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.