‘The public aren’t told what might constitute suspicious behaviour. But I occasionally ponder the circumstances in which I would report anything’
In recent weeks I have been travelling the length and breadth of the UK by train. Everywhere I have gone I have heard and read the same jolly imprecation from British Transport Police. It encourages people who see something suspicious to report it to the authorities. “See it. Say it. Sorted” is the sensible soundbite. I suppose this must be linked to the bomb recently left on a London Underground train, and to events in May at Manchester Arena when a young man of Libyan heritage carried out a suicide bombing at a pop concert. Posters appealing for witnesses to this latter atrocity still flutter on the railway stations of the north.
The public aren’t told what might constitute suspicious behaviour. But I occasionally ponder the circumstances in which I would report anything. I wonder if I would do so even in the most “slam-dunk” case. It would have to be somebody carrying something that was recognisably a bomb, which I could actually hear ticking or similar. Even then I wonder if I would report it. Especially not if they shouted “Allahu akbar.” Basically, anything before the moment of ignition involves risks (“We always knew you were a bigot”) that far outweigh the benefits of not being blown up.
In Glasgow I speak to a newly-formed Free Speech society. A couple of hundred students pour into a room booked off campus so as to avoid the nuisances caused by today’s self-appointed censors. From every imaginable background and variety of politics, the students are a delight: smart, well-informed, open-minded, argumentative yet polite. Views differ on a whole range of things, but for the best part of two hours (and several more afterwards in the pub) we argue out a whole range of ideas and facts about which their generation are deeply concerned but around which discussion seems restricted to the point of silence.
A day later I am in Wigtown, in south-west Scotland. This beautifully situated Dumfriesshire town has had a revival in recent years as Scotland’s Hay-on-Wye and includes a book festival. Judy Murray (mother of Andy) is due to speak after me, and I wonder whether the explanation for my packed house isn’t that the attendees have booked to see the wrong Murray.
Following a pattern familiar at such festivals, an interviewer has been appointed to tease out the theses of my book. Except that from the unremittingly hostile introduction and first question onwards it is clear that this interviewer (ex-BBC and Independent) has decided his role should be to expose me publicly. He is so unrelentingly negative that at various points I, and some members of the audience, laugh aloud. Notwithstanding his efforts plenty of books are sold, but I leave for my B&B slightly sadder. Not because I’ve had a difficult time (once I realised the encounter was to be hand-to-hand conflict I engaged happily) but because I felt the audience had been cheated. The night before, with questions from a young and open-minded audience, I and everyone else had been generous with their ideas and thoughts. A day later, thanks to a bit of dreary old-school hackery, an interviewer managed to create an event that was ungenerous and unenjoyable.
Back in London I slip into the audience at the Hammersmith Apollo — normally a venue for comedians and rock stars. On this occasion it is for a discussion with the atheist writers Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. It is an extraordinary thing on a weekend evening to see a venue (with more than 3,000 seats) packed out with eager and largely young punters. The discussion gets most interesting on points of divergence. For instance, while Harris concedes that the problem of meaning in life remains a major challenge for non-religious people, Dawkins takes a contrary view: that there is a life of nobility and purpose to be had in staring out at this hurricane and saying, “Yes, this is my situation.” I would love to hear a public discussion with religious and non-religious thinkers which started from this point. There is clearly a huge appetite for it.
I round off with a Sunday morning discussion with Bernard-Henri Lévy in front of a live audience in London. It is such a pleasure talking with someone with whom you have about 90 per cent of views in common. As ever, Bernard makes one feel buttoned-up, not to mention untravelled. In the previous week alone he had been in Ukraine and Kurdistan. I then have to dash to the Wimbledon Literary Festival, where a Marxist is lined up to oppose me on a panel. The heart sinks again. These people seem to turn up ready to slay a dragon. I turn up in the hope of having an interesting and frank discussion. I fear audiences at such events must end up feeling they have viewed a slightly bored non-dragon. But Marxism would appear to be in the air again, so it should probably be resisted.
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