Ten years of "An Audience With"

The charms of the public meeting uninterrupted by Paxman or Humphrys.

Ten years ago Tony Benn created a media storm simply by addressing an audience in a regional theatre, answering their questions from a comfy chair with his pipe and a flask of tea. "An Audience With Tony Benn" was such a success that he is still touring it - albeit without his pipe, following a tightening of health and safety regulations. Taunton, Bradford, Huddersfield, Birmingham, Pontardawe and the Isle of Man are just some of the places hosting him this year. He has always maintained that the second half of the event is the most important, when the public can ask their questions. He has been known to wander among the audience chatting before the show and in the interval, and to stay late signing books and debating more questions. When asked what drew him to this format, Benn replied that “it reignites the public meeting”, then added, “uninterrupted by Jeremy Paxman or John Humphrys.”

When Benn encouraged Alistair Campbell to follow his example, I set up some similar dates for January 2004 – Campbell’s first public appearances since his resignation and the publication of the Hutton report. The tour was to start in South Shields, where local MP David Milliband had offered our new star speaker a cup of tea before the show. However, something else also happened before the show, which brought a scrum of reporters to the Customs House venue: Andrew Gilligan resigned from the BBC. 

Facing his audience, Campbell said he was only prepared to take questions from journalists if they had paid for their tickets with their own money. With tickets for the 420-seat venue hard to come by, there were rumours of excessive cash offers from desperate media. He refused to comment on the Gilligan affair, but did speak stridently about the British media, particularly the Daily Mail.

His opinion of "An Audience With Alistair Campbell"? “It confirmed my view that the level of debate you get from the public is often more interesting and more challenging than questions from the media.”

It doesn’t surprise me that our public figures rate the encounter with live audiences higher than discussions managed by the media. Most nights in the year I put on an event in a regional theatre somewhere in the UK. The appetite to hear and question a real, "unmediated" person, particularly one who works at Westminster, is phenomenal. It is also, for the most part, without malice. We deliberately programme a first half of the speaker talking without interruption, a luxury they don’t have in the company of Humphrys or Paxman. Alistair Campbell was able to reminisce about his early exploits writing for Forum magazine, and his career in Fleet Street. By the time they have the opportunity to put their questions, the audience have a sense of knowing the speaker and can engage in much more personal terms.

It was in this personable environment that Joan Bakewell recently made headlines by revealing that she had been told by someone at the BBC that her voice was too posh for TV - ironic since she had worked hard at an earlier time in her life to lose her Stockport accent. As she put it, while doing "An Audience With" she felt she “was comfortably among friends” and had begun to let her hair down. The possibility is always there at our events of a revelation, something volunteered in a supportive environment, rather than forced out by the likes of John Humphrys.

I’m looking forward to our new format, devised for a London venue. At Cadogan Hall speakers will be "In Conversation With" journalist Rob McGibbon, and the second half will be devoted to questions not only from the audience in the hall but also the best of those submitted in previous weeks through Twitter.

The first interviewee? John Humphrys. Send your questions to @askjohnhumphrys

New series at Cadogan Hall, 5 Sloane Terrace, London SW1:

Thursday 31 May, 7.30pm  

Rob McGibbon - In Conversation With ... John Humphrys

Wednesday  27 June, 7.30pm     

Rob McGibbon - In Conversation With ... Felicity Kendal

Wednesday 25 July, 7.30pm   

Rob McGibbon - In Conversation With ... Kelvin Mackenzie

Clive Conway is the impresario responsible for the highly successful An Audience With… theatre series. His guests include leading politicians, writers, thinkers and actors, who return to his format again and again. For events around the country visit www.celebrityproductions.info

Put that in your pipe, Humphrys: Tony Benn, star of "An Audience With ..." (Photo: Getty Images)
DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era