David J Black: How to burn down a book festival

David J Black: How to burn down a book festival

David J Black

Narcissists of minor repute, for whom notoriety is more achievable than fame, have bitten the hand that feeds them in their latest attack – on the UK’s book festivals. David J Black adduces evidence of their hypocrisy, among other things.

They never seem to bother with the detail or consider the consequences, somehow, these self-appointed guardians of the public good who assume an ‘intersectional’ right to cause havoc on the shallow pretext of their own misconceived morality.

We are not referring here to some latter-day Emile Zola on a mission to expose the antisemitic injustices visited upon Alfred Dreyfus, or of the great Harry Evans campaigning on behalf the victims of thalidomide, or of Patrick Radden Keefe’s exposure of the Sackler family’s adventures in Oxycontin, or of Sir Brian Langstaff’s searing report on the horrors of infected blood – never mind Channel 5 and the Horizon scandal!

We are confronting, rather, a virtue-signalling bandwagon which, on the basis of a misplaced knee-jerk judgement, has set out to damage and degrade the interests of literary Scotland, its authors, and publishing houses. That the greater part of that fashionista flash-mob emanates from areas of Britain beyond our borders should not escape our attention, or that their scatter-gun approach is now inflicting damage on book festivals such as Cheltenham and Hay-on-Wye, should not take our focus off Scotland, where the Borders and Wigton Book Festivals, like Edinburgh, will be trashed.

It goes without saying that we should all have causes close to our hearts, and we should fight for them vigorously, no doubt, but, unlike designer dresses or Paul Smith shirts, causes are not commodities which we acquire on impulse because they happen to suit the current fashionable zeitgeist. The histrionic attack on partner-owned investment company Baillie Gifford which has been supporting Edinburgh Book Festival for 20 years is a case in point.

None of the self-righteous cohort currently baying for corporate blood seems to be over-particular about the facts. They don’t all live in Shoreditch or Brighton, though a fair sprinkling of them seem to. For a Scottish angle, consider the intervention of ‘investigative journalism’ website, The Ferret. It began this particular stramash with a 2023 report which led to eco-celebrity Greta Thunberg cancelling her planned appearance in Edinburgh. It was all downhill from there.

Lead investigator and Ferret director Paul Dobson ran a follow-up coruscating article about Baillie Gifford’s ties with the Brazilian state oil company Petrobras, but somehow failed to mention that since the election of left-wing president Lula da Silva in 2022, who halted the deforestation of the Amazon on assuming office, Petrobras has, under a new boss, former head of sustainability Clarice Coppetti, committed the company to reducing its carbon footprint and protecting biodiversity.

Baillie Gifford owns 0.38 per cent of Petrobras through its Emerging Markets fund, and a further 1.33 per cent directly (a total of £670m) and can no doubt be criticised for doing so, yet the state company is clearly transitioning away from its more toxic holdings towards renewables and the cleaner technologies, something which should be encouraged, one might have thought. “Petrobras has put a big bet on renewables as part of its plan to shift from an oil company to an energy firm, in line with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s wish to kickstart Brazil’s energy transition,” reported Reuters last April, noting the inauguration of a massive solar energy project in São Paulo state.

Our dreams and our realities are rarely the same thing. The challenge is, and will continue to be, the way the transitioning is managed. Much as we should all wish to speed the day when our dependence on fossil fuels is no longer necessary, simply shutting off the supplies immediately would be a recipe for social and economic disaster, leaving us shivering in unheated houses, and starving as crops remain unharvested and supplies to shops remain undelivered.

Sure, we are living in a climate emergency, and our politicians should be doing much more to avert disaster, but defunding UK book festivals – nine in total – which Baillie Gifford has been supporting for years is hardly a pathway to enlightenment. On the contrary, book festivals offer an opportunity for debate and an exchange of views from which all participants can benefit.

Among the celebs and wannabees pitching in on this girnathon we find very few literary A-listers, or even actual writers of substantive books. Charlotte Church, for example, is a Welsh chanteur who has had to sell her mansion to make ends meet, so maybe grabbing a headline is tempting. But why pick on Edinburgh Book Festival? One might hope she’d be more interested in helping that other threatened city institution, the Summerhall Arts complex, where she staged her show Charlotte Church’s Pop Dungeon in 2017.

The so-called ‘Literary Coalition’ causing mayhem also includes “book industry workers” and sundry hangers on, such as Nish Kumar who, while he does a bit of scriptwriting, is better known as a comedian. Scots do not feature prominently on the list, though Roehampton-based children’s and ‘adult fantasy’ author Jean Menzies was Edinburgh-born, at least.

Irish author Sally Rooney is undoubtedly a big hitter, yet her Marxist-feminist predilections have clearly coloured her judgement. Mind you, literary critic Becca Rothfeld has claimed that Rooney’s Marxism is no more than “fashionable posturing” and called her work “sanctimony literature” that is “full of self-promotion and the airing of performatively righteous opinions”. One suspects Ms Rooney may be representative of the chick-lit sub-genre (Zadie Smith is another would-be festival killer), though at least she hasn’t shown the brazen ingratitude of Baillie Gifford prizewinner Katherine Rundell, who put her name to the machine-gun missive after winning the £50,000 2022 Baillie Gifford prize. I’m told she’s made no attempt to hand the money back.

Incidentally the previous year’s prize was won by the aforementioned Patrick Radden Keefe for his masterly Empire of Pain, while the year following would be scooped by climate change activist John Vaillant for Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World which, according to the prize committee, “skilfully examines the interconnected narratives of the oil industry and climate science”. Having been hailed by the above-mentioned Becca Rothfeld in the Washington Post as “a gripping narrative and a loud wake-up call”, such a choice would seem to suggest that Baillie Gifford is anything but the petro-bogeyman these literary luddites would have us believe it is.

According to Guardian business correspondent Nils Pratley, its alleged shortcomings fall far short of those of Waterstones, for example. The latter is wholly owned by by Elliott, a US hedge fund which declares its primary trading interests as “crude oil and oil products, natural gas, power, precious and base metals”. This doesn’t seem to have dissuaded Sally Rooney from presenting a September ticketed promo-event of her next book at Waterstones Piccadily, oddly enough.

Perhaps Mr Pratley should be having a word with fellow Guardian columnists Gary Younge and George Monbiot, who have added their names to this Bonfire of the Vanities hit list. One might have hoped that Gary, as an alumnus of Heriot Watt University, would have had a bit of respect for the city which was once his home, while George, who is meant to be one of the country’s most significant investigative journalists, could certainly be spending his time more effectively, given that the Baillie Gifford sideshow is largely about the self-indulgence of narcissistic writers of, on the whole, minor repute.

It is galling that their careering bandwagon appears to assume some sort of monopoly of virtue as it seeks to control the narrative. The implication is that if you don’t agree with them, you must be some sort of climate change denial type, so you’d better just sign up to their cause if you know what’s good for you.

Let’s just straighten that one out, for starters. For his own part this scrivener has long believed the climate emergency is real, and has campaigned to that end. He was once responsible for planting a thousand trees in the Scottish Borders, and even took a leaf out of Greta’s book by crossing the Atlantic by sea rather than flying over it last time he went to America. We don’t need to be taking any lessons from these people.

Nor am I out to give Baillie Gifford a free pass. As an investment management giant with an interest in “disruptor stocks” and “outlier companies” it has been an important backer of green technology, yet it has also invested in the short-term lettings platform Airbnb, which has seriously affected the housing and rental market in such historic cities as Edinburgh, Venice, Athens, and Barcelona.

The way to deal with this issue, however, is to lobby Baillie Gifford and its clients (such as the pension fund for Holyrood’s MSPs!) directly, rather than destroy the book festivals they happen to support. One also wonders how many of the authors attending Edinburgh Book Festival were actually making use of Airbnb. Quite a few, at a guess.

Before condemning Baillie Gifford for its minimal links to the fossil fuel sector (around 85 per cent less than the industry average) it might be useful to consider a few of the benefits which Edinburgh Book Festival has brought to a number of causes. In its 2019 Public Programme, for example, it billed “Climate change, technology and food production are just some of the issues that urgently need new ideas”. It has also provided a platform for Amnesty International with its Daily Imprisoned Writers sessions, and hosted the Annual Amnesty Lecture.

Since leaving its peerless ‘golden age’ venue of Charlotte Square Garden under such pioneering directors as Jenny Brown and Catherine Lockerbie, it may have lost some of its lustre, but it remains one of the literary world’s most important annual fixtures. We are now witnessing 40 years of hard work, struggle, and dedication being destroyed in a matter of weeks by this rampaging nihilist faction.

Even after its departure from the world’s finest outdoor drawing room in Charlotte Square, the Edinburgh Book Festival could still deliver knockout gigs. In this writer’s experience the most memorable one was a moving 2022 performance by human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, Bridgerton actor Adjoa Andoh, and French classical pianist Guillaume de Chassy. The Last Colony told the shameful story of Britain’s callous mistreatment of the inhabitants of the Chagos Islands from the perspective of one uprooted woman. The audience, on the whole, was reduced to tears. Today Mr Sands, who sits on the board of the Hay Festival and has represented Palestinian interests at the International Court of Justice, seems perplexed by the grandstanding of those who now threaten the festival’s future on the basis of “tenuous” evidence and “yet to be established” claims.

Baillie Gifford’s role in encouraging the young to read has also inspired many Scottish children to develop an interest in literature through its schools programme. This provides free tickets for in-person events with well known authors, and free book giveaways for both primary and secondary schools – a particularly valuable service when Scottish education isn’t faring particularly well in the PISA rankings. Connecting the next generation of readers with the current generation of authors brings both social and cultural benefits, especially to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

It is the more recent development in this intersectional war against culture which should truly concern us. Baillie Gifford is now being traduced by the tin-hat guerilla warriors of Fossil Free Books for its alleged links with the State of Israel and the invasion of Gaza. The reasoning behind this opportunistic expansion of the agenda is not only specious and hypocritical. In light of the attempted assassination of Salman Rushdie at a New York literary event in 2022 it is also downright dangerous in the present highly-charged atmosphere, and if it really is the case, as reported, that Jewish authors were omitted from material being circulated by activists at Hay, then perhaps the appropriate authorities should be taking a pre-emptive interest in the matter.

To imply that Baillie Gifford is pro-Israeli because it has some of its client’s money invested in Amazon, Google parent company Alphabet, or Instagram and Facebook parent company Meta, reeks of arrant hypocrisy and double standards. Author of It’s not that Radical Mikaela Loach (quote: “I lure people in with the big pink outfits and they stay for the climate justice”), who staged the dramatic inaugural walkout at her Edinburgh Book Festival event in 2023 with chants of “hey, hey, ho, ho, Baillie Gifford’s got to go”, has 222,000 followers on her Instagram account.

Privately-educated Ms Loach, who was brought up in Surrey, was studying at Edinburgh University at that point, and currently sells her book in Kindle and print versions through Amazon. In other words she and others like her are part of the scandal. Charlotte Church, too, sells her music through Amazon. Surely these people should be de-platforming themselves! “They know not what they do” was never a very convincing defence in a court of law.

One can understand the fury and frustration of Edinburgh Book Festival chairman Alan Little when he said: “Our team cannot be expected to deliver a safe and sustainable festival this August under the constant threat of disruption from activists.” A former BBC war correspondent who has lived under fire in Iraq and Bosnia, among other places, he knows what he is talking about. Whether or not this means the scheduled 2024 appearances of the Palestinian writers N.S Nuseibeh, Nayrouz Qarmout, and Raja Shehadeh will be cancelled, we have yet to find out.

If Baillie Gifford, which the examined evidence suggests is a relatively benign player in the world of corporate investment managers, can be subjected to abuse at the hands of an out-of-control mob of unaccountable and ill-informed attention seekers, it isn’t just our book festivals which are at risk. The likely outcome, in the view of author Sebastian Faulks speaking on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, is that the smaller ones will go to the wall, while the big players will become promotional platforms for (mostly ghost written) sports star and celebrity autobiographies, while other categories of literature, such as poetry, narrative non-fiction and creative fiction, are left to languish.

Potential sponsors will become wary of exposing themselves to the arbitrary scrutiny of self-selecting radical activists, and this will leak into all areas of our national culture, including the performing arts, music, and local and national art galleries. This happens to be something of which your scrivener, at the moment, is all too aware of, being much engaged in organising an Edinburgh concert to support the continuing education of Ukraine’s refugee young music students. We didn’t foresee that raising sponsorship would be much of an issue. Now thanks to the intimidation and bullying of the Fossil Free Books agitprop army, we’re beginning to worry.

Sponsors permitting, the Ukrainian classical pianist Anna Fedorova and the Aurora Ensemble will perform at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, on 28 October 2024 in aid of the Davidsbündler Academy in The Hague, which supports Ukrainian artists and students in flight from their home country.

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