Simon Armitage – ”What I did on my Holidays’

IMG_1060Probably our nation’s greatest poet, Simon Armitage has published a follow up to Walking Home called Walking Away – a very entertaining travelogue of his walk along the south west coastal path as a modern day troubadour, reciting poetry to groups of people in exchange for bed and board. He undertook the challenge after getting ‘itchy feet’, he confessed, needing to get out into the world in order to discover things to write about. The south west path was almost the same distance as the Pennine way, and although it seemed to be an easier walk, it required a great deal of concentration, as in one direction was a steep cliff and the sea beyond…

He read an extract detailing a horrendous night spent at a Butlins Holiday Camp, which, he admitted ‘could have formed a book on its own’ During the walk he encountered the generousity of strangers and met some good people, and it was these experiences that kept him going despite the tiredness and melancholy that often accompanied him. Walking gives him a balance between writing in solitude and being out in the world, finding and experiencing things to write about. Training for the walk wasn’t something he thought about; ‘walking on day one is training for day two!’

After a slide show of photos (‘what I did on my holidays’) from the walk, he confessed that he probably won’t be writing any more fiction or non fiction, feeling that he is more ‘wired up for poetry’ Either way, I still remain an avid fan.

Cameron’s Coup – Polly Toynbee and David Walker.

by Beth

Ironically framed by The Telegraph Stage, these two left-wing political commentators bookended the talk by criticising the role that the right-supporting media has played during the recent election.

Weaving a tale of increasingly disheartening portent, they mapped Cameron and Osborne’s journey from ‘hugging huskies’ before the 2010 election to appointing climate change denier Owen Pattinson within weeks. The audience could not help but trace the parallels between then and now. The on-going series of astonishing appointments wouldn’t be out of place in a satirical nightmare. What’s more, Toynbee and Walker showed how a similar sleight of hand had been played with the electorate over austerity, which, as Toynbee emphasised to great applause, was ideologically fuelled rather than driven by necessity.

So what are the answers? Audience members were literally jumping up and down to get their voice heard in this time of uncertainty. Neither of the speakers could really offer a balm to ease the prospect of the fixed-term five-year stretch ahead. Even Polly criticised the Labour party’s inability to find the right language to communicate their competence in the face of Tory slander. What is worse, neither of them seemed hopeful of a government change in 2020. In fact, both of them nodded to the potential of grassroots movements and extra-parliamentary political activism, such as Britain Uncut. This is not the first or last time that protest marches were genuinely suggested from panels so far during the festival – we have heard this from eminent barristers and green energy proponents alike this weekend. For a middle-class orientated literature festival this is surely an omen of the unease felt by many.

Rather than inspiring and exciting me, as the thought of togetherness and activism usually does, this made me feel cast adrift. It seemed as if they were saying: it’s up to you to do something. Politics has failed. Something else needs to happen but we don’t quite know what. From two such renowned faces on the popular politics stage, this is worrying to say the least. It’s not just the politicians who don’t have any answers – the commentators seem to have lost their vision too. 

As we were all reluctantly herded out of the tent, there was a lot of discussion. Fellow audience members’ communal frowns and hopeful snippets of advice to each other were the only glimmers of light through the post-talk gloom. Overall, Cameron’s Coup was a highlight of the festival – or would have been, if both Toynbee and Walker hadn’t constantly repeated the mantra that young people are a waste of space in politics at the moment. Reflexively, these supposedly liberal figures replied dismissively to all questions raised by younger audience members. Toynbee urged one passionate fellow liberal to ‘go and read up a bit more about it’ before criticising Labour.

Because of this, the moment was lost to take this sense of gloom and offer opportunities to grow these ideas into new possibilities for my generation. I was a fervent first voter this election and have experienced and witnessed the desperation and tears that the outcome of Cameron’s coup has had on everyone I know or care about. I can tell you, Polly, that young people are engaged in politics and I urge you to go and ‘read up a bit more about it’ before dismissing the next generation of political commentators.

Simon Singh

by Virginia

SinghA lot was riding on Simon Singh tonight.  I had chosen his talk over Simon Armitage,  Laslo Krasznahorkai  and Germaine Greer, who I’d have loved to see, because I enjoyed ‘Fermat’s Last Theorem’ so much.   Then I’d had a frustrating time getting here due to a missed turn en-route adding an hour to the journey.   High winds on arrival, and a broken pole mean it took longer than expected to erect t the tent, and so I missed my first event. If the day was going to be redeemed, Singh’s talk had better be good…

I’m delighted to say that it was way better than that, and meant after hours of frustration, my Hay has kicked off in style. Which was particularly pleasing as my eldest, Beth (16) decided to come along at the last minute and I would have also hated to disappoint her.

For those unfamiliar with Singh’s book, it tells the story of Andrew Wiles, a mathematician who was obsessed with solving Fermat’s Last Theorem. That puzzle was laid down by Fermat, who liked to writ e notes in the margins of his copy of Arithmetica. In one, he claimed to have proved a particular equation, but there wasn’t space to write the proof, thereby setting down a challenge for mathematicians for 350 years. 

Tonight’s talk was a celebration of twenty  years since Wiles’ tremendous achievement. Fittingly, it began with an excerpt from the BBC film of the story in which Wiles is filled with emotion as he remembers the moment he knew he’d completed the proof.  ‘We’ve all had occasions when maths made us want to cry’ Singh commented wryly, before taking us through the story and why it mattered so much to the mathematician.  An obsession formed when he was ten, led to him spending years studying the theorem, till a breakthrough in a new field of mathematics gave him the tools for a possible solution. For the next seven years Wiles toiled away in secret, until he finally worked out a proof. Even that wasn’t the end of the story as the proof later turned out to have an error and it was another eighteen months before it was absolutely watertight.

Singh is as an engaging a presenter as he is a writer, and he told the absorbing tale with verve and energy. Beth loved it. And when we met the author afterwards, he proved as engaging in person as he is on stage and page.  So look out for his books, he’s well worth a read.

After a somewhat wobbly start, my festival has begun.

Hollie McNish – How The Light Gets In

by Beth

Hollie McNish is the main event at Hay for any sane Spoken Word enthusiast. Her YouTube videos are top of my most watched, but this is the first time I’ve been lucky enough to catch her in the act. A quirky group of people with poetry in their eyes drifts into the Ring Stage’s circular yurt venue, like moths to a flame. We are surrounded by wild flowers and soft evening light.

Hollie is introduced in the How The Light Gets In programme as the first poet to have recorded at Abbey Road Studios, but she has a far from Beatles-esque bravado as she hurries onto stage, shrugs off her coat and bag and falls into place at the microphone. Sparkly eyes, quick smile, no nonsense vibe, her performance tick is a tendency to lovingly readjust the mic. She is a clutter of contradictions – says she writes poetry to avoid confrontation yet seems at ease before a crowd of seasoned Hay goers. It might help that she didn’t really know about the philosophy festival, which is a mistake that many Hay Festival fanatics make. Hollie starts by apologising that they’ve put her in with the comedians – she’s cut her poem about stabbing, but still tells us to prepare for a more sombre experience than the billing suggests.

Yet within minutes we’re laughing so hard we can barely catch our breath. Her poems mix tender rhythmic odes to her Grandmas with sharp rhymes cutting into the idiocy of anti-immigrant rhetoric and sexist media attitudes. Her poem ‘Eat My Fig’ can be played over Flo Rida’s ‘Blow My Whistle’ as a witty social commentary on the ridiculous metaphors used by popular rap artists. Her poem ‘Megatron’ shows the miracle of motherhood and the changes of pregnancy from a new perspective that has us giggling and tearing up at the same time. And she ties it all together with such finesse that her self-conscious meta-textual nod ‘I was told I had to include something called a narrative arc’ fools nobody. She is a performance poetry guru, with quick, technical brilliance. Her syllables ripple effortlessly from line to line, with occasional isolated stresses for emphasis.

The line of mesmerised fans queuing up afterwards, to buy her Burning Eye published book ‘Cherry Pie’ and receive a hug is a testament to her inspiring, assertive energy. Go and see McNish if you get a chance. Or any Spoken Word artist, for that matter – if you don’t know performance poetry, one set-long hit is enough to make you a lifelong addict. And make sure to sound out what else How The Light Gets In has to offer over the next week or so.