Front Row asks the question “Do we publish too many books?” In front of a live audience,the panel discuss some of the pressing issues that face the publsihing industry today: has the emergence of digital books diluted the quality and undermined the value of books? Is self publishing a route to new and exciting authors or a path to derivative mediocrity? With Philip Jones editor of The Bookseller, Crystal Mahey-Morgan of Zed Books, Alexandra Pringle, group editor in chief of Bloomsbury and Ali Sparks author of 41 books for children.
It’s Monday and all of the excitement of the Hay Festival is a memory. I didn’t write any blogs for the final few events that I attended but thought that it might be interesting to some of you if I give a quick summary before I sign off for good.
On the 29th May I joined a packed audience to listen to the talented dynamic acoustic folk/rock singer/guitarist Frank Turner. Being of a certain age, his performance transported me to my past, to the days of Dylan, the Doors and the many other anti-establishment protest artists of that era. I was surrounded by fans of Frank who were able to sing every word and I think that it is fair to say that the evening performance gave us all a real treat of an extraordinary talent.
Debborah Moggach is a prolific writer who is able to position her stories in locations that are not familiar to her because she understands her characters so well that they can drive the story rather than the place. A luxurious flat is a luxurious flat, wherever it is. She finds smug marrieds hard to tolerate, an opinion that made the front page of the paper on the following day.
Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian born campaigner for the rights of women, spoke passionately about confronting oppressive regimes throughout the world. She pointed out that women’s liberties and rights are compromised in many western cultures in addition to the better known areas of the Middle East and northern Africa. Divulging some of her most intimate experiences gave weight to the evidence of the suppression that women encounter on a daily basis. Her book ‘Headscarves and Hymens:Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution’ is a plea to confront the toxic mix of culture and religion that affects the daily lives of the women in those areas.
I finished off my Hay experience this year with a delightful session from the Call the Midwife team. Virginai Nicholson lead the discussion where the screenwriter, producer and star (Jenny Agutter) gave insight to the research and story development for the series. As an ex-midwife, this series intrigues me and it can move me to tears as I remember some of my own experiences delivering babies. The attention to detail is remarkable even to ensuring they have the correct size of fake umbilical cord for the size of the baby.
Now I have returned to my home, inspired to return to my second novel, and thankful for the opportunity to experience the wonderful Hay Festival.
Today I visited The Hay Festival for the second time. I went last year to get a feel of it, and to visit the town.
Last year, I remember the festival being busy. It was a nice May day, and it was great to be surrounded by people interested in literature.
Today, I went on the last day of the festival and found it quiet. The mood was sombre, as if people were getting over a hangover. I think this was because the festival was coming to an end.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom. The rain held off, although it was a bit windy, and when we were walking around everyone seemed in their element.
It was a book lovers dream. I found it interesting visiting the book stores and seeing people queue up, ready to meet their chosen authors. The town was wonderful, and I’m always amazed with how extravagant the book stores are in this town of books.
I would have liked to attend the festival on a warmer day, when more was going on. But nestled in the country, mountains surrounding it, its feels like a writers home.
On the final day of the 2015 Hay Festival, Alex Salmond the former leader of the SNP and newly elected Westminster MP talks to Helena Kennedy QC the barrister, broadcaster, and Labour member of the House of Lords. Salmond is here to discuss the inside story of the campaign for Scottish independence, in his diary, ‘The Dream Shall Never Die: 100 Days That Changed Scotland Forever’.
Kennedy asks how he became a campaigning Scottish Nationalist. At St Andrews university he had girlfriend who was secretary of the Labour Club and they used to fight about politics. One day she said; “if you feel like that go and join the bloody SNP” and he did the very next day. In those days you couldn’t join on a website. Salmond hitchhiked to Dundee to join the party, only to be given an address in St Andrews where he had just come from.
Salmond managed to get the referendum phrased with ‘Yes’ for leaving the UK and he acknowledges that this was in his favour. He also managed to get Cameron to agree to his agenda on the timing. How did he persuade Cameron asks Kennedy. “Well, he’s not very bright, you see.”
In the Scottish referendum people got drawn into the political process and it made them better people says Salmond, 98% of the population registered to vote. He tells a story of people registering to vote for the first time since they opposed the poll tax. “Hundreds of thousands of people who had never given a stuff about politics or politicians were determined to exercise their democratic franchise. That’s what happened to lots of people in the referendum campaign and that’s what dictated the result of the general election campaign in Scotland.
Meera Syal is in Hay to talk about her third novel and her first book in 16 years, ‘The House of Hidden Mothers’. She just didn’t have a book that she wanted to write during that time and until she was watching a documentary about surrogacy in India. It was as if one of her favourite books, Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ had crossed the line from fiction into fact.
The surrogacy industry in India is now worth $4.5 billion a year, and often poor girls from rural areas carry babies for wealthy foreign couples.
In Meera’s new novel, Shyama, at 48 (in the first draft she was 44) has fallen for a younger man, Toby, and they want a child. She already has a 19 year-old daughter and has been told that she can’t have another child. Her friend Priya tells her about ART – Assisted Reproductive Technology. At the same time in a rural village in India, young Mala is trapped in an oppressive marriage and needs money to escape from her situation..
Manzoor says asks whether the novel about a relationship between two people is also about the relationship between England and India and Syal agrees. This isn’t too far from call centres,”effectively we’ve outsourced fertility”. The West has rich infertile women and the East has poor fertile women and trade has stepped in.
The discussion covered issues of culture and diversity and how Meera had played with these issues in a mischievous and irreverent way in her work. “There’s a difference between Bernard Manning telling a Jewish joke and Woody Allen telling a Jewish joke.” The subject of age is also at the fore in this discussion and particularly in the impact it has on women. “However much botox you have your ovaries are still the age your ovaries are.”
“It hits you in your soul rather than your head. I love them” says Adrian Edmondson. On Wednesday night The Unthanks did just that with an astounding set in the Telegraph tent. From the very first song, Hawthorn, they were mesmerising. Both Rachel and Becky Unthank have pure haunting, soulful voices which blended with the exquisite trumpet playing of Victoria Rule of The Amadè Players.
The music is sweet but also dark. “You had the choice tonight between the misery of Jack Dee, or the deep, deep misery of The Unthanks” said pianist and the group’s manager Adrian McNally, “you people need to take a long hard look at yourselves.” The songs are powerful and the exceptional voices are coupled with fine musicianship including Niopha Keegan on violin and backing vocals with Chris Price on bass.
The new album ‘Mount the Air’ is available now – you can order it here.
After seven wonderful days and nights in Hay, we have returned to our Kentish seaside abode, awash with good food and drink and many inspiring memories. There really cannot be any literary festival anywhere in the world that can hold a candle to the joy that is Hay. Personal highlight of the week was the evening with Alan Bennett and Nicholas Hytner, as they discussed “The Lady in the Van”, and at the end of which the former was presented with the Hay Medal for Drama. It was a very moving moment and an absolute privilege to be witness to. The hills and vales of Wales are now far behind us. The process of longing for Hay 2016 has begun.
The last full day at the festival with friends is always tinged with a little sadness and some degree of exhaustion. Early mornings, late nights, overloading on fizzy, ice creams and irregular sleeping patterns fail to spoil our enjoyment however. Listening to Marcus Brigstocke talk to Steve Punt (a.k.a Eric Idle) and Will Smith (Veep and The Thick of It) about their comedy inspirations and early career was both funny and inspiring. The session reminds of how much brilliant comedy our wonderful nation has produced, long may it continue, although the medium of delivery for new comics may be changing (i.e. YouTube)
The sun is shining again and I’ve got far too many layers on today to be comfortable, so it’s refreshing to be in the cooler Telegraph stage for the delightful Vikram Seth, in what seemed to be a vehemently ‘Guardian’ audience. Much to our delight one audience member confessed that she asked for a copy of the Guardian at the Telegraph stand…
So I’m off to buy a copy of Vikram’s new volume of poetry, A Summer Requiem, after admittedly struggling with A Suitable Boy (must get round to it soon) after listening to him talk about his life, his writing, his love of the ‘red stuff’ (like myself, he finds it aids working…) and music.
Before she begins Claire Armitstead receives rapturous applause from half the audience when she mentions that she is the Books Editor for “the opposition”, The Guardian. She then mentions that one of the stewards on the way asked the if they were here for the ‘Neil Gaiman’ event. Levelling and so very Hay Festival.
Gaiman talked about his personal and professional relationship with the late Terry Pratchett. They collaborated when Neil was just 27. Gaiman’s first novel Good Omens was a collaborative effort with Pratchett and he described how they each wrote sections and shared them with each other over the phone.
He shares his favourite memory of Pratchett. “I was in a taxi on my way to a book signing and my phone rang.” Terry, suffering from Alzheimer’s, was writing an autobiography and he had a lapse of memory that he thought Neil might help with. In the US in 1990 during the promotional tour for ‘Good Omens’ after a memorable and chaotic radio interview the two of them were signing a ‘They Might be Giants” song on the street.”Were we on 39th or 40th St?” said Terry.
“Terry was somebody who used anger..it was something that drove him” said Gaiman. People who say he was a sweet man had never met the real Terry Pratchett.
Gaiman also talks about his new book of short stories ‘Trigger Warning’ and reads from July. It is one of twelve stories in the collection entitled ‘A Calendar of Tales” created after Blackberry invited Gaiman to request ideas from fans via Twitter and then create stories around the replies.
One of the downsides of leaving Hay is realising all the good stuff you are missing. Last year I had to leave before Toni Morrison, this year before my favourite author David Mitchell. Although I saw him in Oxford last year, it would have been marvellous to be at his talk, particularly because Crispin Hershey, one of my favourite characters in ‘The Bone Clocks’, has a memorable trip to Hay.
So it was a thrill this morning to see this tweet as I was doing the accounts:
@CrispinHershey: Okay you win, Publicity Girl: Hershey is Tweeting his way into Modern World. Happy now?
What followed was total joy, as Hershey’s tweets were by degrees contemptuous, deluded, arrogant and hysterically funny, perfectly capturing his character. Mitchell added to the fun by tweeting that he was sitting opposite Hershey, which resulted in a typically self-aggrandising comment from his fictional creation. And much to my delight, Hershey favourited my tweet that I’d rather see the writer Holly Sykes (the heroine of the‘The Bone Clocks’) which made my morning.
I might not be at Hay anymore, and I have missed out on seeing my favourite author in the flesh, but interacting with his alter-ego on social media has been quite a consolation prize. It certainly beat doing the accounts.
David Mitchell was on The Starlight Stage last night, along with Tiffany Murray, reading from his next book ‘ Slade House’ which itself emerged from an excellent twitter story.