Book Festival Review: Oliver James: Is the Office a Malicious Place? Jesse Norman: Edmund Burke: A Hero of our Time? Sunday, 11th August

I met Nick Barley, the Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, on Wednesday when he came to the Unbound event, sat down at our table, and helped himself to our free wine (okay, I’ll be honest: no, I didn’t know who he was, but he seemed a cool enough kind of dude, so I didn’t wrestle the bottle out of his hands).

Anyway, I was kind of in the zone for performing that night, and when I encountered him briefly in the Authors’ Toilet on Friday (mind out of the gutter there at the back, boy!) he was in the zone for something he was going to go off to do, so our exchanges were pretty brief and inconsequential. I guess as Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival he has a lot of these, in between the long and consequential ones.

Had he had limitless time and inclination to listen to my views, as a punter, of the whole great four week frolic that he puts on every year with some help and no little aplomb, I would have probably said something like: well done buddy; keep going; and don’t forget that sometimes people go to events as an excuse to have lunch.

For so it is with this reviewer and his father-in-law, the latter an eminent man in the medical field, who formerly edited the Journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners. In the intersecting part of the Venn Diagram of our interests, there are a number of intellectual, linguistic, and other topics, but appreciating good food and wine is slap bang in the middle.

So, each year, subject to website crashes and immediate selling out of tickets, we trawl the EIBF website for a couple of weekend events, if possible, either side of a leisurely lunch hour or two. This year we’d managed to get tickets for Oliver James (my choice, although not first choice) and Jesse Norman (his). With the first starting at 10.30 and the second at half past four, there was time for an extended exploration of the tapas menu as well as the carta de vinos at Cafe Andaluz.

First, though, there was Oliver James, a writer in the popular psychology field, pushing a book about office politics. James is clearly used to public speaking, and made a fair go of filling 45 minutes or so with his slightly rambling, and quite amusing, reflections on the whole issue. He was probably at his best when describing the ‘triad’ of personality traits of psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism, which, basically, if you encounter all in the one colleague, is a signal to put as much organisational space between you and him/her as you possibly can. Especially if they’re your boss.

The statistic that people on the psychopathic scale make up 1% of the population at large, but 4% of chief executives, attracted the kind of laughter of recognition you might expect: as my father-in-law commented, the audience was considerably younger than some EIBF events, and those of working age predominated.

However, as we headed to lunch we both agreed a few more pieces of hard data like that might have helped James sell the book at bit more to us. At times his talk seemed to be a portmanteau of his opinions, and whilst it’s harder to back stuff up in a softer science like psychology, his assertion that someone in the Secret Service had told him Tony Blair knew there were no weapons of mass destruction when he made his famous speech, sounded a bit like the kind of thing you pick up from the bloke in the pub who’s been something at that Victoria Quay.

Jesse Norman might have faced an uphill struggle in the afternoon. Not so much the fact that here was an English Conservative MP up to lecture Scots on an Enlightenment figure who has traditionally been seen as a Liberal, as the fact that your reviewer had by then sampled some excellent crianza-level Rioja along with the usual excellent standard fare at Cafe Andaluz. Concentration levels, never at their highest in late afternoon, were not exactly going to be buoyant.

However, Norman was absolutely excellent. His depiction of Burke as a far-sighted statesman in a time of political ferment, sparring with Fox, Pitt the Elder and, ultimately, George III himself, was entertaining and well thought through. Your reviewer went from a position of virtually no knowledge at all of Burke to at least having an inkling of his role in the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, and the London literary scene of the late eighteenth century.

Perhaps the most interesting of Burke’s many political battles was his impeachment of Warren Hastings, the Governor of the East India Company. The Company was essentially all-powerful in India, and Burke’s objective was to curtail that power and stop the abuses and injustices against the Indian people; the impeachment charge failed, but it was a powerful indictment in the public arena of the misuse of corporate power: something that clearly resonates in a few areas today.

Norman was clearly a master of his subject, and good at answering what were actually quite detailed and intelligent questions from the audience at the end. He possibly over egged it a bit when praising the Scottish education system compared with that in England, but, hey, he was doing his best to charm us.




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