If you’ve never been to the Hay book festival, I’d urge you to make plans for it next year. Whether you’re a bookworm or not, the audience sessions where people get to hear from authors of new works and put questions to them can be extremely interesting.
As well as pure entertainment events (stand-up comedy, that sort of thing) and authors and personalities talking about their favourite works, there’s a lively programme of political discussions to keep the more current affairs oriented visitors in touch with what’s going on outside the beautiful little book town of Hay on Wye.
Hay, which stands on the border between England and Wales, is rightly called a book town because it’s crammed with book shops. If there’s a seemingly unobtainable book you’ve been hunting for, chances are you will find it – after a pleasurable search – tucked away on a shelf somewhere in Hay. I’ve been coming to Hay for about 20 years, and even when the festival isn’t on it’s a nirvana for anyone who loves books.
This year I was most interested in seeing and hearing Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of some of the finest political histories ever written, including Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
It’s a massive work which covers the improbable rise of Lincoln from childhood to the US Presidency and the way he bound in (and deftly united) his political rivals as members of his cabinet. It’s one of Barack Obama’s touchstone books, and there are obvious parallels between the ascent of Lincoln and Obama and in the way they assembled their cabinet teams once elected. The session, chaired by Jon Snow – who could not have been more effusive about the book, waving his copy around with numerous pages marked with random pieces of paper – was one of the best of the festival, making a vast history seem immediate, alive, very human and very relevant.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, who in her twenties worked as an intern for Lyndon B Johnson (her husband had worked for JFK) has made a specialism of biographical histories of American presidents. She is currently working on a book about Theodore Roosevelt, having also written about about Franklin of that ilk, the Kennedys and of course LBJ – who she described during her talk as her ‘buddy’.
What struck me first about DKG (it seems fitting to call her that) was her sense of humour, laced with warmth and wisdom, about her subjects. She was obviously charmed by Lincoln’s ability to tell a story, and said in answer to a question that of anyone she has written about she would love to meet him, just to hear him tell some of those tales, to see his melancholy face light up in the telling and watch him slap his bony knee as he came to the punchline. It’s a side of Lincoln which the hagiographies don’t show. Remarkably, there have been some 15,000 books written about Lincoln and yet DKG found something new and defining to say by looking at how he brought his former rivals together as a (mostly) loyal team.
After the event, there was a big clamour to get copies of Team of Rivals signed, and I was in two minds whether to join the queue. I’m glad I did, and I’m glad I didn’t buy a fresh copy – the festival bookseller had run out anyway – but instead had my own copy with me, much-thumbed as it is.
It obviously pleased the author to see, at the end of a long queue, a copy that looked like it had been opened. She said, “Looks like you’ve been spending time in line actually reading the book – great!”
I explained I’d read and reread the book, admired it greatly and she asked me what my interest was in politics. I said I’d helped out on the Obama campaign and that I’m a Labour councillor in London.
She beamed. “A councilman, that’s a great start. Keep going. Really, keep going.”
Anyway, without exaggerating what was a brief (but to me wonderful) encounter, we chatted a little longer and this is what she wrote: “To Mark, with hopes for a successful career in politics, Doris Kearns Goodwin”.
Despite everything that’s going on in this country to diminish politics as a vocation, I will keep going. Though I might have to buy a new copy of Team of Rivals. The signed one, beside me now, has become too precious!