The quiet but fiercely intelligent inhabitants of Central England are overlooked and powerful


I feel seen by William Wordsworth. In 1844, upset over a new railway to connect Kendal with Lake Windermere, he thundered at his countrymen on the letter side in Tomorrow post: “We are too busy on these islands, too much for free pleasure and more from overactivity in the pursuit of wealth, without regard for the good or happiness of others.”

I’m not sure book promotion qualifies properly for the wealth bargain, and it’s certainly not a free pursuit, but pleasure fits perfectly. For a whole year I’m on the go, starting at Budleigh Salterton in East Devon and ending (according to current plans) at Henley on the comfortable Berkshire stretch of the Thames, which includes: Edinburgh, Keswick, Ely, Lichfield, Stratford , Cheltenham, Hay-on-Wye, Bath, Wells, Salisbury and Felixstowe.

Have I left anyone out? Dozens probably. Write to my publicist Patsy at Penguin, they can all fit. Central England (forgive me, Edinburgh) hums once again to the engine of the fierce intelligence and curiosity of its often overlooked, sometimes patronized inhabitants. Many believed that the pandemic would destroy the book festival, or at least put the smaller ones out of operation. But I’m here to tell you that they have returned with action.

“I’m on the move all year round” (Illustration: Tim Alden / i)

People want to meet writers. And writers – certainly this one – want to meet people. A book is a conversation. You can have it alone, you can shout your message to the clouds, you can imagine readers reading your words and the reactions they may have. But nothing on earth can beat the crowded room, the church hall, the theater, where you look them in the eye.

Introductions are superfluous; “He’s had a distinguished career …” No one cares; “He was the first British interviewer to see Obama in the White House.” Yawns. No: what people want is to get started. Why did you write this book? What do you say? Are there truths in it that can be universal in application? What are its best stories, its courage? Soon it will expand to what the universities call the Liberal Arts canon. Language is discussed, human history of thinking about this or that is dissected. War and peace are coming up. The value of everything can be weighed in these sessions, opinions in abundance, facts too.

An example from Budleigh Salterton. I am in David Olusoga, the television historian and author of a story about the black experience of being British. The book is crammed with stories of black people’s overlooked contributions to the history of these islands and the memory loss collectively applied to Britain’s significant role in promoting slavery. Do the good guys from Budleigh Salterton have time for this? do they do for hell …

One could hear a pin drop. Every word hits home. Faintly remembered history classes that focused on “our island history” and single-handedly stifled the Nazis are being re-evaluated. Not everyone agrees with everything the professor says, that’s not what these sessions are about. But there is not a closed mind in space. And it is a great space: hundreds have come for this act of collective thinking. And speaking of thinking: what an empirical mass we are.

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The great rationalist conceit – that everything is in the mind and everything can be grasped and understood by the mind alone – is left at the door of the book festival. Yes, mind does matter. But the speech is experiential. A rethinking of history, a new view of geography, the exploration of space, how to be a spy, how to win a war, cook a meal, overcome a traumatic childhood. The festival goers are not, let’s be straightforward, in the youth’s first flush. But they come to learn.

So sorry to Wordsworth, but there is something indescribably civilized about the trips we book festival goers on this season. As we cut through England’s ancient center and zoom past mountains and settlements that have spread across the country since Iron Age times, houses and villages that can be found in the Domesday Book, we are not at all out of tickling with the essence of the place.

In England’s early morning mists, in Crewe, where I switched trains the other day; in Melksham, Wiltshire, a place I had visited as a child but which I forgot to exist until a diversion gently led us past its flower-covered platforms; at Ely station late at night, silent, but for a drunk man humming to himself as he looked out over the flatness that surrounds it: through all this the train to the book festival brings us.

WH Auden celebrated Natpost and the delivery to Scotland of its letters, its connections. Let us now celebrate the book festival train and the delivery of modern connections, intellectual and practical, to every corner of the nation.

This week I have been…

Emulating …

I think of get a tattoo. All the men I admire most deeply – with the exception of Nick Robinson – are rugby union players. The ballet brutality of the game has been enormously enhanced by the decoration of the arms, legs and yes neck of the mighty protagonists.

All Black Sonny Bill Williams sits at the top of the tree of modern masculinity, of course, but my friend, former Bath and England player Matt Banahan is a decent copy of 6’7 and 17 stone (he is a winger, to cry high) and has blackened his arms with the bright colors of the world. I think I can settle for some kind of cuff. I hope it does not hurt.

Justin Webb’s friend, former Bath and England player Matt Banahan (Photo: Bryn Lennon / Getty)

Self-promoting

The second reason for the tattoo is professional. All too often I get confused with Nick on air. People in remote studios breathe and respond, “Well, Nick …”, as if they’ve been practicing on this line all their lives, like keeping a record list for Desert Island Discs in a top pocket for safety’s sake and when it’s me then they just go for it anyway to cover up their disappointment. No one is going to remember “Justin”, but if I am “the one with the tattoo”, this can give me a descriptive edge.

Eyeball

I know Covid still pushes on all of us, but it’s wonderful that people feel able to get back to the studio. They do not come for our convenience, but for their own sake. As we all know, a face-to-face conversation is far superior to the horror of the downward interview. Humans need to see each other’s every pull and grimace as they interact.

Renew …

My youngest daughter is a U.S. citizen, born there when I was based in Washington DC. Her passport ran dry under Covid, but finally we have had our appointment at the embassy and Clara is fully American again. Her life is filled with joy at the possibilities the passport offers: the most important is the right one at all times to drop us all.

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