It was quite a sight. Lined-up on a temporary rostrum in Cliveden’s “Great Hall” to discuss the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917 were Jacob Rothschild, Simon Sebag Montefiore, Simon Schama and Howard Jacobson, flanked by John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Nancy Astor, the house’s former chatelaine.
This was painted a decade before Balfour’s momentous missive and, recalling Nancy Astor’s unwelcoming attitude towards Jews, gave an ironic touch to the occasion.
The “declaration”, contained in a modest note from Arthur James Balfour to Walter, Lord Rothschild — a copy of which was placed on every audience member’s seat — facilitated “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. The pervasive “anti-Zionism” that these days bedevils that “national home” was rousingly rebutted by the panel, as they reminded us of the continuous, centuries-old Jewish presence there.
Schama sympathetically addressed the Arab cause as well as summarising generations of antisemitism, showing how the primitive Blood Libel lived on into the 20th century, notoriously in the appalling prosecution of Mendel Beilis by the Russian state, no less, in 1913, on the usual, beyond-preposterous charge of murdering a gentile to obtain blood to make matzahs.
“Angry Jew” Jacobson vented his ire upon left-wing, self-styled anti-Zionists for their resolute ignorance of the fundamental Jewish longing for a homeland, and failure to recognise Zionism as a “liberation movement”.
Bringing matters up to date, Montefiore, in answering a question from the audience, condemned Unesco’s “crimes against history”.
Established by Natalie Livingstone, with a view to its becoming an annual event, the inaugural Cliveden Literary Festival’s attendance, atmosphere and enthusiasm will surely fulfil that hope. The likes of Ian McEwan, Sebastian Faulks, Robert Harris and Antonia Fraser were warmly received. Others, notably Sebag Montefiore, Andrew Roberts and a sprightly Michael Gove, appeared to be ubiquitous, popping up all over the place.
Fortnum & Mason supplied food, there was good coffee and the staff were friendly and helpful. Fortunately, the weather was kind but Livingstone and her committee might need to consider the possibility of greater under-cover space in the future.
It being Cliveden, there was a lively session on sex and scandal in high places, speculating on why politicians, as chairman, , Gove, put it, “get an unfair slice of the sexual cake.”
He was interviewing John Preston, author of a book on the Jeremy Thorpe affair, and historian Hallie Rubenhold, whose published work has a distinctively erotic glow, including as it does Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies and The Scandalous Lady W, the 18th-century, high-society story of Lady Seymour Worsley, on which a 2015 TV drama was based.
Screen adaptations were also the subject of Livingstone’s conversation with Daisy Goodwin, who wrote the Victoria TV series, and Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, the film of which starred Keira Knightley.
From an entirely unscientific survey, the award for the festival’s most stimulating event would probably go to: Russia 1917-2017: From the Tsars and Lenin to Putin and Trump. This featured a high-powered panel of Robert Service, Radek Sikorski, Anne Applebaum, Victor Sebestyen and, once more, Simon Sebag Montefiore, exploring the amazing, almost accidental success of Lenin in driving the revolution, along with “barely credible” atrocities, the individual qualities of Stalin and Trotsky, Putin’s political nous, and Donald Trump’s resemblance to a Russian oligarch. Among many interesting nuggets were the assertion that 35 per cent of Russia’s wealth today is owned by 100 people, and a comparison of Lenin to George Best!
One minor quibble: the music accompanying people into the debates was rather bland, which was especially inappropriate for Dylan Jones’s talk on his book about David Bowie (in which Jones hyperbolically described Bowie as “an incredible force for good”).
Overall, however, from John Preston’s sparkling opening interview with Howard Jacobson on the latter’s novel satirising Trump, to the closing discussion of Topsy-turvy politics and the new world order, in which a large and intelligent panel managed to be both gloomy and hilarious, this brand-new book-fest has undoubtedly and excitingly put itself on the cultural map.
Gerald Jacobs is the JC’s literary editor