Review: James Naughtie charms at Harrogate History Festival

Broadcaster and historical author James Naughtie.
Broadcaster and historical author James Naughtie.

By Graham Chalmers

“If I can just mention this briefly.”

The audience laughs and James Naughtie himself laughs, too.

One of BBC Radio 4’s leading political ‘interrogators’ for 30 years knows well enough he has built up far too many good stories to simply mention anything ‘briefly’.

Poor Robert Wilton sitting opposite him, looking exactly as you would assume a handsome former Foreigh Office diplomat turned humanitarian charity founder would look, doesn’t stand a chance.

He does manage to get a few questions out but the tangent is the order of the day.

Not that Wilton seems to mind. The interviewer spends most of this Harrogate History Festival event in rapt attention to the interviewee, a knowing smile on his face.

Facing him is a genuine stalwart of British journalism who, like himself, has moved successfully into historical fiction writing.

Set in the intertwined worlds of espionage and government in the 1970s, The Madness in July appears to be a well-written, sophisticated conspiracy yarn.

As things turn out, Naughtie only finds times to read out a few passages from his own book in those rare moments when he manages to recover the event’s focus.

But no one at the Old Swan Hotel seems to mind where his delightfully precise but wonderfully soft Scottish burr takes them.

The Naughtie facing the audience is a more charming and relaxed one than the one who tackles squirming, wriggling politicians on a daily basis.

He may look a little crumpled, like a tired academic, but his intellect is strong, balanced and fair, like a gentle sage.

Thoughtful but witty, this 63-year-old son of Aberdeenshire treats us to some fascinating stories of close encounters with the famous and powerful, people like Diana Mosley, Margaret Thatcher and ex-French president Nicolas Sarkozy whom he refers to casually as “Sarko”.

It’s clear, however, there’s a deep well of knowledge he is unwilling or unable to dip into.

We do learn a few interesting things about how he came to write The Madness in July, a novel in which Naughtie explores what he’s come to believe is the deepest and trickiest dividing line in affairs of state – that of the private realm and the public realm.

He tells us that it his wife who was instrumental in one of the most crucial turning points in the book’s genesis - advising him to switch the novel’s setting from the present day to that time 40 years or so ago when he was just starting out in newspapers.

Writing about characters in an era before the internet and smart phones tied us all to what he describes as an “electronic string” liberated the whole story, he explains.

Suddenly his characters could plot and scheme without the world knowing exactly where they were or what they were doing.

All good things come to an end but I put up my hand on behalf of the Harrogate Advertiser to ask him a question at the Q&A afterwards.

He replies with a “Graham” this and a “Graham” that and knowing references to we two being in “the same game.”

Ha! It’s a flattering thing for him to say but for the only time in the whole afternoon James Naughtie is clearly wrong.