Edinburgh Book Festival: Gordon Brown urges action on child poverty

There's a lot to be said for old-fashioned politicians '“ you remember the kind: civic-minded, idealistic, intelligent, not good at soundbites or liable to start a war on Twitter '“ and Gordon Brown managed to say quite a lot of it as he prowled the Main Stage, speaking without notes yesterday afternoon.
Gordon Brown was looking at how we could bring back hope for the next generation. Picture: Lisa FergusonGordon Brown was looking at how we could bring back hope for the next generation. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Gordon Brown was looking at how we could bring back hope for the next generation. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

The political corrs’ pens went into a frenzy when he got to the point of telling Jeremy Corbyn to get a grip on Labour’s anti-semitism problem, but that was really just a couple of sentences out of a genuinely impressive look at how the world can be stopped on its journey in a hell-bound handcart. For a news story, it was either that or his prediction that the next financial crisis would arise in the poorly regulated shadow banking sector of the Far East. Or maybe his quick tour d’horizon of how Europe was getting its economic act together to bypass Trump’s America and leave Britain further maginalised.

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But Brown’s key point wasn’t any of that. He was trying to look at how we could bring back hope at a time when it seems to have evaporated and polls show two-thirds of us are convinced the next generation will have it worse than we do today. To address the ­economic discontent, cultural ­pessimism and anti-­globalisation running riot in so many ­countries as well as our own, we should, he said, realise that the European Court already has instructions not to infringe on anything pertaining to national identity sentiment. So that’s sovereignty sorted then.

Next up, immigration. If we’re worried about foreigners coming here and taking our jobs, we should introduce a few more rules making it a bit harder, bish, bash, bosh. British jobs for British workers. I remember that.

Tax havens sheltering 40 per cent of multinationals’ profits? International sanctions. Child poverty? Bring back tax credits. Why, he asked, do so few people seem to care about Scottish child poverty increasing from 200,000 in 2010 to 300,000 now and predicted to hit 400,000 by 2027? And as for Scottish independence or ­Brexit, both are, he claimed, attempts to find something that can’t truly exist in our interconnected world. A sign he saw at a demo outside an IMF meeting, he said, put that into sharp focus. It read: “Worldwide campaign against globalisation.”

Earlier on, in the Charlotte Square Sparkathon, we had been tackling the Big One: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Teasing out the reasons for its enduring appeal, Candia ­McWilliam was joined by joined by writer and editor Alan Taylor and chairwoman Gail Wylie, the last two both former chairs of the Muriel Spark Society and therefore, for these purposes, very much la crème de la crème.

Apart from its “prismaticness”, its concision, its teasing ambiguities and far too many other things to list here, the main reason it has lasted so well, said McWilliam, is that we’ve all been children; that many of us have been inspired by teachers; and loads more seen how our experience of life has coated our memories of those days.

The novel has some real-life moorings, no matter how high it soars above them: Spark’s real-life teacher Christina Kay did, apparently, use the phrase “la crème de la crème” and have fascist sympathies; the Old Town the Brodie girls walked through was indeed a grim and slum-like in the 1930s. Taylor chose that very scene to read as an extract, and it made his case perfectly that “rereading Spark would be more use to a writer than any creative writing course”.

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As Taylor pointed out, Spark knew from childhood on that Kay would be a great subject for a novel. But instead of using this – as many writers would have done – for her first novel, she held back until her sixth. By then, she had attended the Eichmann trial. She knew exactly where fascism, charm and charisma could lead and her ­novel darkened – and became greater – as a result.

Miss Brodie also infiltrated into the event with Olga Wojtas and ES Thompson, largely on account of it providing the springboard from which Wojtas performs a double-twisting backwards somersault in her debut comic novel, She’s a great reader of her work, Thomson is a fine historical crime novelist, and if you tune in to Sunday Morning with ­Sally Magnusson on Radio Scotland at 10am you’ll hear what an enjoyable session you missed.