Making Hay: Peter Florence reveals his festival secrets

Written by Ben Duckworth on 13 May 2013 in Culture
Ben Duckworth speaks to Hay Festival organiser Peter Florence about the highlights he’s looking forward to, and why he wants to dispel some myths

This article is from the May 2013 issue of Total Politics

PF: Politically, what we’re always keen to do is look at some of the subjects that are engaging the political class from different perspectives. For example, this year we’re looking at Britain in Europe, but I feel we’ve all heard a lot from David Cameron and Nigel Farage, so we’re bringing in the French ambassador to Berlin, and also the leading Latin American historian Oscar Guardiola-Rivera and Jaideep Prabhu of the Cambridge Judge Business School are speaking. We’re trying to give alternative visions of very familiar issues.

Similarly, we’ve heard a lot from Tony Blair on Iraq. Well, it’s time we heard more from Hans Blix, who was at the time supposedly the person they were trusting to make the decision about whether or not the weapons of mass destruction were real. These things that Hay does are not counterintuitive, but just counter to mainstream ways of looking at things.

Bill Clinton called Hay “Woodstock of the mind”. Is that what you try and create?

It’s quite sweet and funny how this quote came about. [His staff] said: “What do you want him to say?” I thought he was going to devote his life to Palestine, or something, but he wanted to talk about Hay. I thought, ‘Oh fuck, I don’t know – Woodstock of the mind?’ Two months later he gets up and says, ‘I’ve been talking to people and I’ve come to realise this is the Woodstock of the mind’. I’m thinking, ‘Shit, that’s how it works’.

At its best, with Hay, you get to try and mesh or mash the brightest people you can find to look at stuff and explain stuff that’s always baffled you. For me, that stuff is the same for everybody else: conflict, religion, love. For almost a millennium, the way that humans have recorded what we know is by writing it down in books.

The thing that no one says about Hay that always slightly puzzles me, no matter how provocatively we try and force them to doing this, is that we’re really interested in people who don’t agree with what we might think. I suppose I mean ‘I’. I’m really interested in Republican Americans, Christians, eurosceptics and those whose natural affinities are totally different from mine.

Who would be your dream guest who doesn’t reflect anything that you believe in?

I’d love to spend three hours interviewing Rupert Murdoch. He’s utterly brilliant, fascinating and compelling. I heard him give the MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh about 15… 20 years ago, and it was electrifying. It was so provocative, so forward-thinking, and so absolutely contrary to every principle that I hold dear, but I recognise that, in his field, he’s an absolute genius.

You’re speaking to Jack Straw this year. What do you want to find out?

He fascinates me, partly because of all the Labour gang, he’s the one who’s most obviously the lawyer, and so many of the things that his government did were extraordinary in legal terms. Almost every decision by every home secretary was more reactionary than anything Thatcher’s lot ever dreamed of. The Iraq War engaged a lot of lawyers for what must have been an extraordinarily short period, otherwise they would have come to the more correct legal decision.

There was a very interesting transformation in Jack Straw over the years, which I’m looking forward to discussing. His book’s really interesting, and I’m fascinated by the fact that, of all of that gang, he’s the one who’s come out cleanest. No one is calling for him to be sent to The Hague, and he’s the one who’s probably least disliked. For any elderly politician, that’s an extraordinary thing.

You’re also interviewing Nick Robinson, who is probably the most powerful journalist in Britain, and so has an extraordinary relationship with the top end of government. What do you want to get out of him?

I interviewed him in December and, because I’m an idiot, I didn’t read his book until the night before. I thought it was a book about Nick Robinson and politics, and was thrilled to discover that it was so much more interesting than that.

The stuff about the relationship between Winston Churchill and Lord Reith is extraordinary − even in the Westminster village you have these titans, the heads of these huge organisations, and their relationships are entirely based on their personal animosity. It’s hilarious.

The formative experience of Robinson’s life is when he’s 17 and on holiday. He’s in the back of a car and it crashes, and his best friends both die. One of them was the son of Brian Redhead [BBC radio presenter]. So much of Robinson’s life is still caught up in, or has been driven or focused by that crash, and what he sees as his obligation, both to his friend and to the idea of what he might be able to do. It’s psychologically interesting.

The other great thing about Robinson is that he’s a killer mimic. The only other person I’ve met who can do that is Stephen Fry, who can do anyone, but Robinson’s Cameron and Boris Johnson are hilarious. He should do a run in the West End. He’s a tragic loss to vaudeville, and yet it’s less the interviewing and more me standing back, laughing and clapping along when he tells us about his job.

You’re tabling an event with Justine Roberts, Guido Fawkes, David Prescott, and Jesse Norman MP [The internet and the new constituencies, Friday 24 May]. Why?

It’s entirely possible that in 10 years’ time it won’t matter what the Daily Mail or Murdoch or anybody else feels about politics, because the relationship will be utterly different. There will be people who can talk directly to their MPs, and vice-versa. Nobody five years ago had ever heard of Guido Fawkes, and now this guy seems to be the first port of call for anything thought about politics in Westminster.

A great mate of mine, Shashi Tharoor, is an MP for Kerala in India. He has more Twitter follows than Stephen Fry, and his ability to talk directly to people he’s representing, and their ability to talk directly to him, is an absolute revolution. He doesn’t need the newspapers to report he’s been to a school, because communication’s already open. I’m intrigued by that aspect of how people communicate.

I remember listening to a lecture a few years ago – it might have been Roy Hattersley talking about the shouters at a Gladstone political meeting – and there were people standing 50 yards back from the stage, and then another 50 yards back, relaying what he was saying to people standing behind because there was no method of amplification.

I’m intrigued by that and how different it is now. My children don’t watch TV or read newspapers; they follow Twitter and Facebook for political consumption. All those things about how we connect are interesting.

The other bizarre thing about politicians at Hay is something Robin Cook pointed out when he was here way, way back, after he’d resigned. He was talking about the quality of dialogue, and how if you have a system that isn’t essentially adversarial, conversations can develop. Arguments can be pursued, and it’s unlikely that a generous mind would regard that full-on, combative dialectic would ever produce anything interesting, no extended conversations with people who are smarter than you. It’s fascinating how many politicians come here just to be punters.

How many politicians visit Hay?

We took a quick survey last year, and there were a couple of times when I know that there were seven or eight MPs and about 20 members of the Lords here almost every day. That’s discounting the AMs from Cardiff, all of whom come up in greater numbers. They want to be part of the conversation.

What are your political highlights from previous Hay Festivals?

My big political highlight was when I interviewed John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the UN. He’s what my grandmother used to call a very fine example of himself. He’s about as un-Hay as it is possible for a human being to be, but he was prepared to talk and try and explain where he was coming from. He didn’t quite get why I thought it would be entertaining to waterboard him.

Of the big beasts, FW de Klerk was possibly the most surprising, because it was easier not to fully understand how vital a part of disestablishing apartheid he was; it took Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu and FW de Klerk. It was fascinating to watch him, the way he talked about them, the way he understood what was going to happen and how it could possibly be contained.

Jimmy Carter is by a long way the most gracious, wise and encouraging human being I’ve ever met. He dropped two bits of information in Hay, one in each of the events he did. He knew how to drop them, how to get picked up and the weight of him saying it.

In a press conference that lasted 90 minutes, he casually said that Israel had 150 nuclear warheads. Now, everybody knows that but nobody of any political weight had ever said it publicly. He knew that saying it off-piste in a field in Wales would allow him to say it casually, but would still land with the exact impact he needed it to.

He then engaged David Miliband, who was in town that day, and they disappeared off to go and discuss stuff. The other hilarious thing, I’m sorry to say, was when he was asked, in the gentlest way, what might happen to George Bush Jnr. I’m trying to remember the exact wording, but... He managed to land, ‘Bush should be sent to the fucking Hague’ as the message of what he said with the charming, most disarming, ‘I’m just from Southern Georgia’ attitude. He’s not the most respected of the elders for nothing; this guy is lethal, and deeply impressive.

Is there a particular type of politician who comes to Hay and doesn’t work?

There are some that don’t work. President Musharraf was, in retrospect, a huge mistake. He wasn’t prepared to discuss anything at all. We understood that he was going to be much more conversational, would discuss many of his ideas, but no, he stuck to the script. It was interesting that it didn’t work. I’m trying to think across the political divide… it’s tricky… everyone loves William Hague here because he married Ffion, so he’s practically one of us.

I’ve seen the Welsh Arts Review website, and on it you talk about the kind of person who goes to Hay, or Hay-goers, sceptical about the monarchy and religion, not much bothered about hunting, bothered about illegal invasions, passionately engaged with the environment…

Did I say that?


It’s not entirely wrong, but it’s hard to generalise. One of the really interesting things is that we’ve been sponsored by newspaper groups over the years. We had three years with The Sunday Times, nine years with the Guardian, three with the Daily Telegraph, and they have all, inevitably, brought over their readers to Hay.

What’s interesting and great about that is that you’ve got an audience that is not in any sense homogenous. They’re widely informed and have differing opinions about everything. The funny thing about being in Hay rather than in South Kensington, Hammersmith or Northampton is that it’s something that speaks to the idea of the big society.

Everybody in the country lives together and is interdependent, because we have to be. Everybody is equal, and in a city you socially self-select – you hang out with people who are like you, but the demography just doesn’t work like that in the country.

Even in our own organisations we’ve got a vast range of political and social plurality because we all live together and know that we don’t have to agree on everything. That’s extraordinarily vibrant, so you do have some quite dynamic conversations about everything. I think that around 35 to 40 per cent of our audience probably come from cities.

That’s actually a fairly small amount…

Well, fewer than 10 per cent of the audience come from the southeast of England, and of that 10 per cent, almost all of them are journalists. They think they see people they know, other people in the lobby… it’s an interesting facet of country life; you’re with people who you don’t share opinions with, and that’s fine.

And it’s really enriching.

The Telegraph Hay Festival runs from 23 May until 2 June in Hay-on-Wye, Herefordshire

Tickets are available on the website

Events will be broadcasted on Sky Arts

Tags: Ben Duckworth, Hay festival, Issue 58, May 2013, Peter Florence

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