It’s good fun, professionally run by excellent broadcasters, and as it has a multitude of guests from all around the festival you get a compressed view of what you may have missed and what you might want a little more of later.
I did two this year, both Radio 3 programmes.
On Suzie Klein’s Radio 3 Drivetime programme, recorded live, we had Peter Florence, the founder of Hay; maths guru Marcus du Sautoy, psychologist Oliver James, historian and writer of a new book on 1913 Charles Emmerson and my favourite of them all, Amit Chaudhuri who was talking about his new tome on Calcutta. It’s a two hour show, and like the guests the audience were dipping in and out.
We also bought tickets for the recording of the brilliant The Verb with Barnsley bard Ian McMillan. That too had a ripe old mixture, lots of good things about Hay. A band called Wora, writers Rupert Thomson and Tiffany Murray and a Welsh language poet Menna Elfyn. Would I have bought a ticket to any of these individually? Possibly Thomson, but not a poet in any language, let alone a foreign one. But she was great. A real powerful discourse about her language and of the traditions of RS Thomas. And a lovely mixed reading, bouncing from one to the other.
A word on McMillan: he lined up at the end like a vicar on a Sunday, thanking his parishioners, conversing and cajoling. What a lovely chap. What a national treasure.
One of the most anticipated events of the entire Hay Festival was the double-length interview with acclaimed author of espionage novels and former officer in the British intelligence services MI5 and MI6, John Le Carré. He was making his very first visit to the festival to talk about his life work to Philippe Sands and discuss his new novel A Delicate Truth published in April.
The queue was immense and described by one Hay-goer as “more terrifying than London traffic. A literary stampede.” From the outset Le Carré is a captivating speaker. He informs us that this is a one off, both his first and his last appearance at Hay and indeed his last appearance in public.
Long before he became an author and before he joined the intelligence services the writer was exposed to the darker side of human nature; “I had two experiences of criminality, one was my con man father, the other was teaching at Eton”. “The attraction of someone with a semi-criminal background to the secret service” he adds ” is irresistible.” Perhaps his experience of criminality framed his attitude to the legal profession. He looks to Philippe Sands QC, and says “I distrust your profession.” Sands replies, “I do, too.”
Le Carré remains steadfastly anti-authoritarian “I want to stay outside of the tent” he says, with perhaps with knowing irony given the location. He is cautious about the dangers of storytelling, and cites the power of fiction over fact and its contribution to war and islamophobia. “A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world”.
Acclaimed by many as the best of this year’s festival, the standing ovation at the end is a given. Let’s hope he can be persuaded to make one last final appearance.