As you’d expect, most of the audience who had purchased tickets to hear ‘The Man In The White Suit’ speak about his latest book ‘The End of Empire,’ were over the age of 50. All of them evidently pretty much clued up about The Man’s various careers as: soldier; BBC foreign correspondent; MP; Unicef Ambassador author and these days – witty wordsmith and poet raconteur.
But let’s go back to the ‘hey – we’re all getting older’ side of things. I managed to bump into Martin in his white suit before the event kicked off and two things shocked me. First of all, the fact that the suit is definitely more a creamy colour (perhaps he relies a little bit too heavily on Ecover, as opposed to Daz). But secondly, that the fella could barely manage to walk; that he was clearly in a lot of pain. I began to fret a little bit – that this guy who was definitely not having a great day – would perhaps instead, have been better of at home, enjoying ‘Strictly’ and quaffing triple G and T’s rather than speaking to a packed King’s Hall in Ilkley.
Yet once he was up on stage and facing his fans, the pain clearly became a side-issue and Mr Bell told those assembled that he had simply suffered a nasty spur-of-the-moment leg injury. That no way-Jose was he going to cancel his date with the Yorkshire lit-lovers for a trifling dodgy-leg-thing going on for him.If I had been Martin Bell, I would have made a joke about my ‘dicky war wound.’ But perhaps he lacks my razor-sharp wit, choosing to overlook this particular chance for an amusing anecdote. But anyway, just 15 minutes later, the film-clips were being trollied out. And Martin was very evidently enjoying his stint in front of the crow, regaling them with stories of his time as a BBC TV correspondent – furnishing the crowd with images from Bosnia, Rhodesia, Vietnam, Syria, Kuwait – or Watergate, of John Lennon’s murder during his various frontline nosey-news antics. And yeah – we saw the footage too, of a forlorn looking Martin being stretchered away from the Balkans, after being hit by shrapnel.
Following on the heels of the war-stuff, an audible cheery burst of nostalgia and mirth filled the place as he promised; “But I’m not going to spare you Neil and Christine Hamilton” and we were treated to reminders of the political soap opera that unfolded when Martin stood as an independent parliamentary candidate against Hamilton, the upper-crust Tory MP who was facing allegations of sleaze. (“I mean, I’d heard of Neil. But no one had ever told me about Christine…”) And then after flying the flag for more virtuoso in politics, Martin stepped down from Parliament and wrote a book about the MP Expenses scandal. Most recently he gave up his seat at Tatton and subsequently has been accused of “allowing George Osborne into politics…”
Martin’s opinions on war and the causes of war were thought-provoking; “I’m not a pacifist but yes… war usually is a total waste of time,” and “one of the lessons of history is that we don’t learn the lessons of history.” Perhaps most controversial, was his view that those heart-rending TV images of muslims who suffered during the wars in the Balkans and which were broadcast all over the world – have been directly to blame for any subsequent rise in jihadism and in terrorist activity.
I thought it a shame that he didn’t spend time talking more about his new book ‘The End of Empire,’ which recorded his experiences as a conscript, serving time in Cyprus during the insurgence and which he described as “My best book. Because it’s real.” Because it seemed to me that he had a lot more to share – not the least the vitriol that he still holds for the army officers of the 1950’s (he twice failed the intelligence test required in order to enter those ranks but said “But let’s just say …. I didn’t mind at all – when I saw the officers who had passed…”)
I imagine that Martin Bell has never been compared to ex-SAS soldier and now war-thriller author Andy McNab. But having heard both of their take on army life, on conflicts and on ‘boy soldiers’ – along with their concerns over the lack of political leaders who have had direct experience of war –perhaps next year the festival should invite them both along to discuss the subject. i.e. ‘The Man In White and The Man In Black’. That would be an interesting discussion to hear – never mind the class dynamics behind such a literary combo.
Organisers would need to work hard on pulling a more youthful crowd for such an event, however. Because after all, it’s the younger people who need to hear more about the realities of war and the experiences of the likes of Martin Bell – a chap who has devoted much of his life to tackling injustice and to taking a stand against corruption.
But I still reckon that he needs to change his current washing powder of choice, because after brushing up against the suit – I’m 100 per cent sure that it’s bordering on beige. Hardly Puff Daddy.
But then perhaps that’s a good thing.