Ho for Hay

Hay Festival

Let’s go to the Hay Festival. Three days of books and people, just over the border into Wales. Well, I’d not been to the Festival before now, for all its fame, and it’s been too long since I visited the book town that gave the world book towns.

Staying just outside Hereford. A so-so town with a prodigious cathedral, home to the Mappa Mundi and a chained library to make anyone smile at the strategies necessary to thwart light-fingered monks. The Mappa Mundi, a c1300 map of the world as it was then understood, displays a world in which faith, history and geography all coalesce. It combines exploration with theology, myth with certainty, Herodotus with the Bible, times past, passing and present. The Mappa Mundi is the Medieval mind revealed. It is the truest map that was ever devised.

The Mappa Mundi

Hereford rush-hour traffic smashes our timetable. The road curving through the hills and fields of perfect greenery, leading us to fields outside Hay-on-Wye, where well-practised locals guide to a spot overlooking town, river, and the cluster of pavilions that is home to the Hay festival.

A walk along plastic paving that yields unnervingly to the soft ground beneath, then bag checks and we are in. Stalls, food halls and stages are arranged in a square with canopied walkways. This is a place accustomed to rain, with the necessary strategies in place.

The venues are called stages. We enter the Discovery Stage, half-an-hour late, our tickets reduced to QR codes. The world of history and geography is now an illusion, held together by faith in phones. The Mappa Mundi has Jerusalem at its centre. Now the centre of the world is me.

Or that’s the illusion. And just so long as I keep up the payments.

Hay Festival, via hayfestival.com

Michael Mann is speaking. He is an American climatologist, and not the film director. I think wistfully of some festival booking mix-up in which the director of Heat finds himself fielding questions about global warming, while Michael E. Mann ends up somewhere else, struggling to tell us what Al Pacino contributed to his vision of good and evil. Instead he is here, informing us about climate models and how many species will become extinct at particular percentage rises in global temperatures. He is slick and quick with his answers. Each presentation lasts an hour – an interviewer and interviewee with a book to sell, lights up for a few questions from the audience, then the clock runs down, applause, and on to the author signings in the bookshop tent.

The crowd is the most middle-class group of people I have ever seen. One earnest questioner tells Mann he read The Guardian environment column religiously. He worries about eating mange tout that has been imported from overseas. This may or may not have been a joke against himself.

Cooking crêpes in the food hall

To the Oxfam book tent (a fine copy of Flaubert’s Parrot), then to a talk by Belgian historian David van Reybrouck. He is not yet in Britain the name that he is elsewhere, but this is likely to change. He speaks to a small audience about his epic book, Revolusi, on the Indonesian revolution, and we are gripped. A subject few might think of becomes a subject all should think of. He manages to be modest yet leave we mere mortals daunted at the breadth of knowledge and the work involved in writing history that matters. He wanted to interview elderly Indonesians and found one sure method was to use the dating app Tinder, accepting everyone.

To the dining tent, where dedicated stalls offer delights from India, Vietnam, Tibet and France. We plump for fish and chips.

Saturday dawns. There is sunshine to bless the day. Writing and walking, then back along the country roads.

There is much more than author talks. Stalls sell handcrafted goods. There are walks, tours, children’s activities, a surprising number of workshops on making pizzas. One could be a festival-goer and not see anyone with a book to sell. But the stages are where the festival’s heart beats.

Clive Myrie on stage and screen

The biggest of the stages is the Global Stage. Here the stars of the festival are put on show, where the festival seems nearer in spirit to pop than literature. The queue folds back in on itself, through tents and around corners, before we shuffle in to our seats and a distant view. On comes Clive Myrie, the doyen of BBC television news, here to sell his autobiography in paperback. He is a dot in the centre while we fix our eyes left or right on screens that show us the man put on a performance that is pure acting.

He speaks soundly on how news works. He speaks pointedly on race. He speaks guardedly on political beliefs. His timing is immaculate. He is a showman.

Tibetan curry for supper. Rather fine. We are convinced of its authenticity.

The Hay festival is turning green. Debates on the climate crisis abound, whether or not anyone has a book to sell. Hence a session with Ed Miliband, Shadow Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, and climate scientist David King. But a General Election has been announced that Ed is on the campaign trail, hoping to remove the word ‘shadow’ from his job title. So we get Ed somewhere in Doncaster on a big screen, David and interviewer seated on the stage, and we puzzle how this is going to work.

The audience contains no climate sceptics, nor anyone who does not believe that Labour will win the General Election. It’s a given.

Things unfold strangely. King is an eloquent man who has every figure at his command and can see where the overheated world is going. He could defeat anyone in argument, one feels, as he speaks uninterruptedly for twenty-four minutes, the interviewer not making any attempt to break in to this daunting exposition of crisis now and crisis impending. Ed fidgets patiently. He is not a man for sitting still.

Ed Miliband waiting for the show to begin

Then King loses his audience. It’s an extraordinary moment. He turns from analysis to speculation. He speaks about ways to tackle the changing climate in the Arctic by seeding clouds in some way. Bright white clouds, he says dreamily. He loses his audience. How uncanny it is when you sense the mind of everyone in an audience shifting collectively, from entrancement to doubt. This is fantasy and we do not want fantasy, our interconnected minds say.

Ed speaks. He knows the science but he knows people better. He sees positives among the doom, with a sharp and necessary eye on what voters understand. Technology occasionally swallows his voice with squeaks and at one point, when answering a crucial point, freezes him entirely. We laugh with disappointment.

Questions from the audience. The atmosphere turns tense when an angry woman from the Just Stop Oil protest group demands change now and one wonders what effect throwing orange paint on a large video screen might have. Ed says he understands her position but totally disagrees with her group’s actions. It is a most adroit answer. Good politicians win arguments.

The Addyman Annexe

Sunday dawns. An early walk through damp paths to catch the bus into Hay for a solo morning, hitting the secondhand bookshops. This requires preparation, a long list of wants and dreams are scribbled on my Hay guide. An empty shoulder bag knows what it is in for.

Hay-on-Wye, population 1,900, has twenty-seven bookshops. Its bibliomaniacal transformation began in 1962 when Richard Booth opened his first shop, progressively creating the idea of a book town as more shops offering more second-hand book gathered about his. Eventually he declared Hay to be a separate kingdom, with himself as king and his horse as prime minister. Passports were issued.

I have three hours and the initial feeling is one of oppression. Whatever it is I want to do can’t be done, because it’s all too much. Gradually the head steadies, the eye sorts out the fine shops from the ones I can pass by, and the mind sharpens.

Richard Booth, the largest shop in the town (and the largest of its kind in the world it claims, though I am sceptical), is too crowded with avid festival goers. Smaller, and fairly full itself, is the meticulously well-judged Addyman Annexe, in which every book is of interest. I emerge with a biography of Daniel Defoe and a determination to return. The elegant Poetry Bookshop yields two slim volumes of Peter Scupham. The voluminous Hay Cinema Bookshop (built out of a cinema rather than being full of films books) has a surprise English translation of Dutch anti-colonialist classic Max Havelaar, a fine complement to Van Raybrouk’s Revolusi.

The bag is groaning. That copy of Shiva Naipaul’s Black and White was the last straw.

Queuing for the stars

The afternoon beckons as the rain clouds gather. Outside the Global Stage another crowd queues patiently, excitedly. Our star speaker is Caroline Lucas, the nation’s first and only Green Party MP. The audience is full of people who adore her, who would quite like to be her, or at least look and talk like her. Their ecstasy is complete when the interviewer is revealed to be Lady Hale, former president of the Supreme Court and fair-minded scourge of the Brexiteers. It’s like an unexpected Destiny’s Child reunion.

Lucas is here to promote her book Another England. It combines politics with literary quotation, appropriately enough for the location. Hale is new to interviewing, as opposed to judging, and proceedings stumble a little, as Lucas sometimes rambles, sometimes turns to soundbites that get easy applause.

The wind blows the plastic roof, which billows and creaks. Midway through someone collapses behind us, halting proceedings for five minutes. Voices ask if there is a doctor in the house and it feels as if quarter of the audience stands up.

Torrential rains falls as we eat afterwards. We know we are in Wales.

The Coming Storm

Podcasters are everywhere. They are the new writers of our age, at least they all seems to have books out. We see the BBC’s The Coming Storm, after the storm has passed, which tries to understand conspiracy theories. The last resort of the powerless.

I absentmindedly leave a bag on books on the grass and pay the price.

The sun shines once more. A brief return to the town, to be gifted a copy of Ford Madox Ford’s Memories and Impressions. It is almost too beautiful for words.

In the evening, Jeanette Winterson. The lights dim. This is theatricality, which has been absent so far, all being content with the plain triumvirate of interview, questions, book signing. Not Jeanette. She strides on stage, unaccompanied, head-mike like a rock star, and proceeds to walk up and down, talking to us. She has a book of ghost stories to sell, Night Side of the River, and what she gives us is an hour-long disquisition on ghosts, beliefs, autobiography (we all know the story of her eccentric upbringing), love and death, to explain the complex background to her thinking. She rounds things off with a long reading from one of her stories. The show is illuminating and funny and sad. It is utterly astonishing, not least as a feat of memory, with not a pause or uncertainty to be sensed. It is preaching, it is rock’n’roll. The audience is left stunned.

I think of authors past, who hid in universities, or chatted only to their peers in clubs, or restricted their voice to essays and polite radio broadcasts. I cannot imagine D.H. Lawrence, or Virginia Woolf, or T.S. Eliot, or Ford Madox Ford striding up and down with head-mike, playing to the gallery, or even merely seated to undergo the impertinence of interview and questions from the ignorant. But Dickens, yes – he would have commanded any stage at any time. He knew that writing is theatre.

Into the night

Three days spent in a little world that thought itself, for a time, to be the centre of all our worlds – where debate and truth reign. Once you think you know where the centre lies, and place yourself there, all time and space converge. That’s what the Mappa Mundi shows. But leave, as you must, and the certainty disappears. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. There is no Mappa Mundi for the world today.

The field is sodden and the light has gone as we trudge back to the car. Eventually escaping the queue we take a wrong turning and hurtle heedlessly, into the dark night.



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6 thoughts on “Ho for Hay

  1. Another excellent read. As usual I have booked lots of tickets for the Buxton International Festival in July, many of which are for book talks, including one by Clive Myrie.

  2. I do appreciate such description! It allows me to be there without suffering the crowds and expense. I drove through the village once. My town’s population is approx 2200 and we have one bookshop. But books are available in many of the touristy shops and whale watching places. West coast of Vancouver Island….lots of rain here too. It’s less now, though, with the climate changing. I can only dream of one of my own books appearing in a Hay shop. I love Wales and I love books…….thanks Luke!

    1. Hi Chris

      Thank you. I hope to find a Christine Lowther book in Hay, one day. Meanwhile I have had sight of your latest and must get my own copy. Congratulations!


  3. Interesting to contrast/compare with the Charleston Festival in Sussex which finished on 27th. I go every year and did 18 talks this year. The catering sounds better at Hay but the muddy fields sound worse. There is always some overlap of speakers as authors do the rounds but we didn’t get Clive Myrie unfortunately! We did get Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Helena Bonham Carter, Gemma Arterton, Toby Jones, Lindsay Duncan, Lenny Henry, Joanna Lumley and Omari Douglas plus many star name authors. Not sure if I could cope with the crowds at Hay. Charleston is smaller and possibly more personal – four or five talks per day and discussions/craft sessions in another tent.

    1. The line-up at Charleston looks sensational. I must look out for it next year.

      Hay wasn’t that muddy – just the car park on our final day. The food was on the pricey side but very fine. The caterers worked so hard, but always smiling. I should have added how sensational the cafe was – in constant use, but thanks to a super-efficient team generating drinks at an unbelievable rate queuing was brief – and the coffee was perfect.

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