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Birds of a Feather
"England and America are two countries separated by a common language."
— George Bernard Shaw
Invariably, when one meets a member of the '60s era political rebels, they will explain that the etymological foundation of the word 'radical' means "going the root." The implication is that their generation's brand of radical social liberalism sought to overthrow the war-mongering bureaucracies by exposing the lies and corruption that lay at their core. It worked. The watershed moment for the anti-Vietnam movement was the leaking of the top-secret Pentagon Papers by State Department official Daniel Ellsberg which proved Lyndon Johnson had conspired to expand the war even while telling the U.S. public he was trying to end it. But what has happened to this powerhouse generation now that Baghdad is turning into a mini-Saigon (and fast becoming an Islamist Ho Chi Minh City) and the Bush administration has begun agitating for a confrontation with Iran? You'd think the neocons' well-branded War on Terror smells enough like domino theory to get a few million of them into the streets. But no. Instead, they have mostly receded into middle age, preferring to strike an absentee ballot than vote with their feet against what looks increasingly like a bad case of historical déjà-vu.
I wonder what force of nature transforms "radical" liberalism into something that looks more like State Department liberalism. Is it just a matter of growing older? Does the instinct and energy for political activism simply wither once we pass thirty? Or are there other factors involved? Looking back at the origins of the modern liberal philosophy, which had its birth in eighteenth century Britain in the writings of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, it strikes me how much American liberals differ from their British counterparts, how far American liberalism has moved from its intellectual origins. This mutation is perfectly embodied in the path of Christopher Hitchens, who arrived in America with the immaculate pedigree of a brilliant leftist agitator and, twenty years later, morphed into the Iraq War's most eloquent protagonist. Who better to describe the inner process of abandoning those values that we once called "liberal"?
I would soon get to find out. A chance invitation to one of the world's most prestigious literary gatherings gives me the opportunity to take a page out of the radicals' book. I'll go back to the place where modern liberalism was born, hang out with a group of Britain's better-known liberal thinkers and find out just how everything has gone so horribly wrong.
THE KING AND HIS CASTLE
Richard George William Pitt Booth is sitting on a rickety wooden throne pointing a gnarled finger in my direction. His makeshift crown dips cartoonishly over his right eyebrow.
"Corruptio optimi pessima," he growls at me through the side of his mouth. "Don't you know what that means?"
"Corruptio ... ummm, optimi?" I stall, waiting for the imminent translation.
"The corruption of the best is the worst. It's a very well known Latin tag." Satisfied, his majesty smiles benignly at me from the chair, positioned on a platform at the back of large room in his sixteenth century castle. Behind him, on an easel, is a portrait taken of Booth in this very position. I can't help thinking it's all getting a bit Monty Pythonesque.
Booth is the self-anointed King of Hay-on-Wye, a small shire-like village that lies on the eastern edge of Wales, just across the English border. As one of the world's best known purveyors of second hand books, Booth has made Hay his lifelong project and the foundation for a post-agrarian economic model he calls the Book Town concept. It originated in the early 1960s when Booth saw Hay being left behind by the new trends in globalization. In response, he sought to create a secondary industry that could attract tourists and help revitalize the local economy. Channeling his great love for used books into a business strategy, he initiated a plan to make Hay a primary destination for the global community of itinerant bibliophiles. The logic, as he explains it, "is quite simple: Ten thousand books at a pound each brings ten thousand tourists; which is how many hundreds of thousands in increased spending? The secondhand book economy transitions into a tourist economy."
Since he founded his first bookshop in 1961, Hay has become the world's premiere Book Town with 39 stores, attracting a half million book-seeking tourists annually. With a population of just over 1,300, it's a good bet that Booth's plan more than paid off for the local merchants. Which is precisely why he is so annoyed.
"You know history is written by the winners. Nowhere in the Hay catalogue is it written that I was the founder of Hay."
Booth has a tendency to shift, mid-sentence, between the two great passions of his life: his legacy as the savior of Hay and those who have come to rob him of it. In that struggle, he sees a vast conspiracy unfolding right outside the castle walls. This weekend alone, tens of thousands of people will walk past his door on their way to the site of the Hay Festival, which, in the two decades since its founding, has become the UK's premiere literary event. Each May, a roster of the English-speaking world's most prolific and celebrated authors descend from their lofty cerebrum to the lush Welsh countryside and engage the public in what can only be described as one of the few remaining intellectual events left on Earth. It is, to quote Bill Clinton, who spoke here in 2002, a veritable "Woodstock of the mind."
If nothing else, Hay is a place of prescient visionaries and eccentrics. Which is precisely why I am here. I'm on the hunt. There is perhaps no other time where I can be exposed to so many clever minds, many of whom are firmly rooted in the British literary and journalistic establishment, all in one place; like exotic birds that flock to one aquamarine pool of mirrored intellectualism. I feel like a game tracker on safari. Hunting for liberals; lovely, pleasant, smart British ones who will indoctrinate me in their mysterious ways. And I have chosen as my guide Peter Florence, the founder of the Hay Festival.
In setting himself the mission of establishing the new mecca for literature, Florence instinctually attached it to the great liberal project, which, from its inception, was a grand fusion of art and politics. It's English roots date back to the early nineteenth century, when Romantic poets like Byron and Shelley rebelled against the political culture of conservatism that ultimately served to protect the elite from the common man. They sought a political expression that could channel the humanism of their day into the realm of governance. Over a century later, this brand of liberalism inspired the New Deal and Great Society platforms of American Democrats. As John F. Kennedy, reminded his liberal knights of Camelot, "When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgment."
At first, the Hay Festival was a small affair. Founded by Florence in 1988, the inaugural event attracted just over 1,000 people to hear 35 readings and performances by authors, poets and some local artists. When Florence invited Arthur Miller to be the toast of the festival's second year, the American playwright famously responded, "Hay-on-Wye? Is that some kind of a sandwich?"
Seventeen years later, Hay draws a paying audience of 120,000 and is considered one of the most important tour stops for both established and breakthrough authors. This year invitees include New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Gen X cult novelist David Eggers, Booker award-winner Kazuo Ishiguro, business guru Malcolm Gladwell, American icon Joan Didion, radical Russian journalist Anna Politkovska and Bob Geldof just as he is about to announce the Live 8 concerts ... and that's just the opening weekend.
You can see why Richard Booth is a little discomposed. When his conversation shifts from second hand books to the Hay Festival, he goes from postindustrial innovator to Don Quixote in one fell swoop. And there is no end to the contempt he feels for the sole threat to his legacy as the great visionary who put Hay on the world map.
For Booth, who sells or gives away over one million used books a year, the festival represents a direct challenge to his project. Not only does it divert the spotlight from his efforts, but it also reasserts the dominance of new books, which he sees as a threat to the Book Town model of saving the developing world.
"The second hand book is an international economy, suitable for areas of poverty. I would say to Africa, I can bring ten thousand books to a town in Zimbabwe and they can set up a Book Town to get them out of poverty."
If Booth comes off as an idealistic crusader, that is his intention. He's not only the self-appointed King of Hay, he's also the defender of the worn volumes stacked from floor to ceiling in this old Welsh castle. Struggling to get up from his throne, he nearly whispers, "I want the second hand book to be seen as a great asset. Otherwise it will be destroyed."
One of the great traditions of the Hay Festival is that visiting artists are boarded in local houses, so they can get the full flavor of the Welsh experience. My luck of the draw brought me to Brynmelyn, Richard Booth's country estate, where I met the King early this morning and negotiated a guided tour of his castle.
As we walk out of rickety castle door, one of his booksellers steps up and grasps his arm, "Pace yourself your Majesty."
Strolling through the sloping, cobbled streets of the village we pass a dozen bookstores in less than 100 yards. As we pass by each shop, Booth describes its niche, " ... that one specializes in English literature, modern first editions. This one's about travel and languages. If you want mystery and suspense, you can try there." Reaching the top of the road, Booth points down at the people streaming through the festival gates.
"They use as much electricity as the entire village of Hay."
I pat his arm and nod sympathetically. Promising we'll catch up again back at the house, I begin to walk down toward the teeming crowds, all moving like salmon toward the mouth of some great ocean.
THE GREEN ROOM
The Hay festival grounds are buzzing with excitement. Elevated above the verdant earth on wooden platforms, green-carpeted floors connect a network of pristine white tents and open-air restaurants. Sequestered in a remote corner, off the more trafficked gangways, is a quiet room with French doors that open to its own private garden. It is here, far from the madding crowd, in the exclusive Green Room, that small clusters of VIPs gather between events to drink tea, eat biscuits and swallow fresh strawberries.
During the rush and tumble of the festival, A-list authors and their well-groomed agents mix with politicians, actors and the children of British aristocracy. There is a Guinness and a Rothschild. Alexander Waugh, the grandson of Evelyn and son of Auberon, sits near Barney Broomfield, son of famed British documentary filmmaker Nick, with his girlfriend Mary Nighy, who just stepped off the set of Sofia Coppola's latest film, Marie Antoinette. In the center of the room, a group of men are gathered around the beautiful violinist/actress/journalist Clemency Burton-Hill, whose concert performance the night before brought many in the audience to tears. There is one person conspicuously absent, all the more so because he has recently been the subject of yet another controversy. An irate Scottish politician has recently called him a "drink-sodden ex-Trostskyite popinjay," which makes him all the more central to the gossip of the day.
If Hay is to books what Glastonbury is to music, then Christopher Hitchens is the festival's resident Liam Gallagher. Like the lead singer of Oasis who lit up crowds with his zeitgeist lyrics, epic rudeness and raised middle fingers, Hitchens is the primary draw of Hay's opening weekend, pulling crowds of one and two thousand strong to see him chain-smoke his way through debates about religion, war or literature with some other chart-topping intellectual of the day. And if they're really lucky, they'll get to see him tell a member of the audience to fuck off.
However, with his sustained support for the ill-conceived and poorly executed military campaign in Iraq, his star has begun to sink with the fickle British literati. "Have you seen Hitchens recently?" one man asks rhetorically, "He's been a acting a little wired lately. He's just not himself."
Another opines, "Iraq, you know. It's taken its toll."
"Well, he's very good at deconstructing Michael Moore, but terrible at seeing the holes in his own argument. It's like, come on man, look in the mirror."
These petty attacks are nothing compared to the public denouncements he's received from his former comrades on the left like Tariq Ali, who portrayed Hitchens's conversion to pro-Bush warmongering as a metaphorical casualty of the 9/11 attacks.
"He was never seen again," wrote Ali. "The vile replica currently on offer is a double."
The common line is that Hitchens has succumbed to the rigors of drink and lost his moral compass in a sea of shifting allegiances, seduced by the attention of Paul Wolfowitz and his neocon fraternity. Still another rationale is that we are merely, at long last, seeing the true nature of his authoritarian impulses, historically believed to be a closeted evil of the far left ideologues. And while his critics have created new journalistic subgenre psychologizing Hitchens's motives, for me he serves as a vital case study in understanding the more far-reaching realignment of former institutional left and liberal thinkers with the State-authored war machine.
Hence the swirl of heads which turn to the door as Hitchens finally makes his entrance. He walks in without any affectation and makes his way to a corner table. Wearing a blue collared shirt, tan brown suede jacket and blue jeans, his wolfish beard, whisked with grey, brown and white hair sits like a pedestal under tired sunken eyes. As he scans the room for one of the pretty girls who ferry drinks in from the makeshift bar, he catches my eye and I nod respectfully. Seeing that he is now being swarmed by well-wishers and old friends, I save myself for another encounter when he is less harried.
I turn to find Florence, the omnipresent director, standing behind me. "You want to meet someone absolutely marvelous? She'd be perfect for what you are writing about."
Joan Bakewell looks past me, scanning the faces of the gathered literary elite. Now older than seventy, the British radio and television celebrity has maintained that rare quality of beauty which expresses itself in both physical and intellectual elegance. It must the reward for living such a controversial public life, and serving as a reluctant sex symbol during the last stand of the BBC's patriarchal establishment.
As one of the most known faces at Hay, she's not easy to isolate for an interview, but I'm close. So I drink tea and stand awkwardly beside her. She glances at me and asks, distractedly, "What are you writing about?"
"Liberalism," I say. "Liberals in America."
"Well, I thought they all lived in Manhattan."
Cambridge-educated and a champion of '60s era sexual liberation, Bakewell has endured the unique brand of British chauvinism that alternately labeled her the "thinking man's crumpet," and the "arts tart." But what she's most known for, outside her work as a broadcaster and author, is the seven-year extramarital affair she had with celebrated British playwright Harold Pinter. Dramatized in his moving, emotionally charged 1978 play, Betrayal, the affair was made all the more fascinating and publicly scrutinized by Pinter's friendship with Michael Bakewell, Joan's husband at the time.
More recently, she caused a minor stir in England by reading James Kirkup's sexually explicit poem "The Love That Dares to Speak its Name" on her BBC show, Taboo. In broadcasting the poem, which is written from the perspective of a gay Roman centurion who has sex with Jesus's corpse after the crucifixion, Bakewell directly challenged Britain's archaic blasphemy laws. One can only imagine the scene at Buckingham Palace as she recited the words, "The shaft, still throbbed, anointed with death's final ejaculation."
In defense of the act, Bakewell explained that she was making a point. "You need to show people how sensibilities are offended. It was the very fact that it was to do with Jesus and the disciples that shocked religious people."
Provoking society in the name of individual expression is obviously something that Bakewell finds comfort in. But the idea of freedom means different things to different people. Leaning across her folded legs, she explains, "I use 'liberalism' in the Enlightenment sense. It's the legacy of enlightened ideas about free expression and individual liberty."
Excerpted from WOLVES IN SHEEP'S CLOTHING by STEPHEN MARSHALL. Copyright © 2007 Stephen Marshall. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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