Notes from my first literary festival

Rather embarrassingly for the editor of the books section, I had never before been to a literary festival. I therefore jumped at the opportunity to visit the Soho Literary Festival, a small event being held, for the third time in as many years, at the Soho Theatre. Having never really been that much into modern literary fiction I stuck mainly with the more historical and political talks – see the other side of the page for more detailed reviews of the events that I attended. The programme, however, had a far greater breadth – with events ranging from Quentin Blake’s talk on The Uses of Illustration to John Sweeny’s investigation into the Church of Scientology. I was greatly impressed by enthusiasm and eloquence of all the speakers. Most of the events that I attended were packed with people and seemed to go down well with the audience – I found them all both engaging and informative. I am sure that the general atmosphere of this event was very different to that of larger literary festivals. There were certainly fewer high profile guests and side events than at, say, Edinburgh or Hay-on-Wye. An advantage, however, of being small is that Soho Literary Festival was far friendlier and more intimate than you would expect such an event to be. There was a very refreshing air of informality and the speakers were more than happy to mix with the audience in the bar before and after the talks. All in all, this was a very pleasant experience – one that I would be very keen to repeat next year.

The Age of Profumo: Sex, Class and Power

Panel Chair: Piers Brendon Panelists: Richard Davenport-Hines and Christopher Hampton

The Profumo Affair is now regarded by many as a little more than a historical footnote. However, when it broke, the scandal had a profound and long lasting effect on the political establishment. In 1961 British War Secretary John Profumo began a sexual relation with the socialite – and alleged mistress of the Soviet spy Yevgeny Ivanov – Christine Keeler. Profumo would later explicitly deny the relationship before Parliament but when the truth came out he was forced to resign and the public’s confidence in the Conservative government was fatally wounded. The panel discussion was a fascinating look at the Affair. All of the participants were keen to stress its importance – not only in helping to bring down the beleaguered Conservative government, which had already been weakened by the earlier Suez Crisis – but also as a start of a new, less deferential era towards the political establishment. The discussion also pointed out parallels to contemporary events – both police corruption and press sensationalism greatly helped to exacerbate the Affair. This was a fascinating panel – making an event that took place long before I was born seem fascinating and relevant.

The History of Syria

Dan Snow

Tragic recent events have turned the eyes of the world on Syria. However, as historian Dan Snow – fresh from making a BBC documentary on the country – explained, the roots of the conflict are deep and complicated. Syria has always had an advantageous geographic position. Boasting much fertile land and located at the crossroads of several trade routes made it, for several millennia, an extremely rich land. However, this has led many empires to see the region a valuable prize – leading to much strife and political instability. The region has been ruled by countless powers but Snow traced the most immediate cause of the recent problems to the British and French colonial efforts in the Middle East. Both countries deliberately created unstable conditions in the region to benefit their own interests and, after decolonisation, Syria was left with no legacy of self-governance or democracy – a recipe for disaster. This was a very complicated topic to cover in an hour and, by his own admission, Dan Snow is not an expert in the region. However, in my opinion, he performed admirably. The talk covered, in a clear manner, all the most important points of Syria’s long history. It gave me a new perspective on the current conflict and made me want to learn more.

The Classics Quiz

Questionmaster: William Fitzgerald Team Captains: Harry Mount and Rachel Johnson

I was somewhat apprehensive going in to this event – having not studied Classics for over five years. And while it did turn out that I had forgotten almost all of my GCSE Latin it was still a lot of fun, and probably the best event that I attended at the Festival. The quiz consisted of two teams of four answering questions on the Latin language and ancient Roman history. It was, however, a very informal affair with wit, both on the part of the questioner as well as the contestants, counting for at least as much as the facts. A particular highlight was the Latin motto’s round, in which contestants were asked to identify, among others, the motto of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; and in which I found out that the motto of the Carlsberg Brewery is “laboremus pro patria” – “let us work for our country”. Another highlight was the round asking contestants to identify the unpleasant means of death of Roman Emperors. While Rachel Johnson was unable to provide the answer to which Roman Emperor was eaten by worms she was able to give the Ancient Greek for the phrase “eaten by worms”. This was a great event, reigniting, for one hour at least, my passion in the Classics.