Bath Literature Festival: Master storytellers - why some politicians can make us believe


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The Independent Culture

Boris Johnson was the perfect example of a modern politician because he “excelled at telling a leadership story” even if he didn’t do much in the way of actual leadership, Gavin Esler has told the Bath Literature Festival.

The BBC broadcaster and author said that the Mayor of London “bears out the central thesis” of his new book about leadership, Lessons from the Top.  Esler asked his audience if anyone could think of a policy for which Johnson was actually responsible “that doesn’t involve bikes or transport”. There were about 250 people in the room. No one could.

The thesis of Esler’s book – subtitled How Successful Leaders Tell Stories to Get Ahead and Stay There – is that to have any followers in the 21st century, the stories leaders tell will have to change, driven by profound shifts in our culture and media. Not only do they need to tell us who they are and where they want to lead us, but they must be able – like Barack Obama – “to cleverly defuse all the worst things you might think about them before you think them”.

A masterclass in this skill was provided by the singer Dolly Parton when Esler interviewed her in Nashville, Tennessee. He asked her whether she had considered following Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger from showbiz into politics. “Honey, she said, “there have been enough boobs in the White House without mine.”

Which bits of her were real, Esler later asked. “It’s all fake!” she declared. Yet, he insists, Parton has “one of the sharpest minds I’ve ever encountered. She’s great. A really good songwriter and one of the biggest employers [through her Dollywood theme park] in one of the poorest areas of the United States”.

Both Ed Miliband and David Cameron had been making efforts to present themselves better – “to tell their more interesting, personal stories” – Esler said. Yet while “it is quite clear that our politicians are doing their best [to get us out of the financial crisis], they don’t have a magic bullet”.

Saturday: What’s on

11.15am Jonathan Bate explores the poetry, prose and pity of the “Great War” and asks why it still exerts a fascination for us.

2.45pm The Suffragette and the Jockey. Di Atkinson discusses the moment, 100 years ago, when two worlds collided.

6.15pm Pat Barker returns to the characters of Life Class for her new novel, Toby’s Room.

8pm Hilary Mantel, the suddenly controversial novelist, comes to Bath to discuss Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies and the long shadow of Thomas Cromwell.