Iain Dale's diary: Festivals both digital and drive-in, Beirut, and why I speak out as a survivor

Long after I was the first Brit to visit Beirut since the release of John McCarthy it became the tourist destination it should always have been. But the recent turmoil has ended that.

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If we lived in normal times, I would be in the middle of a book tour, speaking at ­literary festivals across the country in towns from Appledore to Ilkley. Before the pandemic I had 40-odd speaking engagements planned to publicise my book on the decline of public discourse, Why Can’t We All Just Get Along: Shout Less, Listen More. Nearly ­every one of them is now cancelled, with the exception of the Appledore Literary Festival in September, which will be a “drive-in” event. Extinction Rebellion will no doubt picket it.

The book was supposed to come out at the end of May, but my publisher decided to postpone it until shops reopened. Trouble is, I’m not sure anyone is going into bookshops much nowadays, though Amazon is doing a roaring trade. I do worry about the future of many of our independent bookshops if we don’t give them more of our business in the run-up to Christmas. Having once been a bookshop owner ­myself, I sympathise with their plight.

As an aside, I am astonished at the number of people who have told me they’ve bought the audiobook of Why Can’t We All Just Get Along. In the age of the podcast, audiobooks have come into their own. Someone asked if Rick Stein was going to be reading my book for me, seeing as he is apparently my ­“soundalike”. I can’t hear it myself, but most weeks I hear from people saying we have identical voices. We are also both bald and own Jack Russells.

Speaking up about male rape

The week before last I got a call from the Observer asking if they could interview me about a feature they were planning on male rape. They were centring it on a scene in the TV series I May Destroy You, but they had read the piece in my book about an incident 30 years ago when I was nearly raped in a seedy flat in east London.

I did the interview and was somewhat surprised to see that the published article was only about me and didn’t mention the TV programme at all! Gulp. I decided that I might as well embrace it and talk about it on the radio, so we did a two-hour phone-in on LBC talking to survivors of rape and sexual assault.

In the UK, more than 12,000 men are raped each year, but only a fraction ever go to court. The charity SurvivorsUK claims that it takes an average of 26 years for men to talk about their experiences. I told my partner, John, that the Daily Mail had commissioned me to write an 1,800-word feature. “See the can of worms you’ve opened,” he said. “Can’t you keep anything private?”

I don’t look at it that way. It’s important for people like me to talk about things like male rape so other ­victims know they are not alone.

Edinburgh’s digital fringe

Another victim of Covid-19 is the ­Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I should have been there doing another run of my “All Talk” shows, where I interview leading figures in politics and the media. I had even lined up Nigel Farage one day, followed by Michel Barnier the next. I do like to cater for every taste.

Instead, each Wednesday this month I am taking part in the Edinburgh Digital Fringe, hosting three lunchtime “In Conservation” interviews as Zoom webinars. There really is an appetite for long-form conversational interviews. I’ve lined up David Davis, Alastair Campbell and Gyles Brandreth to entertain the nation. I doubt I’ll get a word in edgeways.

Mental health hour

Two weeks ago I finally returned to the LBC studio in London full time, having spent four months broadcasting my evening show from my bedroom. Technology is a wonderful thing. If I hadn’t been honest with listeners and told them where I was, I doubt they could have told the difference. In more than 90 programmes the line only dropped three times.

Unfortunately, one of those times was during our weekly Thursday night mental health hour, when a caller was explaining that he felt suicidal. I managed to dial back in within two minutes, but much to my ­consternation no one had realised I hadn’t been there. The caller had been chatting with my colleague Emma Kenny, who has been an absolute inspiration and friend to many of our listeners over the past few months. I truly believe that our mental health hours are the ultimate in public ­service broadcasting. My inbox tells me that they have provided many people – even those who just listen – with a lifeline.

Devastation in Beirut

The tragedy in Beirut last week will live long in the memory of a country that has had its share of traumas over recent decades. Back in the early 1990s I visited Beirut to speak at a conference on – believe it or not – transport privatisation. When I arrived I was told by the British ambassador that I was the first Brit to visit since John McCarthy was released from captivity. Had I known that, I wonder if I would have gone. I was guarded by the SAS during the whole three-day trip and was warned not to leave the hotel without informing the British Embassy.

Naturally, I ignored this and was taken on a tour of the city and of the Beqaa Valley by one of the conference organisers. I remember touring the port, which was largely ­inactive because of the number of ships that had been sunk in the harbour during the civil war. The city was one big ruin.

Over the years Beirut has been brought back to life and become the tourist destination it ­always should have been. But recent political turmoil – and now last week’s explosion – have ended this for the time being. The whole world was affected by the scenes of devastation. The Israelis were moved to offer humanitarian aid, but this was immediately rebuffed by the Lebanese government. Natch. Why can’t we all just get along, indeed. 

“Why Can’t We All Just Get Along: Shout Less, Listen More” by Iain Dale is published in hardback by HarperCollins. Signed copies are available from politicos.co.uk

This article appears in the 14 August 2020 issue of the New Statesman, This house must fall

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