Iraq Out & Loud @ the Edinburgh Fringe: my experience of reading the Chilcot Report

On Wednesday – just up the street, I was disappointed to note as an Edinburgh physics graduate, from a newly refurbished Appleton Tower (I mean come on, Edinburgh Uni, I know it was a dilapidated wreck that looked like it was made of life-sized Duplo bricks but that was part of its charm!) – I took my turn reading from the Chilcot Report on the UK’s role in the Iraq War, or “The Report of the Iraq Inquiry” to give it its Sunday name, at the Edinburgh Fringe.

To recap, or cap in the first place, the Report – all 12 volumes, 6,255 pages, and 2.6 million words of it – has, since 6pm last Monday evening, been being read out loud from start to finish in a garden shed next to Bob Slayer’s BlundaBus, by comedians, writers, journalists, politicians, law professors and indeed anyone else who happens to be passing.  Basically, when Slayer and his team learned of the vast scale of the Report, the first thought that occurred to them was, “who will actually read it?”  Closely followed by, “let’s find out!”

The format is simple: at the top of every hour, a fresh group of up to six people enter the shed.  Each person takes a turn reading while the others sit and listen.  And so it has continued, and will continue, round the clock, until the whole of the Report has been read.

The intimate venue is a key element.  You can still hear the noise and bustle of the Festival outside while you sit and read (or listen) – but somehow, as I related to one of my co-readers afterwards, it just wouldn’t quite have worked the same in a big theatre.  It had to be out in the open.  After all, this may well be the only time the Chilcot Report is read in its entirety, other than behind closed doors by lawyers and select committee MPs.

And also by so many people – it was literally a lottery who you would be reading with.  In the second of my three sittings, my co-readers included a woman who used to work for Patricia Hewitt, who crops up in the Report as a member of Tony Blair’s cabinet at the time of the war – I didn’t get a chance to ask in what capacity, but given she kept calling her “Pat” I’m guessing she was relatively senior – while in my last stint I had the pleasure of reading alongside comedian Andy Zaltzman, which made up for narrowly missing out on Ian Rankin.

As for the Report itself, you only have to read it to appreciate why it took Sir John Chilcot and his team seven years to put the thing together – there is a lot in it.  But while it is heavy going even for 10 minutes at a time, it was a totally worthwhile experience and I left wishing I could do more.

I was reading from Volume 9 when my turn came, which deals with the reconstruction of Iraq, and specifically section 10.3 which covers oil, commercial issues, debt relief and asylum and stabilisation policy – one of the lighter bits, then.  There were reports of people crying during the readings of earlier volumes, but surprisingly there was the odd moment of laughter here amid all the incredulity at the eye-watering amounts of money we were reading about.

The behaviour of the US appeared to be the source of much of the hilarity – a line about US contractors acting as if advice against travelling to Iraq “did not exist” raised a snigger in the audience, while later on I have to confess I nearly lost it myself at the bit about the UK being excluded from oil policy by the Coalition Provisional Authority because the Americans “felt it was such an important area that they would run it themselves”.

It would also appear that the line “Mr Browne reported to Mr Brown…” works rather better in print than out loud.

So, all in all, an epic experience.  If reading the above has whetted your appetite, there’s still a chance to get involved yourself, by going to the event website or making your way to Bob’s BlundaBus just off South College Street – as one person tweeted, you can’t miss it, it’s a bus – but you’ll need to be quick as at the time of writing they’re nearly onto volume 11 and are expecting to finish on Saturday.

Failing that, should your desire to read from a government document in a garden shed continue unabated, the free magazine Fringepig has already suggested the Hardie Report on the Edinburgh tram project as the text for a possible sequel…