Yet another field of battle: literary festivals.

Last week, in the days leading up to the Hay Literary Festival – the UK’s most prestigious literary event which, each May since 1987, has brought together high-profile speakers from across the world – a crisis was unfolding. 

Those scheduled to appear had received an email from an organisation called Fossil Free Books, urging them to protest against the festival over its sponsorship deal with the Edinburgh-based investment firm Baillie Gifford. The email asked them to denounce Baillie Gifford – which invests two per cent of its portfolio in the petrochemical industry and which, FFB argue, also profits from “Israeli apartheid, occupation and genocide” – or read aloud a poem by a Palestinian author, or withdraw from Hay entirely. 

Speakers were also encouraged to sign a letter of protest, while a second email gave details of several pro-Palestinian demonstrations scheduled to take place at the festival, with details on how speakers could support them. Various publicists and publishers found the tone of this email “quite threatening”. There was unease about safety concerns, and that authors would find themselves caught up in the protests. 

Well look at it from the point of view of the activists. How much trouble is it to send a bullying email to lots of people compared to actually doing something useful?

Speaking at Hay on Thursday on the subject of control being exerted over the arts, the novelist Howard Jacobson said: “The idea that anybody can come along and say ‘you can’t read this and you can’t read that’… is a desecration. It’s a desecration of books, it’s a desecration of the idea of literature”. He also described feeling “sorry for the people who organise this festival, because they have been subjected to the most cruel and objectionable pressure.”

And frankly it just seems too meta to make any difference to climate change. There are too many steps. It looks more like performing Doing Something as opposed to actually doing something.

Toby Mundy, who runs the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction, previously known as the Samuel Johnson Prize – the £50,000 prize is run entirely independently from Baillie Gifford, who merely provide “a substantial sum” to finance it – says: “I was dismayed and disappointed that [Hay] chose to make this decision. Baillie Gifford play an indispensable role in the cultural life of this country. They fund public spaces in the form of book prizes and literary festivals where issues can be debated openly, without seeking to control in any way what happens in those spaces.”

“People with very strong views feel they have the right to impose them on other people. It puts institutions like Hay in a very difficult position,” says the novelist Joan Smith, who last appeared at Hay in 2019. “It’s authoritarian. It worries me that individual authors will find themselves under pressure to sign their statement for fear that, if they don’t, people will think they are a climate-change denier. Yet it’s very hard to see how the call to cut ties with Baillie Gifford will have the slightest influence on climate change. The Middle East in particular is far too complex a situation to be solved by these sorts of single-issue campaigns.” 

What I’m saying. It’s drama rather than really doing something. I suppose there’s an argument that all such actions are about raising awareness and thus worth doing, but there’s also an argument that they’re just performances.

Baillie Gifford argues that the accusations levied against its investments are misleading. They point out that its two per cent investment in the petrochemical industry is far below the industry average, which is five to 11 per cent. Mundy, who as a member of the Baillie Gifford Prize board regularly carries out due-diligence checks, suggests that Baillie Gifford also “invest much more than that in companies working in clean energy”. 

Ok but on the other hand punishing Baillie Gifford is easier than working in clean energy.

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