wed 28/02/2024

Spies: Fact & Fiction/Edmund White, Brighton Dome | reviews, news & interviews

Spies: Fact & Fiction/Edmund White, Brighton Dome

Spies: Fact & Fiction/Edmund White, Brighton Dome

Espionage and surveillance, and the American classic gay writer's memories of life in the "land of lotus eaters"

Dark and stormy: from left, Luke Harding, Tim Rob Smith, Dame Stella Rimington, James Naughtie, Liam FoxVictor Frankowski

Espionage may have been the strict theme of the Brighton Festival’s Spies: Fact & Fiction (****), but the talk's perspective quickly widened towards broader aspects of statecraft, secrecy and surveillance.

As might have been expected in a discussion chaired by the Guardian’s Luke Harding, which included ex-MI5 director general (long a novelist, too, with her alter-ego spook Liz Carlyle) Dame Stella Rimington, former defence minister Liam Fox (with his recent work of historical investigation Rising Tides: Facing the Challenges of a New Era – how does he find the time to write it?), and Radio 4’s James Naughtie (with his first venture into crime fiction, The Madness of July – ditto), with Tim Rob Smith (The Farm) completing the line-up.

The festival strand they were slotted into was the crime fiction-driven “Dark & Stormy” – which balmy weekend Brighton outside was anything but – but the discussion veered in that direction. Rimington mused on the need for governments to keep secrets to avert possible massive harm to society, and the media’s role in undermining that status (more than a hint at the Guardian’s role in the Edward Snowden story).

Easier, then, when you’ve got GCHQ hoovering everything up anyway, just in case

Fox expanded such usual perspectives with some of the concerns he had registered in conversations with world leaders as to the real threats out there today: nuclear, unruly Pakistan is the place that most keeps them awake at night (not so surprising); and that 47 % of the water sustaining the world’s population comes from the Tibet plateau (something that might not have occurred to you). No less worrying was Rimington’s admission that it had taken MI5 until the early Nineties before they really “got the measure” of the IRA – so who’s to guess how far anyone has got with the world’s current baddies? Some consolation, perhaps, when Fox recalled the diligence with which he had approached every request warrant for communication interception, so much so that cabinet ministers even staggered their holidays to attend to such issues (easier, then, when you’ve got GCHQ hoovering everything up anyway, just in case?).

It proved a concentrated hour of serious banter for the stalls-full audience at the Brighton Dome Concert Hall. Warning to future moderators: when you have Naughtie on the panel, he's likely to take over the gentle interrogation process with full accomplishment. The details were as telling as anything about the wider picture: we learnt that Rimington, on quieter days at the office, would read spy novels under the filing-cabinet (not an option available to Naughtie’s hero, a minister caught up in a frantic week that could make or break the world, and which probably no one would ever know about). Naughtie, describing himself on the surveillance front as an “authoritarian libertarian”, certainly gave himself some of the best one-liners. Never more so than in a closing riff on Liam Fox’s reflections on the relative merits of British and French imperial (and culinary) policy, and their impact on the profession of espionage. What might we have got? “Le Curry”, of course. Brilliant or dismal, you decide.

More Anglo-French comparisons followed in the evening appearance from Edmund White (****, pictured right), talking to Simon Fanshawe about his new memoir Inside a Pearl, this time on the Brighton Dome stage istelf, the dim spaces of the huge theatre an atmospheric backdrop. British critics are the most vicious, he surmised, while the French ones choose to kill with the insertion of a single phrase for the cognoscenti to pick up. White writes of his life in Paris after his relocation there in 1983, and the book is a collection of his quintessential cultural name-droppings alongside memories of his two great romances of the period (both, confusingly, were with men called Hubert, so one gets renamed).

Fanshawe introduced his interviewee as a “grand arbiteur of taste”, which had White retorting that “dilettante” might be as good a way of describing him. The writer seems today a gently-voiced giant, who hasn’t lost any of his acid wit (on the issue of national faults, against the French need for “always wanting to be right”, there’s American puritanism, and British common sense). It seemed a perfect Brighton closing night event, intimate and reflective, rich in humour (which is, White chimed in perfectly, “the great enemy of sadism”). Fanshawe asked whether pleasure or sadness – the bucolic or the melancholic – was White’s key note. Somewhere between the two, the writer guessed, but the mood last night was somehow, gloriously, elegiac.

No less worrying was Rimington’s admission that it had taken MI5 until the early Nineties before they really 'got the measure' of the IRA

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