One of the joys of travelling to outposts of the Anglosphere is that it’s often much more British than Britain. Sydney — despite trying all too successfully to look like Shanghai — is still haunted by the ghost of a great English Edwardian city. Locals are baffled (and perhaps irritated) as I stop to gaze in loving wonder at the Town Hall, a perfect expression of civic pride which ought to be surrounded by trams and full of portly aldermen. As for the Queen Victoria Building, I could look upon it for hours. No structure still standing in the British Isles so accurately evokes the pre-1914 era, whispering from its domes the last enchantments of the Imperial Ages.
As a rather hesitant member of the Church of England, I seek out traditional ceremonies where I am unlikely to be called on to testify, embrace my fellow-worshippers, leap about or enthuse in any other way. So early on the Sunday morning after my arrival, I slipped into St Andrew’s Cathedral (another architectural masterpiece) for the advertised 1662 Prayer Book Communion. It was a pretty solid traditional service, except for the slightly surprising mention of the word ‘diarrhoea’ in the sermon. But on the way out I mentioned my reasons for being in Australia to a member of the clergy. ‘May I pray for you?’ he asked. ‘Of course,’ I replied. ‘I need to be prayed for, quite a lot.’ I then made as if to leave. This was a mistake. He meant now, and with me present. He laid his hand on my shoulder and began to pray for me there and then and for some time. Embarrassed as I was, I was also touched, and have thought since that perhaps this event had some bearing on what happened on Q&A the next day.
I have to confess I had once scoffed at the name of the ‘Festival of Dangerous Ideas’. It seemed typical of the cultural revolutionary Left’s vainglorious conceit that it is still fighting a brave battle against a harsh and intolerant establishment. In fact, that establishment never understood the 1960s revolution, didn’t resist it and surrendered to it with amazing speed. You can disbelieve in God and nobody will care, but dare to doubt man-made global warming, or any aspect of the sexual and moral revolution, and you’ll find out, quickly and in detail, what intolerance really means. By inviting me along, the Festival lived up to its name.
I take back what I used to think.
I and hundreds of others were turned off a train at Kings Cross (where I really, really did not want to go) because a smoke alarm had gone off in the main railway signal box. I ended up standing for some time on the street, just next to a monument commemorating a serious razor-fight that took place there in the 1920s. Not reassuring. Yes, there was a bit of smoke in the air from the forest fires, but so what? Nobody had any idea how long this crisis would last, or any suggestions as to how to carry on the journey by other means. Just like home, though in Britain it would have been caused by metal thieves stealing the signal wires.
The only things that annoyed me about my enjoyable appearance on Q&A were the expressions of sympathy, as if it had been some sort of ordeal. Look, I’m used to being attacked by enraged sexual revolutionaries, and indeed by lots of other people, and being assailed by Dan Savage was about as terrifying as being mauled by a guinea-pig. Afterwards, he was touchingly anxious to make sure I hadn’t taken it personally. What made me laugh most was that I never actually said anything about same-sex marriage, except to jest that hardly anyone is interested in marriage these days except for lesbian clergywomen. This is because I genuinely don’t care about it. It’s the fate of heterosexual marriage that’s worth discussing. Yet, simply by looking as if I was having incorrect thoughts on this subject — ‘facecrime’ as George Orwell called it — I managed to attract rage, bad language and abuse from other panel members and the audience. Not caring wouldn’t have done anyway. Nothing short of total obeisance on every issue satisfies the new generation of left-wing bigots.
I’ve been asked by lots of people how Q&A compares with the BBC’s Question Time. If my single experience of Q&A is at all typical, it’s more fun, just as Australia is more fun than Britain, younger, readier to laugh, more relaxed (well, you’d be less relaxed if you had our economy and our class system). Question Time is usually dominated by thought-averse professional politicians, who arrive with personal spin-doctors and great thick briefing books, terrified that they may ‘commit news’ by saying something interesting. But when it has mainly non-political panels, it comes to life pretty quickly. I’d be interested to see what would happen if it took place in an auditorium as big and crowded as the Opera House. As for knowing the questions in advance, it doesn’t make much difference. You can usually guess roughly what will come up, just not exactly how. But I never guessed that
I would be asked what I thought was the most dangerous idea. Perhaps that’s why, when I was asked, the right answer came unbidden to my tongue.
Peter Hitchens is an author and a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday, and was a speaker at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, where he argued that the alleged ‘War on Drugs’ has never actually taken place.