full programme of more than 50 events running over the three days, inevitable clashes became useful in deciding which were the absolutely unmissable events. The following events experienced first-hand offer just some highlights.
Feeding the World without Devouring the Planet
George Monbiot, Guardian columnist, environmental author and activist, talked about his latest book Regenesis with Stephen Colegrave of Byline Times. Monbiot’s strength was in providing useful context, all backed up with easily digestible facts. His views on the change required in our food supply were delivered with absolute clarity. For example, whilst food miles and over-dependence on fertilisers should be concerning, the real threat to our environment comes from the massive resources required for the unsustainable consumption of livestock.
Plant-based alternatives and even insects are likely to find their way onto our plates in the future, but Monbiot argued we need to learn how to unlock the nutritional value and potential of bacteria that can be found in our soil.
Putin’s Trojan Horse
This event was an on-stage read-through of a new play – a story of Russian interference in Britain culminating in Brexit – written by Peter Jukes and Steve Unwin , who also directed. The action neatly touched on key events and references that were already familiar to the audience whilst providing a compelling, intimate perspective.
This documentary, screened in the stunning Barn Cinema, followed legendary journalist John Sweeney on a mission to uncover the dark side of Boris Johnson’s relationship with a former KGB agent and his oligarch son.
After the screening director Caolan Robertson held an insightful Q&A and described some of the threats and legal pressures that typically prevented stories like this ever reaching the public.
Could you be a citizen journalist?
West Country Voices editor-in-chief, Anthea Simmons, explained the important role played by citizen journalism in the UK. Publications like West Country Voices and the Bylines Network are increasingly breaking new stories of national public interest and becoming regularly referenced by mainstream media.
Citizen journalists must be grounded in facts to be legal and effective, and everyone should be encouraged to write if they want to. There is plenty of support available and the process can be very rewarding.
How do we find our way back to Europe?
This Brexit panel was chaired by Hardeep Matharu, editor of Byline Times, joined by Alexandra Hall Hall, former ambassador, Peter Corr, chair of National Rejoin March, Anthony Barnett, co-founder of Open Democracy and author, and Peter Oborne, author and columnist for Byline Times.
Hall Hall shared one example of her experiences whilst ambassador to Georgia and recounted the advice she gave the Georgians as being also pertinent to the UK: genuine reform will be necessary to (re)join the EU; just meeting some abstract financial or political criteria won’t be enough. Anthony Barnett made the case that England (minus London) especially has a long way to go in understanding its own identity and its place in the world. Looking forward this issue is an essential step in repairing our relationship with the EU.
The Dark Side of Silicon Valley
A conversation between Orwell Prize-winning journalist Carole Cadwalladr and co-founder of Byline Festival, Peter Jukes.
Cadwalladr shared just a little of the opposition she had overcome to enable her to tell the story of Russian interference in Brexit and she evidently provided inspiration for modelling the lead character in Putin’s Trojan Horse (see above). She shared the promising news that the ECHR were fast-tracking a legal case to examine whether, with the Brexit vote, the UK government had failed to meet its duty to hold a fair vote.
The Trawl Podcast
TV presenters Marina Purkiss and Jemma Forte brought their unique take on politics, live on stage for the first time, with their popular podcast The Trawl.
Trawling social media so we don’t have to, Marina and Jemma shared their recent supportive messages from Gary Lineker and Carol Vorderman, whilst taking satirical aim at Lee Anderson, Jonathan Gullis and a veritable rogues’ gallery of client journalists.
It’s possible the sunlight of social media will act as a disinfectant and heal our broken, corrupt country. We’re laughing, but are we winning?
Bad Press Awards
A highlight of the Byline Festival, the Bad Press Awards, takes no prisoners in its criticisms of both the journalists that should know better and the media moguls behind them who probably don’t. The Jonathan Pie and Rosie Holt MP pairing worked fairly well although some of the readings felt a little long and the event just lacked atmosphere in general, with light pouring into the Great Hall, no visuals and not even customary props like actual envelopes for each ‘award’ given. It was funny where it could have been hilarious.
2022’s event seemed like a proper awards event, with speakers in formal attire, great audio and visuals, the room both dark (there were no windows) and well-lit. This year there was no visible attempt to make the event seem special. I hope the organisers will re-discover the interest and/or budget to restore the event to at least its former glory.
2022’s festival benefitted from an adjacent market with more than 30 stalls offering street food from all across the world. It rubbed shoulders with the festival and helped to give it a global village experience. At Dartington, the White Hart on-site pub, offered burgers or pizza and there were two more vendors in the grounds. The scaling back of the food offer alone felt like a metaphor for the UK’s new place in the world.
Takeaway messages from the festival also offered less variety and sustenance than we would have hoped for. Some themes that seemed to emerge include:
On the downside:
- things will certainly get worse before they get better (D:ream lied to us)
- threats to our lifestyles are increasing and becoming more unpredictable (e.g. AI-powered info wars)
- don’t assume anyone is coming to the rescue (Labour and the LibDems especially)
On the upside:
- positive change may also come from unexpected sources (e.g. food from bacteria)
- we have to (and can only) live by and promote our values in the hope of these values spreading
- we can gain strength and inspiration from each other (so more and better political festivals are needed) and can focus on looking forwards and not backwards.
So, is this a 1945 Attlee moment? Is the UK about to embrace a new era of socialism that undoes the damage that has been wrought over recent years? Frankly, no. The main opposition parties don’t appear to have the vision or the leadership to deliver the change that is needed.
We seem to have come too far and have made negligible progress on the core problems that dog our country. We can help turn the metaphorical tanker (and the literal tanks) around but it will probably take longer and be more difficult to achieve than we think.
We are in this for the long haul.
A little bird tells me they plan to run an additional mini-festival next year somewhere up north in February – watch this space!