Picture: The Unthanks

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Levison Wood – Walking the Nile

 Levison Wood  was an Officer in the Parachute Regiment. He is the first person to walk the entire length of the river Nile, taking a year beginning in December 2013. He has written a book detailing the expedition called ‘Walking the Nile’.

He had a companion called Boston, an African  former rebel soldier, and the expedition was filmed for a documentary series on Channel 4.

He begins by scotching myths of elegance on the banks of the Nile portrayed by Agatha Christie and others. He underlines this with an image of a Nile cruise boat rusting on a sand bank.  The recent history of Nile cruising is all but over with the political and military instability in the region. 

This was a gruelling venture through searing heat, inhospitable land and war zones.
In clips from the TV series we see Levison wrestling with tribesmen, rescuing a baby monkey from a bush fire and avoiding land mines in South Sudan. Having seen him pummelled by the feet of his nomadic companions on one leg of the trip, I’d recommend that you never ask a Bedouin for a massage.

Flogging books one flyer at a time

I’m heading back from my first day at Hay and it’s been a really great experience. My intentions on going there were a bit different than most people on the blog – I’m with a small start-up from Cardiff, Dead Bird Press, and I headed to the festival to try and promote our first novel, ‘The Death of Danny Daggers’, by first-time Welsh author Haydn Wilks.

Trying to promote a new book is challenging and we’ve faced a steep learning curve thus far, but one of the better ideas we came up with was heading to the festival with a stack of flyers and a smile and going out to spread the word to a crowd of thousands who’ve descended upon this beautifully odd little town in Wales bonded by a mutual love of books.

The responses have been fantastic. Few people took a flyer from me today without firing off a few questions about what the book was about, and it’s been really heartening to receive such warm responses. As someone whose done sales jobs in the past, promoting a book at the Hay festival has been a world away from the rejection and avoidance I’m used to receiving when trying to push something new onto the general public.

Other commitments prevent me from coming back to the festival until the weekend, and also scuppered my plans to pay it a visit last Saturday and Sunday, but I intend to *ahem* make hay whilst the sun is (hopefully) shining and enjoy another day or two handing out flyers this weekend. If you see me, come and grab one! And if you’re interested, you can read an extract from the novel we’re promoting over at the author’s website, haydnwilks.com.

William Fotheringham on Bernard Hinault and French Cycling

Bernard Hinault, known as ‘the Badger, was a man of few words, a hard man, a man of granite a kind of Clint Eastwood on two wheels.

Will Fotheringham, the UK’s leading cycling journalist, has done much to convey the grit required to be be a competitive road cyclist. He was also ghost writer of Bradley Wiggins autobiography ‘My Time’. In a new book he has written about one of cycling’s hardest ever hard men, Hinault.

Bernard Hinault won the Tour de France five times. He is one of only six cyclists to have won all three Grand Tours, and the last French cyclist to win Tour in 1985.

He was an angry young man with a record in cycling second only to Eddie Merckx. In the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré in 1977 Hinault, in the yellow jersey, was heading for victory. But he crashed in the mountain descent. He climbed up from the roadside, licked his wounds and and got back on his bike, going on to win the race in Grenoble.

Fotheringham’s book ‘Bernard Hinault and the Fall and Rise of French Cycling’ also contemplates the future and the emergence of tough and talented young French riders.

Frank Cottrell Boyce

By Virginia and Jonathan

Frank-Cottrell-BoyceI didn’t get to any more events, but Jonathan had one last gig – Frank Cottrell Boyce. Given that the children’s programme is one of the main reasons we come (and has meant the kids have seen some fabulous author over the years) I thought it was time to hear from a 12 year old.

So over to you Jonathan:

He started off by asking what happened on our first day of primary school.  He asked a few people – one hurt their head, one fell in a water fountain – but his experience was by far the worst.   The weekend before he started he’d been introduced to Dr Who and the Daleks.  Boyce was wearing a bow tie(which was unusual) and he didn’t want to go in as people were laughing at him.  His teacher was an Irish nun with a long wimple and a dress that went down to her feet. It was a dark blue and she was stretching out her arm to reach him and his first thought was ‘Oh my God, there’s a small blue Irish Dalek coming after me!”

He then read from his latest (and in my opinion greatest) book ‘The Astounding Broccoli Boy’. It was very funny. He read one chapter in which two boys, who have turned green, manage to get out of the hospital thanks to a window cleaner’s  cot. And in a stunning turn of events the main character, Rory Rooney, drives a bin lorry through the centre of London.

After that he went to some questions. After several, he was asked if he was going to write a sequel to one of his books ‘Cosmic’ . He said he would like to, and as an afterthought read the first few paragraphs from  ‘Cosmic’. ‘Cosmic’ is about a twelve year old boy called Liam Digby who is very tall, so tall that some people even think he’s a grown up. After telling a few fibs he ends up being shown in assembly as the new head of media studies. And all sorts of trouble occurs.

Frank Cottrell Boyce, is in my opinion, one of the funniest authors ever, and this was the best talk I’ve seen this year at the Hay Festival.

John Boyne

By Virginia

I have a confession to make.  Despite the fact that John Boyne’s book ‘The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas’ is an international bestseller and an award winning film, I’ve not seen either.  On the other hand, my three kids have seen both as it’s a set Year 7 text. They’ve all raved about it, and I’ve been meaning to get round to the book, so the fact John Boyne was speaking at Hay provided the perfect opportunity.

I’m still only about a quarter of the way through, but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of John Boyne’s conversation with Hay Festival founder, Peter Florence. They began with a discussion of how important historical accuracy was to a novel that was also intended to be a fable. Boyne described how he wanted to write a historical story, without referring directly to the violence of the holocaust but in such a way that the truth is uncovered for the reader. He explained that geographical authenticity was less important to him than what happened to people. An example of this being that Bruno’s house would have actually been inside the fence, rather than on the outside.  However, for narrative purposes, it is important a fence separates him from Shmuel.

The conversation moved on to the character of Bruno, who Florence described as naive, and Boyne felt was just innocent  – someone who had no reason not to know what was going and had not yet thought through the issues.  This has drawn some criticism – as some feel it is improbable that Bruno, aged 9, could be quite so ignorant. Boyne himself wondered out loud if he and his editor had got that right.  His intent was to show the story unfolding through the eyes of a child who didn’t understand what he was seeing, that allows the audience to question and be his conscience.  This allows Boyne to use narrative hints (such as Bruno’s description of Auschwitz as ‘Out-With’, the question of what sort of people don’t have baths?) so the reader is ahead of Bruno and knows what is going to happen. But should Bruno have in fact been more aware?

I think Boyne is right and the critics are unfair. Our parents are our first heroes. Bruno is from a loving family so it seems highly plausible to me that he would find it impossible to believe that his father is anything other than good.  Secondly, the reality of the Holocaust was that many grown-ups didn’t see what was happening on their doorstep (or didn’t want to see it). Why is it so unlikely that a child fails to understand the truth, when so many grown ups were so ignorant?  Thirdly, children believe what they are told, and if your father tells you other people are ‘non-persons’ who are you to argue? Finally, whilst we all like to think only bad people take part in these terrible historical events, the machinery of state killing is only possible because ordinary people participate in it unquestioningly. (A thought that reminded of my interview with Chris Woods earlier. It strikes me today’s US and UK drones programmes are full of good ordinary people who involved in a system that is killing people, because they believe they are doing the right thing for their countries).

Boyne also noted that whilst Bruno is basically a good person, he is capable of great selfishness. He often talks at Shmuel and is focussed on his own problems, rather than listening to his friend.  When he takes food he eats some of it. When he betrays Shmuel he is sorry but also worries about being lonely. Again this seems very plausible – given that Bruno is a privileged child with loving parents and servants, it is entirely believable that his first thoughts are often about himself.

Although the book is about the horrors of the Holocaust, for Boyne it is ultimately about friendship.

The most important line in the book comes when Bruno and Shmuel are holding hands and say they  are best friends for life. As dark and sad and honest as the book’s ending is, it does have this moment of beauty. Their friendship is stronger than the horror; it is they who they are cannot be beaten.

This is my last talk at Hay and it was a great one to go out on. It left me with lots to ponder and a wonderful book to take away.