It was my first taste of free love — for the brain. A first visit to what Bill Clinton dubbed the ‘Woodstock of the Mind’. With just one afternoon at the Hay festival, I rolled up at the first thing that caught my eye — a distinguished prof talking about nanotechnology. Bear with me here. I was soon learning that making things nano-sized changes their essential properties. Surfaces can be made which repel water. A single drop can be made bouncier than a children’s rubber ball. So what, you ask. Well, we’ll all soon have mobile phones which we can drop in the bath, which raises the exciting — if, perhaps somewhat distasteful, prospect of my being able to broadcast on the Today programme from my favourite place — providing I’m careful not to make splashing noises.
What I had assumed would be a simple book plug (Live from Downing Street is still available in all bookshops, now you ask) was, in fact, a testing inquisition worthy of John Humphrys. Hacks from the Telegraph sat poised to note every slip and indiscretion. Should there be more women presenters on the BBC? Of course, I replied. Should Mr Humphrys retire to make way for you? Of course not, I insisted. No, really. Well, not for a few years anyway.
The toughest questioning focused on my decision to use the S word on the morning after the grisly night in Woolwich before. I said sorry for a phrase I’d quoted when revealing that the police, the security services and the government were treating the brutal killing as more than just a crime. I reported a ‘senior Whitehall source’ as saying that, according to the police, the attackers were ‘of Muslim appearance’. Under pressure of a looming deadline, I focused on the fact that I was establishing that the authorities saw this as a terrorist attack carried out, as it has transpired, to ‘free Muslim lands’. A glance at Twitter revealed, however, that those words — despite being a quote — had outraged some who thought they revealed a prejudice that all Muslims look the same. One witty tweet asked if the man playing at Wembley in Bayern Munich’s no. 7 shirt looked Muslim. Franck Ribéry is French, he’s white and he’s Muslim.
The next day a new round of condemnation began. Why had I bowed to pressure? Why had I responded to Muslim oversensitivity? As it happens, I had not discussed the idea of apologising with my bosses, let alone been ordered by them to do so. It was, as Tony Blair used to tell critics of the Iraq war, much worse than you might think — I really believed it. Once the adrenalin stopped flowing, I pondered the risks of all Muslims feeling that they were being blamed for a horrific act of violence simply because they share a religion with the people responsible. I did so as someone who is a Jew by birth, was raised C of E, married a committed Catholic and is now an agnostic. Some saw my apology as another example of the modern curse of political correctness. I see it as something very old-fashioned and very British — courtesy.
Two days later, another first — keeping Andrew Marr’s seat warm on his Sunday morning show, and a welcome return to asking questions instead of answering them. Theresa May hints at new laws and a new crackdown on the preaching of hatred. Meera Syal confirms that as a British Asian she’s aware of increased public mistrust this week — even though she’s a famous comedian and a Hindu. The best insight comes, though, from another showbiz guest — the nation’s favourite on-screen housewife Felicity Kendal. Recalling her upbringing in India, she tells me that she wishes those who rightly complain that British colonialists tried to impose their values, morality and religion now realised that it was no more acceptable the other way round. Sadly, she says it after the cameras had been packed up.
One last insight from Hay. What my mobile phone takes one second to do would have taken an early computer 120 years. The joy of the festival is that it allows you to stumble across things you didn’t know you wanted to know. Technology makes it ever easier to occupy a world surrounded only by people like ourselves and to delve deeper and deeper into what already interests us. What book festivals — and television and radio at their best — can offer is not narrow-casting but broad-casting. This is a good week to remember the value of that.