Melvyn Bragg was the highlight of my last trip to Hay (though he also had the dubious honour of being the sweatiest speaker I saw, bringing new meaning to the phrase ‘dripping with enthusiasm’. Fortunately for Melvyn, though not for the rest of the festival goers, the temperature has dropped fifteen degrees in the past four hours, so the front row was safe).
I feel a little bit as though I have been run over by an intellectual bus, and cannot hope to do justice to everything Bragg says. He was fizzing with ideas and digressions and asides, so the best I could do was try and get the gist of it.
Basically, there are those, like Dawkins, who write the King James Bible off as a consolation or a sop, arguing that it makes people weak and passive. Bragg says that no: the Bible has been a positive, active, liberating force which has steamrollered all progressive movements of the past four hundred years – from abolition to female equality and even science.
More recently, we’ve tended to play down the Bible, whether deliberately or out of neglect or indifference. Bragg thinks this is a huge mistake. You may not agree with the faith, but you can’t deny it’s impact, he thunders. And you don’t have to believe it to be grateful for it.
Bragg speaks a lot like the Bible reads – all poetic and rhythmic but also with serious power. In terms of clever ideas per minute, this was the best value event so far.
Of course, he’s so clever that my own brain fell out of my head in the signing queue at the thought of approaching greatness. Instead of making some sensible remark, I managed to forget how to spell my own name and blather on incomprehensibly. Sorry Melvyn. I am not worthy.
Professional poker player and writer Victoria Coren was in Hay to talk about her love affair with the game, as described in her memoir ‘For Richer, For Poorer’. The soundtrack to her book wouldn’t be the upbeat and dancey ‘Poker Face’ but the much more ominous ‘Hotel California’. Poker sucks you in, and not in a good way – as the song says, you can check out, but you can never leave.
However, this Friday night event concentrated on the silly side of the game. The way Coren tells it, there are no ‘normal’ people in poker – everyone is quirky and borderline dysfunctional. She began playing at the tail end of the old school era, which has been completely turned upside down by tv and the Internet. She described the bemusement of shabby Texas cowboys wandering the halls of Vegas casinos, who cannot understand the rise of the Scandinavian maths geek in their slightly disreputable game. Coren doesn’t have much time for people who claim the romance has been lost, though – as she says, the game is much less seedy and much safer, and what’s not to like about that? And poker is a game of skill – no matter how good you are at maths, in tournaments you still have to be able to read people.
However, psychology was secondary to comedy in this discussion – it was Friday night, after all, and Coren said, her father’s advice had always been, why make a serious point if you can make a joke? People laugh if you are funny, whereas there is no noise to say, what an astute point you have made.
Goodnight Mr Tom must be one of the few books which hasn’t had all the joy sucked out of it by being on the school curriculum. And Michelle Magorian must be one of the few authors at Hay who stood up and sang to her audience.
She talked about how Goodnight Mr Tom has really taken on a life of it’s own over the past thirty years, being endlessly stretched and transformed and turned inside out in different art forms. As well as being one of the most successful and enduring books Puffin has published, it is also a musical, stage play, radio play – and most famously, of course, an ITV drama with John Thaw in the title role. Far from being precious about ‘her’ story being lost, Magorian was positively enthusiastic about the opportunities to explore different themes and ideas within the story. For example, Willie’s mum is a much more prominent character in the musical – and Magorian sang one of the character’s songs (which she wrote – she is seriously multi-talented).
Magorian trained as an actress – and it showed in an absolutely gripping reading, with not only the voices but also the faces of her characters. And in possibly the most unlikely literary inspiration in history, it turned out that Goodnight Mr Tom was inspired by Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Specifically, Magorian planned to write stories based on all the pairs of colours, and ‘green and brown’ turned into Goodnight Mr Tom. Well, if this is green and brown, I’d love to read ruby and orange and violet and fawn.