Review: Marlborough Literature Festival: Pig-gate, Corbynomics and an alternate Swindon under the microscope

Written by Peter Davison.


John Crace – picture courtesy of Ben Phillips Photography LtdJohn Crace – picture courtesy of Ben Phillips Photography LtdLabour leader Jeremy Corbyn dominated the discussion during at least two events at the Marlborough Festival of Literature last night.

The Saturday night headliner was the Guardian's parliamentary sketch writer John Crace. His most recent book is I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, a reference to the short-lived honeymoon of David Cameron and Nick Clegg after the 2010 coalition deal was signed.

Crace read from the book, but he knows, as well as any of us, that politics is a fast-moving game, and he was keen to discuss Corbyn, pig-gate, and the struggles David Cameron will face honouring manifesto pledges written for an election he never thought he'd win.

May 2015 seems a long way away now. Crace admitted that everyone had called the election wrong. Even ten minutes before the 10pm exit polls were published, he told his Town Hall audience, senior Tories were braced for defeat.

"No-one looked more surprised than David Cameron," Crace recalled. "There was a noticeable hiccup in his throat when he promised to uphold his election promises - this was never the plan."

He recalled the Labour Party Conference of 2014 - and Ed Miliband's speech, delivered from memory, in which he forgot to mention the economy. "It was the beginning of the end," said Crace. "A car crash."

The election surprised everyone, he admitted. No-one predicted the SNP winning all but three seats in Scotland, or the Liberal Democrats being reduced to eight MPs. And no-one called the Labour leadership contest correctly either, with the 100-1 outsider winning the race.

"It was weird being at the Labour Party Conference this year, where Corbynmania was so intense,” said Crace, who recalled how, in the new leader's speech, Corbyn read aloud the stage direction 'strong message here.' "They loved him even more for it."

Crace applauded Corbyn's stance on austerity and a 'making people pay their taxes' but his support came with a note of caution: "If this was an aeroplane and a voice came over the tannoy saying none of our pilots are up to it anymore and it's about time one of the baggage handlers had a go, most people would be running for the door."

Next stop for Crace will be the Conservative Party Conference. “When Cameron makes his speech on Wednesday everyone will be thinking ‘Yes, but did you do that with a pig’s head?’

“When we look back on 2015 we will remember two things: that Jeremy Corbyn didn’t sing the national anthem, and that David Cameron may or may not have have done something unpleasant with a pig’s head.”

John Lanchester  – picture courtesy of Ben Phillips Photography LtdJohn Lanchester – picture courtesy of Ben Phillips Photography LtdEarlier in the day, the question of Corbynomics was raised during a Q&A session following a lively presentation by John Lanchester, author of Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, and the novel Capital, which is said to predict The Crash of 2007.

His new book, How to Speak Money, promises to explain the language used by The City, politicians, and financial journalists like Observer economics editor Heather Stewart, with whom he was In Conversation.

The book, says his spiel, is aimed at those who don’t know the difference between debt and the deficit, or what a Dead Cat Bounce is.

“The language creates a gap in our understanding, and reinforces the structures of political power,” said Lanchester. “It’s a fault in our education system – I didn’t know the difference between fiscal and monetary policy until I was 50.”

He reckoned some words and phrases were purposely confusing. “Quantitative easing sound like a brand of laxative,” he said, “rather than a radical technique that allows governments to print money like it’s going out of fashion.”

On Corbynomics, he said: “It’s interesting how freaked out a lot of the banking establishment is. The genie of QE is out of the bottle. They are worried that printing money and linking it to projects (People's QE) will look too much like the government seizing the printing presses.

“It could work. A controlled, focussed, careful use of QE tied to infrastructure could certainly work, but it’s interesting to see people scared of a monster of their own creation.”

And he said right wing governments – which are more naturally trusted by the general public with economic affairs – would find it far easier to introduce radical solutions like QE than left wing ones.

To prove the point, he quoted the ‘old Vulcan proverb’ delivered by Mr Spock in Star Trek IV: ‘Only Nixon could go to China’.”

Another question from the floor asked whether any of the money issued through QE had made it out of the banking system. Both Stewart and Lanchester doubted it had, although no-one seemed quite sure where the £375bn of printed money had gone.

“A lot of it is in emerging markets,” said Lanchester. “It tended to benefit people who already had assets,” said Stewart.

Lanchester compared it to the £24bn in fines paid out to account holders in the wake of the PPI scandal. “It was three times the cost of The Olympics. But that money has gone to people, and they’ve spent it. It’s had a positive effect on the economy.

“It’s a hell of an indictment on the way banks work that paying fines is better for the economy than the way banks actually function, because we’ll do something with it.”

“Modern money is so strange. There’s something strange about the way we willed money into being. If you take out a £20 it says ‘I Promise to Pay the Bearer on Demand the Sum of £20.’ But £20 of what? It’s not gold – that ended in 1976.

“Money is fictional, but it’s a fiction we all believe in.”

Jasper Fforde – picture courtesy of Ben Phillips Photography LtdJasper Fforde – picture courtesy of Ben Phillips Photography LtdThe signature of novelist Jasper Fforde’s father – John Standish Fforde, the 24th chief cashier for the Bank of England – used to appear on all sterling bank notes, back in the days when you could demand a quantity of gold in exchange for your £20 note.

Fforde is probably the only author on the Marlborough Lit Fest line-up to have his very own festival in his honour. Every two years, the Fforde Fiesta (obviously) is held in Swindon, the setting of his popular Thursday Next series. Fans play croquet (an important sport in Fforde’s Swindon) and some dress as lobsters.

These devoted fans were not easy to come by, though. Fforde suffered 76 rejections between 1993 and 2000 before anyone considered publishing him.

His method of writing, he explained, was to set himself a ’narrative dare’ which he had to write his way out of. ‘Humpty Dumpty is murdered and someone is responsible’ became the first of the Nursery Crime novels, police procedurals starring Jack Spratt and Mary Mary.

After The Big Over Easy (finally published in 2005) was widely rejected, Fforde wrote the sequel, The Fourth Bear, an answer to the narrative dare of explaining the porridge conundrum in the Goldilocks story – just why was Baby Bear’s porridge ‘just right’ when Mummy Bear’s porridge, in a larger bowl, had gone cold, and Dady Bear’s porridge, in the largest bowl, was still too hot?

“It’s thermodynamically impossible,” said Fforde. Someone ate the porridge and refilled it from the pot – that suggests the existence of a fourth bear.”

Fforde’s first book in the Thursday Next series – The Eyre Affair – was the first to be picked up by a publisher. In this case, the narrative dare was that Jane Eyre had been kidnapped from the eponymous book, and that someone had to get her back.

Fforde told the audience he set the Thursday Next series in Swindon, as he was familiar with the town from his time living in Bedwyn, but also because it’s not a conventional place to set a novel.

“Swindon is a shorthand comedy town. The well trodden path would be to make fun of it. I made it vibrant and exciting. The Clary-Lamarr transport hub is named after two of its most famous sons. Swindon is considered The Jewel on the M4.”

He urged aspiring writers “Follow the path less trodden. If you look down and there’s no path at all, you might stumble on some originality.”