Byline brings intelligence and insight to new urban location

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There’s something satisfyingly substantial about Byline. It’s an intelligent – intellectually stimulating – festival chock full of insight, interest and intrigue. Albeit the latter I’ve added just for the sake of alliteration.

Let me be clear up front, I’m a big fan of the Byline Festival. Every year I come away feeling I’ve learned a lot about our world, with my understandings honed and polished and my brain bulging.

Nestled somewhat claustrophobically under the Portobello Road flyover, this was the festival’s first year in London after three years in gorgeous Ashdown Forest (with a gap of a couple of years for reasons you may well be aware of). As a result things felt more restrained and utilitarian than usual, which inevitably rather reduced Byline’s previous bucolic charm.

This wasn’t helped by many of the discussions being streamed live onto Byline TV.  It opened the event up to a much greater number of people (a good thing), but at times it left me feeling more part of a studio audience than a lost weekend festival wild child.

I needed to adjust my expectations.

Once I’d got over myself and the near hypothermia of the Friday evening, I can confirm that late April can be extremely cold, I began to tuck enthusiastically into the great feast of discussions and entertainments on offer. I stuck predominantly to the über urban-chic Media Circus hall rather than the Flyover Forum, mainly as the sound outside was a bit dodgy, but also because there was much to enjoy inside. And it was warmer.

I must mention in dispatches Lord Adebowale who, as well as taking part in a number of inspiring discussions, opened proceedings and set a relaxed and inclusive tone for the weekend with charismatic aplomb. Other highlights for me included discussions: Empire and the Culture War, Black Lives Matter, Post Trump America, Problems with Policing, and the Rise of the Far Right.

The Bad Press Awards – this year hosted by the inimitable Jonathan Pie – is a generally accepted annual highlight of the event. I had mixed feelings about it this time around; yes it was slick and clever but it was hard not to feel as if I had stumbled upon an exclusive London journalism-industry love in. This isn’t all that surprising of course as Byline is primarily about journalism. The clue is in the name.

Usually, as well as the intellectual stuff, I’m a big fan of the music and comedy on offer too. Indeed Pussy Riot’s two wild and frantic sets in Sussex remain highlights of my gig going life.

It wasn’t due to the quality, but this year the music and comedy left me a little cold. To some extent literally as it was mainly on in the evening, but also I think due to the location. Central London is hardly short of fantastic attractions so there wasn’t the uncommon and entrancing juxtaposition of isolated forest and top class entertainment. Also, with no staying onsite, the temptation was to leave early to get home as soon as things got chilly.

The sunny Saturday was the highlight of the weekend for me. The welcome warmth meant I could idle around beer-in-hand in the small outside area of the site (surely one of the delights of any festival?), while dipping into the debates whenever the urge came upon me. I didn’t hang around all day mind you – the proximity of the Portobello Road meant that there were many excellent eating options to be had in addition to the largely meat-based options onsite. 

All said and done this year’s festival was a success, albeit the Sussex location is of course more magical than central London. The attendance – the age of attendees is mainly 30 upwards – seemed healthy enough to me, although it was a little thin on the ground early in the morning and late in the evening. Queues at the bars and the – clean – toilets were short, there were always seats to be had in the discussions, etc . What’s not to like? I have every intention of returning next year.

Neil del Strother

Published on 09 May 2022 by Neil del Strother

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