There are certain places which only seem to exist at certain times of the year, lending them an almost mythical quality. For me the Royal National Hotel is one of those places, it’s the centre of the world for 10 days of my year and then immediately fades away until the following February. Except this year…
When I arrived at the hotel in July for the Marxism festival, it was like stepping into a slightly different reality. The place was again a buzzing hive of bookish activity, with intense debates pouring from the rooms, occasionally jostling against lost-looking Belgian tourists in the lobby. Only now, the audiences seemed to eat less, drink more, be comprised of far more 20 year olds and wear many more kefiyas than we ever see during the February season. Kefiyas here are like hats at Ascot –officially optional but you’ll never really fit in without one.
My first session was on how to fight for women’s liberation today with editor of The Socialist Review, Judith Orr and Guardian columnist, Zoe Williams. Both panelists spoke brilliantly. I especially love hearing Zoe Williams speak. She manages to combine taking her politics seriously with being incredibly funny, all the while being so articulate that I find myself quoting her verbatim at dinner parties. Here she spoke about the inevitable symbiosis between Feminism and Socialism (without Socialism, Feminism is just an insidious club where rich women help each other out). Questions at the end of the session were in a whole different format; in this world, after the panel have spoken, audience members have up to 3 minutes each to ask a question OR make a statement. This, more than anything else, astounds me. At JBW the microphone would have been wrestled away from the questioner after a minute and a half, especially if there was no hint of a real question. Our system suddenly seemed a little intolerant.
The first audience member to approach the mic fully exercises her 3 minute right and also exploits the lax approach to the question/statement dichotomy. This Australian woman expresses her disappointment with the range of Feminist books written in the past few years, focused, as they are, on issues around beauty or modesty rather than any serious social concerns. The next speaker spends her 3 minutes responding to the Australian woman and suggests that she read Sheila Jeffreys’ The Industrial Vagina. It’s the kind of title that might be generated by a random title generator if you were to type in the key words ‘socialism’ and ‘feminism’. I laugh until I realize that I am the only one in the room of 200 people laughing and that this book is, in fact, a real book. I text my friend Adele a summary of the situation, because she will find it funny too and I will feel less like a bad feminist but Adele responds immediately to say that Sheila Jeffreys taught her at university and she’s actually read the book (which is about the global sex trade.) That stops me laughing and now I really feel like a bad feminist.
The next session I go to is Michael Rosen’s. It’s a little like the shtick I’ve seen him do at JBW but alongside the jokes about growing up with smatterings of Yiddish around the house he also talks about his parents forays in the Communist party. He manages to recreate a sense of his childhood which makes his humour utterly charming and silly until everyone, not just the kids in the room are rolling around laughing.
Once again the kids ask all the best questions of the day. My favourite comes from a boy in the second row who asks Michael if he is happy. Only a matter of years until that turns into a 3-minute self-referential statement.
Afterwards, I go straight into the main session that night (if I can impress a notion of hierarchy on the proceedings); Alex Callinicos & Slavoj Žižek on what it means to be a revolutionary today. The debate was unlike any I had ever heard. I’m used to ideological debate (and I grew up in a socialist youth movement) but no one had ever actually talked about dismantling the state out loud. More overwhelming than the discussion itself was Slovenian philosopher, Žižek, who is one of the most compelling speakers I have ever seen. He turned what could have been a dry polemical debate into a fascinating examination into the human capacity for humour amidst darkness (and so much more).
As I was leaving I walked through their bookfair and noticed a familiar face at the signing desk. The face which each February enquires of all JBW writers whether they had considered the light of Jesus was now asking the same question to this cluster of Atheist writers – a reassuring constant.