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. 

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Interview with Chris Woods

By Virginia

I was intending to go to Chris Wood’s talk tonight as my husband Chris Cole (a drones researcher and campaigner) speaks highly of him and has raved about his new book ‘Sudden Justice’. So I was very grateful that Chris Wood agreed to meet me this morning for what proved a fascinating discussion about war reporting, drones, and what next for America.

Woods was a journalist for the BBC, who has reported most of the major conflicts of the last 25 years. He became interested in drone warfare in 2010, when working in Pakistan, after an official told him they couldn’t use an airbase to help flood relief because the US had appropriated it for their drones programme. He began to investigate and when he left the BBC for the Bureau for Investigative Journalism he set up a team to report on US drone strikes.

When he moved on from the Bureau, Woods decided to write the book in order get a wider sense of the story. The result is a holistic modern history of armed drones, that examines the effect on civilians, shows the way the battlefield has changed and the people who operate drone warfare. Late into the research, he was given an endorsement from the airforce book support programme which got him in the front door and gave him access to former senior officials in the military, government and intelligence services in the US, UK and military. As a result his book shows both sides of the story and allows the reader to form their own judgements of the ethics and appropriateness of this way of waging war.

The author’s interviews resulted in surprising conversations. Dick Armitage, a hawk in Bush’s government, supported the idea of targetted killings as he believed the US was justified in their actions. It was only when he visited Pakistan in 2009 that he realised the extent of killings and how the programme has spread so far that the CIA can’t always say who they’ve killed, a revelation that filled him with horror. Cameron Munter, former US ambassador to Pakistan stated that he should have had authority in the region, and yet the CIA effectively ran the show.

Much of Wood’s research has uncovered how the ‘war on terror’ has been a ‘tit-for-tat’ affair. Extraordinary rendition, began under Clinton, and resulted in alleged militants from Bosnia and Albania being taken to Egypt where they were tortured. One of these militants was the brother of the Al Qaeda no 2 El Zawaihari who ordered an attack on the US in Tanzania in revenge. In response, Osama bin Laden was put on the kill list. 9/11 soon followed, with the first US targetted drone strike happening a month later.

Woods also had access to ordinary drone operators, describing their tedious days, waiting for the CIA to tell them what to do, and working in a hierarchal structure that is both demoralising and disempowering. One interviewee’s description of how seeing a dog killed led to huge negative comments when an excerpt of the book was published in The Guardian. Woods felt this was unfair because he saw it as a moment when her humanity was able to express itself. He was glad that she still appreciated being quoted, and being given a voice in a situation where she felt powerless.

What is clear from Wood’s work, is that if Clinton and Bush began dronewarfare, with Bush being the ‘occasional assassin’, it is Obama who has institutionalised it. Drone killing is now part of US foreign policy alongside, diplomacy and trade. The difficult thing once you start such a programme, is how to turn it off. The next US president will have that choice, but is likely to feel compelled by the strategic imperatives to continue.

Woods has recently been on a book tour in the US where the drone programme is the support of 60% of the population. As he arrived the big story was that a drone had killed an US civilian, and yet the question was not about whether the strike was legal, but whether it was effective. Woods argues that this is because the media and government have a firewall in place that prevents proper reporting of the issues. With ‘remote reporting’ from journalists in Washington,who don’t see the impact on the ground, ‘remote warfare’ is distanced even further. He is encouraged by TV series such as ‘Homeland’ and the recent Ethan Hawkes film (which uses one of Woods true news stories as a plot line) which are beginning to air the issues for people, but even so, many Americans don’t know what is going on.

If America is to choose a different path, its citizens need to truly understand what is being done in their name. Which is why ‘Sudden Justice’ is such an important book as it allows a light to be shown on a killing programme that for too long has operated in the darkness. So if you’re at Hay looking for a thought provoking talk, I highly recommend you going to his event and buy a copy of ‘Sudden Justice’. You won’t regret it.

Chris Woods will be in conversation with Chris Hunter and Nik Gowing at the Llwfan Cymru – Wales stage at 8.30pm tonight.

Jesse Burton with Georgia Goodwin

By Virginia

4134909_origBeing  a writer, I’ve been closely following the stellar rise of Jessie Burton, author of the 2014 sensation ‘The Miniaturist’.  I follow Jessie, her agent Juliet Mushens and editor Francesca Main on twitter, so it’s been exciting to watch the story from the description of her submission letter to Mushens, the auction that followed, and publication that led to the book being on bestseller lists across the world.

And whilst it’s easy to get snarky about another writer’s success (read David Mitchell’s ‘The Bone Clocks’  for an excellent example of writerly envy), it’s impossible not to enjoy Burton’s. Not only is it a book worthy of the plaudits, but the author comes across as a genuinely lovely person who appreciates the wonderful and ‘discombobulating’ experience she has been having.

In this session with Georgia Godwin, she discussed both the busy promotional schedule of the last year, which has led to headline articles, personal interest in some countries, intellectual in others, but also some of the background to the book. She talked about how seeing the real miniature doll’s house in Amsterdam inspired her to explore a seventeenth century society that was both similar and different from ours. How wealthy women could walk the streets openly with their husbands, and could be members of guilds, and yet also had to fight the reactionary forces that pushed them back to the hearth.

She also talked about the complexity of her characters, how Nella is struggling to make sense of her world, and combative with her new  family and how Marian’s kindness is buried in years of repression. And how the characters keep secrets from each other, sometimes because of the moralistic society they live in and sometimes for protection.  How none of the characters can be fully known and some things are left half open.

I was also fascinated with her relaying how food becomes a status symbol in the book. Having sugar and spice meant people being able to show they were wealthy enough to flavour their food. Burton also noted that they would paint meals much in the same way people instagram them now.

This was a great interview, Burton is warm, self deprecating and  an intelligent and thoughtful writer.  I could have listened to her for hours. As a reader, I can confirm she writes beautifully. The Miniaturist isn’t my usual reading fare, but she drew me into the mysteries and secrets of her characters and describes the world so well,  I really enjoyed it.  As an aspiring writer her extraordinary rise to the top of the charts fills me with hope, not because I expect the same, but because it shows it is possible to be taken from the slushpile. And I love the fact she is so dumbstruck but the whole thing and was so excited by the size of her audience she took a selfie with us.

Her next book ‘Belonging’ will cover the Spanish Civil War and another set of secrets. It should be out next year – I’m already looking forward to it.

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 .