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.

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.

Bikes and Books at the Hay Festival

Hay bikes

Hay-on-Wye’s not just about books – it’s about bikes, too. The Hay Festival kicks off just a month after the town’s annual Bike Fest (this year two events even shared the same site manager, who skilfully oversaw construction of the Bike Fest hub as he sowed the first seeds of the Hay Festival village on the outskirts of town).

Now – if you’ve ever tried inching your car through the crowds of bookworms during festival week, you’ve probably pondered better ways to travel.  Thankfully, there is one – and it’s pedal-powered. Hay’s narrow streets, one-way system and notoriously over-subscribed car park are perhaps best navigated from the perch of a velocipede. The straight, 1-mile jaunt from town to the festival site is a breeze on two wheels, and on-site stands installed by the local bike shop offer a secure place to leave your steed while you absorb some food for thought at one of the talks.  What’s more, you don’t even need to bring your own bicycle – Drover Cycles have a massive hire fleet covering everything from road bikes, to leisure bikes, to top-end mountain bikes. For the pedal-shy, they even have the latest electric, motor-assisted cycles. The store is throwing itself into this year’s festival with gusto. Hidden around Hay between the leaves of bike-related tomes in the town’s second-hand bookshops, they’ll be leaving a stack of money-off vouchers redeemable during festival week. There 10x£5 and one £25 golden ticket up for grabs.

On Monday 26th May Drover is organising a free but ticketed afternoon led ride, with a pit-stop at a beautifully-restored, 18th century water mil or saddle up on Wednesday 28th May and join the local cycling club, Velo Hay, for one of their weekly evening outings, leaving Drover HQ on Forest Road at 6pm.

Contact the shop on 01487 822 419 to book a slot on their led ride, or to arrange bike hire.  For more info visit the Drover Cycles website.

Rupert Everett

Rupert Everett is one of our most feted actors but he’s a great essaying too having been compared to Evelyn Waugh, Noel Coward and even Lord Byron.   His new memoir ‘Vanished Years’ is brim full of vividly described escapades with friends, family and A list celebrities. On paper Everett  is hilarious, self deprecating, captivating, comic and reflective.  He is all those things in person too.

The audience is packed and expectant, we spot Jeremy Irons, who will later be reading from T.S Elliot’s Four Quartets, in the crowd.  Everett takes the stage, glass of wine in hand.  His writing is candid, so much so her tells us that he fell out with Madonna over a previous book, though he adds he still adores her.   He is also a big fan of Oscar Wilde about whom he speaks intensely and of his importance to the gay cause.

Everett is generous with his advice to young aspiring actors “if you want to get a head, get a life first” and don’t be afraid of failing; “failure is the manure” that’s keeps you going and brings success in the end.  At the end of the hour the applause is resounding and a longs queue springs up at the festival bookshop to buy the new memoir .

Simon Schama and Teachers

The University Professor of History and Art History at Columbia University and host of the BBC documentary series A History of Britain promised to set a bomb under the Education Secretary’s plans for teaching history in our schools and he did just that.

The Telegraph’s Martin Chilton foreshadowed the the proceeding but asking the multitude entering the tent if “this was the queue for hating Michael Gove”.   It was described by Benedict Brogan live blogging for the Telegraph as “a blistering call to arms to Britain’s history teachers”.

Schama believes that there is simply too much in the Gove curriculum to allow for inquisitive young minds to become stimulated and ask the questions that teaching should inspire.   The fundamental problems with infrastucture the hours required and the lack of specialist teachers are not being addressed.  The new national curriculum for history is he says “‘1066 and All That without the jokes”.   In a sound-bite laden discourse he describe Gove’s vision for learning as “Gradgrindian” and “pedantic and utopian with a garnishing of tokenism”.  Schama invoked Heroditus, the father of history, who believed that at its core lies a fascination with other cultures not a desire for self-congratulation.

Some say that Gove has a eye on the top job as the whispering grows around the solidity of Cameron’s tenure but he may do well to look his current one and his relationship with the teaching profession.  History as Schama says should be “honest, tough-minded and should keep the powerful awake at night”.

Eric Schmidt – The New Digital Age

The Google Executive Chairman was at Hay to examine the future of a connected world.  Chaired by Marcus du Sautoy, Schmidt gave due credit to the UK’s role in creating the digital age, saying that the whole digital world was invented here in 1930s and ’40s by Alan Turing and the smart people who worked at Bletchley Park.

After a fascinating insight into our changing world from one of its leading change agents the atmosphere took on more of an edge when it came to questions.  “You obviously have a strong sense of responsibility for doing good in the world” said the person to ask a question “I just wondered where you feel paying tax responsibly come into that?”  There was resounding applause from the Hay crowd.   Schmidt claimed to be perplexed.  “If I were in charge of the international tax regime it would not be operating this way.  No rational computer scientist or mathematician would have erected such a system.”  He went on the that Google maximised its cash revenue in order to provide free services.  “We understand the complaint but we can’t fix it…the British government can fix it…the government should be in charge of the question.”  The audience didn’t let up and despite the Google boss saying “I do love your country” the second questioner up replied “we’d rather have you money than your affection.”

Eric Schmidt was resolute “It is normal for companies to do what Google is doing…If the government chooses to change the law we’ll absolutely follow it…we’ll do whatever you guys decide.”


Losing Myself in ‘The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth’

Guest Post by Dr Stuart Clark

Like every author, whenever I start a new project, I wonder what the best way to present my materialwill be. I know from previous books that I will be devoting years of my life to the endeavour, researching, writing and then discussing it. So it’s essential that I find both a stimulating subject matter and a way of presenting it that it excites me.

The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth is certainly that. It’s my debut novel.

I wanted to write about the fractious birth of science in the 17th century, set against the backdrop of religious divide as Europe ripped itself apart in the prelude to the Thirty Years War. My previous books have been non-fiction explorations of astronomy. Yet, as I researched this particular subject and its principal players, the more convinced I became that the way to do this most vividly was to dramatise it.

In the same way as CJ Sansom mixes crime fiction with popular history in his fantastic Shardlake series, so I wanted to mix historical fiction with popular science. So began the endless drafting and redrafting as I sought to find a voice that worked in fictional terms. I needed something that would bring the story and characters to believable life but would not twist the facts out of all proportion.

The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth is the story of two men who are rivals, working on different sides of the divided Christian Church. Johannes Kepler is a German Lutheran in the grip of a God-given inspiration to distil the heavenly motion of the planets into mathematical form and prove that God’s realm is understandable to humans. In Italy, the devoutly Catholic Galileo Galilei is convinced that the Earth is not the centre of the universe and sets out to prove this before Kepler can.

So, I have stepped into the world of fiction to tell their stories, to imagine how they felt as they looked at the universe, as they watched their friends and families die during the war, and how they balanced their religious beliefs with the sometimes contradictory new knowledge they were uncovering.

I’m finding it a liberating experience. All the things that sparked my imagination and that I reined in as a non-fiction writer, I can now bring to the fore. The works of HG Wells are sometimes described as scientific romances and I’ve come to think of The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth as my astronomical romance. It allows my imagination to turn these hagiographied brains into living, breathing individuals, embedded in their times and places.

It is as Johannes Kepler wrote, four centuries ago, “The roads that lead man to knowledge are as wondrous as that knowledge itself.” The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth is published by Polygon Books.

Stuart Clark’s Hay appearance is on Friday 3rd June, at 1pm.   His website is and his twitter account is @DrStuClark.

You can buy The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth here.