On the third day of our festival: China the restless superpower, a world-class Berwick novelist, digging for victory, saving the planet and why Boris Johnson is unique.

Can this really only be the third day of our festival? We seem to have managed to pack such an extraordinarily diverse range of stimulating and entertaining material into such a short time. We are a festival of words and the first new word of the day arrived early in the first hour and was hegemon (Google is wonderful!).

Stephen Green, Baron Green of Hurstpierpoint, is a former Minister of State for Trade and Investment, a former Group Chair of HSBC Holdings PLC and is an Anglican priest. Following the pandemic, China will emerge stronger, its influence will thus grow and its rivalry with the USA will increase. Today Stephen shared with us his views on how this situation will develop,  

He began by pointing out that after 1989 we were in a period which is rare in human history – a world in which there was only one superpower. Now we are in a bi-polar world in which China “is flexing its muscles”, trying to be the global superpower. For those who hate the United States he has bad news – he believes “America is here to stay”, despite America’s governance always being “extremely dysfunctional”.

Stephen’s view is that we must learn from the perspectives of others as “one culture does not have the answers”. He regards Chinese culture as “extraordinarily rich”, but Confucianism considers the individual in a broad contrast which is in striking contrast to the American cult of the individual. Stephen however sees hope given the human commonalities – joy, loss, ageing and mortality. He points to certain points of consensus, for example all societies now regard slavery as “the great shame in the historical record”.

A “globally cooperative species” is necessary to address global challenges, most crucially climate change (he prefers the expression ‘climate warming’). Stephen believes that across the world there is no fundamental incompatibility of values. In a world experiencing the coming to power of populist leaders intent on challenging Chinese expansionism let us hope he is right!

Being a sad literary nerd, I am really pleased to be living about 200 hundred yards away from a literary novelist. Not just any literary novelist either but a literary novelist whom the wonderful Turkish writer Elif Shafak says “makes words dance”. Has any writer ever received a finer compliment?

Jessie Greengrass’s short story collection, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One who Saw It, won the Edge Hill Prize and a Somerset Maugham Award. Her novel Sight was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Jessie’s next novel, The High House, will be published in April 2021 and it was the subject of her fascinating conversation with Dr Nolan Dalrymple this afternoon. Jessie tantalised us with readings from The High House. I especially liked the phrase “worry burned off like mist” and the concept of “ghost breaths” from earlier generations also seemed perfect. There are more female voices in this novel than in her earlier work since Jessie is conscious of having written too many male voices previously – “the patriarchy creeps in”.  She wants to write detective fiction, but my view is that there are already too many ploughing that furrow and anyway what a loss that would be to literature (don’t tell Ian Rankin I said that!)

It seems somehow right to be publishing a dystopian novel while we seem to be living in one. The subject of her novel is not Covid however but climate change (as noted Stephen Green prefers ‘climate warming’). She regards our present context as extremely depressing.

Jessie is another of this strange breed (it seems to me) of wild swimmers and the attraction of Berwick to her and her family was its closeness to the sea. She believes that “in the last 50 years a huge amount has been lost” of our sea-faring tradition. I wonder whether the government’s battle with the EU over fishing rights is the last gasp of that tradition?

Recently she has not been reading as much as she would like. She has however found time to read the Mantel trilogy. Like me she started at the beginning of the first novel again when the long-awaited third volume appeared and like me she thinks that the trilogy will still be admired in 100 years from now.

Her next work will be another novel. I will listen out for the sound of the keyboard keys!

Ursula Buchan is an award-winning author and journalist, writing mainly about gardening and social history. These two preoccupations come together in her book ‘A Green and Pleasant Land: How England’s Gardeners Fought the Second World War’. Today, drawing on the research for that book, she addressed the question: ‘Did we really Dig for Victory?’ in a beautifully delivered and illustrated talk.

At the end of John Ford’s Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance a minor character declares “… when the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. The view that the British people dug for victory is one of Britain’s enduring legends and so an uncritical observer will automatically respond with a resounding yes to Ursula’s question. Ursula, who in addition to being a respected social historian is a trained gardener, set out to interrogate this legend for her fascinating study. The resulting book was described by one reviewer as being “like an extremely rich fruit cake”.

The second world war arrived only just over twenty years after the ‘war to end all wars’. Several members of the 1939 government were in power during the previous conflict and were thus especially aware of the certainty of another German blockade which had been a considerable concern for a time post-1914. In 1939 two-thirds of our food was imported because of the relative cheapness of food from the Empire and thus increased home food production was an immediate priority to counteract this threat. Further, in addition to this pragmatic concern, such activity could be promoted to demonstrate commitment to a common purpose and thus to raise morale. This was especially important in the dark days of 1940.

Michael Foot, then a campaigning journalist, is credited with devising the “Dig for Victory” slogan. Woman and retired men became the main gardening labour force. Ursula noted that eventually there were about 10,000 allotments in women’s names.

The immediate tasks were the release of land and the up-skilling of the population because there was both a lack of sufficient land and of gardeners. The royal family became engaged in the promotion of the activity and Ursula was impressed with the image of Princess Margaret having “to sow her onions”. I liked the concept of ‘pigs clubs’. C. H. Middleton became the voice of radio gardening and eventually sadly died of over-work.

The project however faced more problems than the lack of land and labour. In addition to the huge stumbling block we observe at the moment, i.e. the challenge of changing people’s behaviour, there was thieving, livestock damage, bombing and shortages. As regards the latter, the lack of seeds, for example, was a serious issue and as the war progressed wellies became a prized possession. As today much effort went into trying to encourage kids to eat healthy food.

The truth behind the legend is that the outcome was only “fairly satisfactory”, the impact on morale and mental health being more important than the quantity of food produced. One shock for me was that the W.I. of “jam and Jerusalem” fame produced only a tiny proportion of the jam that was needed.

Of course the enthusiasm for gardening fell away with victory. Digging for victory however remains, according to Ursula, a benign cultural myth – the legend lives on.

If I did not feel guilty enough about my lifestyle along came Jen Gale to increase that guilt ten-fold. For part of her talk her dog joined in. He or she wants to watch himself or herself given that domestic pets are themselves a big threat to our planet.

Jen is an ordinary, knackered mum of two who writes and podcasts about all things sustainable(ish). She writes: 

“I spent a year buying nothing new with my young family and for me this was a real wake up call. It made me lift my head and look around from the constant demands to buy new stuff to upgrade. I saw the mess we were making of the planet. And it terrifies me. It taught me that our choices matter. That as just one pretty ordinary family we could create change’’. Jen therefore went on a mission to share easy eco-friendly tips and sustainable(ish) swaps anybody can make.  

Why (ish)? Because nobody can live a perfect life, which is good news for Fido who I suspect will survive. We must, she says, make the best changes we can – no change is too small. My guilt increased further when I learned that this knackered Mum was energetic enough to found the Knackered Mum Eco Club – “Mums have a huge amount of power”, she stated.

The decisions we make today are critical in ensuring a safe and sustainable world for everyone, both now and in the future, The climate change (let’s stick with that term Stephen) trends are depressing – Jen’s solution is to focus on solutions (I hope Jessie was listening).  

Having taught social psychology in the dim and distant past a mention of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs brought back unfortunate memories of having to work for a living, but I liked its metamorphosis into a buyerarchy (don’t bother with Google, this is a Jen word) of needs for her purposes, which moves from using what you have up to the much frowned upon buying new. At this point I hastily removed my new jacket which had been delivered today by a well-known online retail firm . Apart from everything else Jen informed me that I had contributed to the fashion industry which is responsible for 5% of global gas emissions, considerably more than the airline industry.

Thanks to my wife we are an active re-cycling household, but from now on I must ask her how energy efficient she is being and how much of our material is being down-cycled (another contender for word of the day). I can confidently say that we are well below the average as regards food waste which is why I am on a diet– apparently 50 % of all food waste occurs in the home. Meal-planning is Jen’s answer.

Jen stated that “every time you spend money you’re casting a vote for the kind of world that you want”. Many people are in fact concerned about the cost involved in changing one’s lifestyle. Moving energy supplier to certain suppliers, she says, can cut one’s carbon footprint by up to a quarter, while saving money.  

Jen was in fact challenged in the q. and a. about the economic impact of pushing back against consumerism. She responded with this powerful statement:

“There is no business to be done on a dead planet!”

Jen advocates a green revolution based on a circular economy. She then asked us to make promises for the planet. My promise is to supervise my wife’s meal planning more carefully.

Jen had delivered in an entertaining and effective manner an extremely powerful message regarding small changes we can all make !

In the final session of the day, Steve Richards, the journalist and broadcaster, provided an assessment of modern Prime Ministers from Harold Wilson to Boris Johnson. He was interviewed by Sir Philip Mawer. Philip is a former Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. He was appointed to the post in 2002. In 2008 he became the Independent Adviser on Ministerial Standards to Gordon Brown. Subsequently he advised David Cameron until 2011.

Steve began by stating that we now live in a presidential culture which presents a challenge to our parliamentary system. The focus of his acclaimed book is a relatively unusual one – the qualities required for leadership. The premiership is a hugely demanding role and many incumbents arrive in Downing Street with no previous experience in government, Blair and Cameron being two recent examples. At the moment populist leaders proclaim that lack of prior government experience (consequently claiming that they are not part of “the establishment”) is a suitable qualification for leadership.

Steve argued that the most successful election winning Prime Ministers have one distinct quality: they are political teachers, a quality, he says, which May and Corbyn conspicuously lacked. The big recent winners, viz. Wilson, Thatcher and Blair, were all teachers able to explain their actions in an effective manner.

Much of the discussion focussed on the present incumbent of Number 10. Steve described how previous leaders with small majorities, for example Jim Callaghan, had compromised with their own supporters and endeavoured to work with small parties. Johnson in a similar situation did not compromise, even purging opponents within his own party.

Johnson became PM, with, Steve says, 10,000 personal problems trailing behind him (one suspects this is a slight exaggeration) and he notoriously is not interested in the detail of policies and has a short attention-span. He has a radical plan, but he was totally unsuited for dealing with the health emergency which confronted him in February. There are similarities between Johnson and Trump. The latter’s likely defeat will pose an enormous problem for Britain in a post-Brexit world.

Will Johnson survive? Steve pointed out that only Wilson of the PMs he considered left office in a planned, voluntary manner. Johnson is healthy and wants to retain his job so will not go quietly. Steve believes that he will survive, supported by Dominic Cummings who Johnson regards as “brilliant”.

This fascinating discussion ended with some consideration of the changing political landscape within this country – the devolution of power to nations and Mayors. Another complex problem facing our current PM.

Steve’s next book is going to be about ‘the PMs we never had’. I cannot wait!

Buy the books from a local Bookshop! Click Here!

The Human Odyssey: East, West and the Search for Universal Values by Stephen Green

The High House by Jessie Greengrass To be published 1 Apr 2021

A Green and Pleasant Land: How England’s Gardeners Fought the Second World War by Ursula Buchan 

The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide: Everything you need to know to make small changes that make a big difference by Jen Gale 

The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to Johnson by Steve Richards

Mike Fraser