Strange bedfellows II – AC Grayling and Rory Bremner at Swindon Festival of Literature

14 May

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A couple of nights ago we had our first comedy / thinky mash-up with Helen Lederer and Peter Tatchell. And last night, we enjoyed an equally unlikely billing – a double-header with philosopher A.C. Grayling and impressionist Rory Bremner. Grayling, who introduces himself as the warm-up act to Rory Bremner, has a new book – The Challenge of Things: Thinking Through Troubled Times – to promote.

He eloquently describes it as “a collection of essays; a miscellany of things written for particular occasions that required a response.” Festival director Matt Holland cheekily describes it as “a book of fifty essays, some of them quite short, a perfect book to keep in the loo” to which Grayling responds “How do you describe a man reading in the toilet? Multi-tasking.”

Grayling has chosen two essays on which to focus. The first – and the one I’ll recount here – seems like it’s going to be about the indistinguishability of our cities which – he says – all now resemble Manhattan. He mourns the loss, for instance, of the traditional Chinese siheyuan.

Then he swerves off to internet privacy, and the question of trust. At one point the lecturer suggests that in the age of Wikipedia teaching must become about understanding, rather than knowledge, which is at everyone’s fingertips: a complete counter-view to that offered by educator Daisy Christodoulou earlier in the festival.

He describes the internet as “the biggest lavatory wall in history – there for everyone to scribble their thoughts on.” By way of illustration, he tells a funny story about fellow philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, who became the victim of a hoax after quoting “a leading authority on Immanuel Kant,” Jean-Baptiste Botul. The problem was that Botul did not exist – he was a fictional character from a satirical magazine, who had given rise to a school of philosophical thought called Botulism. Remember that – it will become relevant again in a minute.

Eventually, we return to China, and the power shift from West to East. Grayling, who has spent time in China and loves the country and the people – he can even recite poems in Chinese – says this power shift will have a fundamental effect on our world. In the 20th century, he says, emerging nations took their lead from the modern democracies of America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, figuring that the United States holds the key to economic success and military power. But in the 21st century, the Chinese model has become the preferred political architecture of choice. Democracy is sluggish. China’s one party state gets things done. Its economic miracle is based on part on the re-education through work programme, in which political dissenters are sent to labour camps to produce material goods bought in the West. “China has the efficiencies of tyranny; that’s why it’s been so successful,” he says. “As we look towards the future, we wonder what flavour the world will acquire, as it shifts its attention to China.”

Thirty minutes later, we’re back in our seats for Rory Bremner. It’s a fresh audience (separate tickets for both events) but it seems a lot of people have chosen to enjoy the double bill. “Well,” says Bremner, “Professor Grayling has covered most of what I was going to talk about. Did he do the Botulism joke?”

Bremner does what Bremner does – satirises our political system and leaders with some excellent impressions. I could reel off joke after joke, but will resist the temptation, because most of the gags were on BBC2 an hour after he left the stage, in Rory Bremner’s Election Report. “So you’re the first people to hear this stuff,” he tells us; forgetting, perhaps, that his show was filmed before a studio audience. Okay among the first.

This election, he says, has been particularly frustrating for him. Not only did he have to rewrite two-thirds of the material for the TV show – the jokes and sketches were based on a hung parliament result – but many of the characters, including Ed Miliband, have found themselves out of a job. “It’s really annoying when you get a voice right and then they go,” he says. There are some characters left, of course. He describes UKIP as “the gift that keeps on giving”. “The only thing better than Nigel Farage resigning is that they wouldn’t accept his resignation,” he says.

All his jokes are topical, of course, but some are geographically relevant too. On the bedroom tax, he adopts the voice of David Cameron and pleads: “…take the Earl of Cardigan, who may lose his £10 million house through no fault of his own…” On benefits cuts, he channels Ian Duncan Smith to declare: “One man’s suicide is another man’s benefits saving,” before noting that Swindon North MP Justin Tomlinson has been promoted to the post of Disabilities Minister. “He has not got a good record,” warns Bremner. “Look up his record on welfare.” (or just click this link).

In a thoughtful moment, he wonders what went wrong with Labour’s campaign. He wasn’t the first – and won’t be the last – Swindon Festival of Literature guest to ruminate that it lacked vision. And, in the Q&A session, he returns to the subject of bland career politicians. “They’re that much duller,” he says. “Character has become almost a liability. They are interviewed worrying not about what they say, but whether they say anything that can be picked up on. They keep their heads down.” Okay there’s Boris, and Nigel, and Bremner’s David Cameron impression is obviously spot-on, even though he’s the epitome of the boring politician (John Major, by contrast, who we all thought was boring, actually has an instantly-recognisable voice), but now Bremner is going to have to learn how to do George Osborne. “It sounds like a charity appeal, doesn’t it?” he says. “This man has to listen to hours and hours of George Osborne…”

Words by Peter Davison. Pictures © Calyx Pictures

One Response to “Strange bedfellows II – AC Grayling and Rory Bremner at Swindon Festival of Literature”


  1. Public Intellectual is not a dirty name – Suzannah Lipscomb at Swindon Festival of Literature | Festival Chronicle - 17th May 2015

    […] audiences, some were unexpected: Will Hutton, Shami Chakrabarti, Alan Johnson, Roman Krznaric, AC Grayling, Daisy Christodoulou, Danny Dorling, Peter Tachell, Henry Marsh, Robert Hewison, Julian Spalding, […]

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