Britain’s foremost literary festival kicked off this weekend with literary stars serving up something for every taste
Full online coverage of the Guardian Hay festival
To Hay, for the day, they say. Wey hey. Hay on Wye on Earth would I want that? As travel plans go, a festering nightmare. Leave Rotherhithe at 6am, somehow be back in London for important thing by seven in the evening after filing by three, gives me, ooh, 12 minutes tops at the literary delight I’ve never been to. But I’m very glad, indeed, that I did it: partly because I got to see a lot, a lot, of Wales, but mainly for the serendipity.
The papers were full yesterday morning, you see, of the iPad. Apple had just overtaken Microsoft in world global domination, a million fidget-fingered twits were salivating for the chance to show off their slabby electro-tablets (you just bought it: you didn’t invent it), and, apart from the rare but insanely welcome kicking it got from Charlie Brooker, much of the papers’ talk was, yet again, of the death of the book. And then you come here. Eventually. And it’s all very, very good news.
Not the easiest place to get to for the day, but all accommodation for the surrounding 30 miles has been booked up since, it seems, 1988, when Peter Florence started the festival with the overnight winnings from a poker game, so in a day it’ll have to be: and the trip, trains to Bristol then Newport then Hereford then a little Noddy-bus the long hour to Hay, leads you deep into countryside you’d thought forgotten.
Proper hedgerows, fierce high protective beasts the like of which England has all but lost: it’s like a much lumpier version of the Normandy bocage, and lazy damp fields full of that specific breed of happy cattle you get around Hereford, not sure of their name. And the skies began to clear. The bus limped on, evoking memories of that excruciating passage in Lucky Jim where he has to get to the station in an appalling hurry, yet the driver slows, with smiling dumb patience, for every leaf and slug blown gently in the direction of the road; but, still, the skies began to clear, and then we passed Middlewood, straight out of Tolkien, and a wide happy green valley sprawled before, and I thought how perfect it would be if my destination coincided with a beam or two from above. Can I make Hay before the sun shines?
No. The rain descended again, just then and all afternoon, but, still. Hay itself, the town and castle, is fabulous. And they must eat books. There were more bookshops than pubs, hotels, cafes and shops and restaurants combined.
A poster sways above one narrow old street, quoting Logan Pearsall Smith: “People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.” Then a fast 15-minute stride to the festival itself, and there are just… thousands… of people who love books. By 1.30pm there was a list posted of 31 events already sold out that day. What a fabulously eclectic batch: taken almost at random, they included Roddy Doyle, Mohamed Nasheer (walking around in trainers with welcomely low-key security ), Tony Parsons, Robert Skidelsky, James Lovelock, Shappi Khorsandi …
The audience is as eclectic as the books. Insanely good-looking couples; old pairs bent cartoonishly like that mildly offensive “Beware: pensioners” traffic triangle; a few obvious greenies; many many young people simply enjoying themselves, and even without the benefit of a half-viable mobile phone signal. The main bookshop is mobbed. The main themes, today, if I had to fix on them, which is rather hard, would seem to be climate change and politics. James Lovelock and Ian McEwan are the talk of this Saturday, and I find myself thinking, often, of the power of books, novels as well as non-fiction, in getting us simply to think differently. McEwan referred to it earlier in the week when he spoke of us, in learning to address future scientific planning, as essentially learning to “do favours for people we’ve never met”. Which, when you think about it, gets about as close to moving the human philosophy forward as we’ve ever got.
And there was fun stuff too on being lost in translation – Bill Bryson on the UK citizenship tests, Amanda Galsworthy on interpreting for Sarkozy – and then the rain simply thundered, and the book-lovers didn’t mind, but the Noddy-bus awaited, and my two Hay hours were over. Next year, definitely, I’ll get a room. And, on the train home, I have a book. For company. That infuriatingly near-perfect thing, a near-finished thriller. Infuriating because I know that the first 20 minutes of the journey will enthral and then I’ll finish it, and have to stare at the floor for three hours, unless I read it letter by letter out loud to myself, and run the risk of being thought to be Jeremy Clarkson. It’s a Clare Francis, since you ask, and the last two chapters are marked with folded top-corners. My girlfriend speed-read it in the sun last week and, knowing I was going to play catch-up, wanted to show me the bits near the end when she thought she’d worked out the last two red herrings and who, finally, did it. Now you can’t do that on the iPad, eh? Eh? Hmm. Perhaps that’s the point.