I had an all-day ticket for the Lewes Speakers Festival at the All Saints Centre on Saturday. I was keen to hear the writer Damien Lewis on the wartime Special Interrogation Group who’d disguised themselves as German soldiers and stormed Tobruk, Andrew Monaghan on his book Power in Modern Russia, and Theodore Dalrymple, ex-Spectator columnist and a former prison psychiatrist. The last speaker, scheduled for 6.45 p.m., was to be Katie Hopkins. I was curious: is she autistic, does she have a narcissistic personality disorder, or is she just a horrible person and a show-off?
I had hardly read her stuff, but after the food writer Jack Monroe won a libel case against her in March 2017 (Hopkins thought Monroe had desecrated a war memorial), my daughter showed me an interview. Hopkins did seem a bit crazy. I knew that she had termed migrants ‘cockroaches’ in the Sun and in May 2015 had tweeted derogatorily about a nine-year-old mildly autistic girl.
The following summer, though, she wrote a moving article for Mail Online about her own daughter, who has aspects of autism and other inherited health problems. (This week Mail Online said Hopkins’s contract had not been renewed ‘by mutual consent’.)
Nick Davies, prize-winning investigative journalist, attending the Russia and Dalrymple talks, said Hopkins’s invitation should have been withdrawn as ‘potentially it gave her two things to which she is not entitled: respect, which she has forfeited with her cruel aggression, and credibility, which she does not deserve since, unlike other writers there, she is no expert on anything’. However, a motion to cancel the event had been defeated and the right to hold it upheld by the town council. Meanwhile, we had noticed three burly men, obviously security guards.
The bar had closed early and those of us who had booked for Hopkins were told to stay inside the church. Very soon, banging and shouting began. The shutters of a high window near me were cracking under blows and the main church doors were now barred. A message came that police had said to remain and wait for instructions. We still didn’t know if Hopkins would speak. I started bonding with the other folk stuck there. There was Dalrymple and his French wife, also a doctor. One jolly woman asked him how, with all his prison experiences, he had managed to maintain faith in human nature. Dalrymple said he had never had much in the first place, adding, more seriously, that his writing had kept him going.
Apparently Hopkins had been in the church with us earlier but had gone. (She had tweeted at 7 p.m.: ‘Protestors in Lewes. Please be clear. I have left the building. Please disperse peacefully. My thanks to @ sussex_police’.) An aloof man said the protestors had no respect for free speech, then sat apart with a blonde partner. An unhinged-looking male raised in Lewes was sick of ‘townees’ coming and telling everyone what to do and buying up properties so locals couldn’t live there.
The jolly woman’s dad had been brought up in ‘the East End slums’ but made a good life for himself nevertheless. She applauded Dalrymple for having criticised the way modern criminals were encouraged to be self-pitying. A pretty woman from East Grinstead hoped to go on to a party. She, like me, didn’t know much about Hopkins but was curious.
The banging had got worse and the side door of the church was being battered. I was facing a high window and this received many smashed eggs. Two mischievous boys’ faces kept popping up. A placard was displayed: ‘No Fascistry’; then another: ‘I think that Kate is a thing, a feeling, that can only exist where there is no understanding. Tennessee Williams.’
Finally, we were ushered secretly by a policeman through the broken side door into the dark graveyard. A white-haired man from Eastbourne offered me his arm. I heard him beg the festival organiser to emphasise free speech in any future interview. I could not help thinking that during our 45-minute incarceration not one person had said anything hateful or aggressive. My friend John Warburton, however, reporting for More Radio outside, had egg on his coat. Earlier he had been at the church doors when 20 or 30 protestors had tried to push those doors in and had stood in the way of those with tickets. Four or five had had black scarves hiding their faces.
You wonder what Thomas Paine, Lewes’s celebrated former inhabitant, advocate of free debate, would have thought.
And Jack Monroe, who after winning a two- year libel case against Hopkins, had wanted to invite her to dinner and ‘happily sit down and talk as adults. I just think the world is a bit better when you are willing to give people chances’.