Hanif Kureishi ‘The Last Word’, with Rosie Boycott.

He’s my favourite author and my favourite grumpy old man.  Apologies to Hanif, if he’s reading this, but I love some of his rants when he’s being interviewed.

I’ve bought, but not yet read The Last Word, but delighted in his cutting humour. He gave an irreverent and satirical commentary on the so called influx of immigrants into the country which is ruining us, if you believe what the papers say.

How much of Mamoon, the main character in the book, asked Rosie Boycott,  is Hanif Kureishi?  As a child, he was surrounded by drunken old Indian men,  many his uncles.  They were a great inspiration for him. Rosie then asked how much of his own experience was in the film, Le Weekend?  Films are full of people having sex for the first time he said, and he began to wonder what it would be like to be married to the same person for 30 years and still have sex with them. Where was the danger and when to leave them?  The inspiration came after looking back at photos of his 40th birthday party, realising that all the couples had parted company apart from him and his filmmaker friend Roger Michell.

The conversation then turned to the problem of growing up as the product of a mixed race marriage, something that informed a great deal of his writing. He confessed to writing as a response to the sheer terror of being chased by gangs because of his colour. Reading literature at last made him feel that he wasn’t alone, and that the problem belongs to society.

He is troubled by the shift toward religious fundamentalism by Muslim youths, reflected in his novel, My Son the Fanatic and wants to write in a more comedic manner. “How do we support young Muslims attracted by the radicalism of Islam?” one audience member asked.  By getting them to read more widely he answered, and give up the fantasy reflected by the papers that “the white person is disappearing into a sink of immorality” because this is not the truth.

Owen Sheers

This lecture on Dylan Thomas really brought the poet’s work alive for the audience.  Leaving behind his wild lifestyle, Owen Sheers homed in on the richness and brilliance of his use of language and form.  Thomas was a “seismic event in English language poetry, often taken to heart by people who don’t read any other poetry”.  Sheers’s delivery, with his quick wit helped explain the form and musicality of poetry in an accessible way.  For Thomas, what mattered was “the sound of the words”. We were treated to several readings of Thomas’s poems, from Sheers and others including Andrew Motion (on film).

Dylan Thomas “works out of memory and out of the landscape itself”  according to Sheers. He’s a huge fan, though he confesses to be a bit fed up with the public’s idea of Thomas, a one man male voice choir on the page.  He was a poet who took risks, his writing lost him readers as a result. Sheers finds that Thomas’s later poetry, whilst thinner on the ground was of much finer quality. The final reading was of the great poem, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, a response to the death of his father. It was read by Paul Muldoon. and there was more than a murmur of appreciation from the audience. “That’s what Dylan Thomas does to an audience.”

A Hay festival steward’s day – and night

This mornings blog is provided by my husband, who has been coming to Hay with me for 8 years, and stewarding for the last 6. This was his day yesterday –

After nine hours of stewarding, some light relief was needed. Although I was pleasantly surprised by being amused and interested in what Charles Moore had to say about the Iron Lady, I can’t say that I was inspired to read Homer (the two presenters reminded me of Baddiel & Newman’s professors), or learnt anything from the two American presenters of The Mortal Instruments (six instalments of escapism for “young adults”).

First up was Suggs, the lead singer of Madness. I saw his one man show “My Life Story in Words” last December, and I’d highly recommend you get to see it before it closes. This was different, as instead of being accompanied by a pianist, Suggs was prompted into vignette by Martin Chilton. Inspired to write on the day of his 50th birthday whilst laying in the bath, hungover after a party at Wiltons the night before, and seeing his cat die, he first reflected on his childhood. His dad (a heroin addict) left at the age of 3, and he was brought up by his mum, a Jazz singer in the Colony Club in 1960’s Soho. This led him into a world of social misfits, who gravitated towards somewhere which got around the limited opening times of pubs and intolerance by being a private members club.

His real name is Graham McPherson (but only his mum, the Inland Revenue and the Police call him that). He was schooled in Wales for a while, but on return to London he was picked on for his funny accent and being a “haggis” and decided on a change of name. Opening his mum’s encyclopaedia of Jazz Music at random, he dropped a pin and landed on the letter E of…Peter. Thankfully the surname of the obscure flute player from Kentucky was Suggs. He didn’t answer to his real name for months, until everyone, including teachers, finally accepted it.

He cited Prince Buster and Ian Dury as musical influences, Tommy Cooper as an absolute hero (his impersonation in his stage show brought the house down) and The Liberty of Norton Folgate as the favourite song he has written. Currently working on a new album provisionally titled “Where have all the Wan*ers Gone” and touring with Madness in December, he is a national institution and an all round top bloke. As you might have guessed, I’m a big fan.

Next up was Robin Ince, “in and out of his mind”. A three hour show, squeezed and edited into one, delivered at a rate of knots. I was laughing so much that I couldn’t make many notes.

He spoke fondly of Brian Blessed appearing on the Infinite Monkey Cage (2 and a half hours of the most delightful tinnitus I’ll ever have), showed his frustration with suggestions for curing insomnia (have you tried camomile tea, a comfy pillow? No, I sleep on manure and broken glass) and a lack of interest in football (what do you think of Chelsea? It’s been a very pleasant flower show so far).

A long but pleasant day, apart from the rain, mud and sliding the car out of fields (many thanks to Colin for the pushes!).

Stephen Fry on Shakespeare and love

It’s hard to follow the thread and take notes when Stephen Fry takes to the stage to deliver a lecture on Shakespeare and love. To a mere mortal such as myself, he seems to have a brain the size of a small planet, and yet he didn’t consider himself a scholar of Shakespeare. The Bard was, he confessed, an inspiration for him, as he read him compulsively from a young age, with an ambition to get into Cambridge University. Which he did, with a scholarship.

He admitted that his understanding was made more profound after he fell in love for the first time, and then proceeded to debunk all claims that Shakespeare’s words were written by either Marlowe or Bacon – with credible evidence of course. He then read Sonnet 20 and Sonnet 18, (‘Shall I compare thee to a Summers day?’) examining and analysing the language and form – of course it all makes perfect sense when someone like Fry explains it, leaving me wishing that every English teacher I ever had was just like him. If you haven’t read any of his books on language, I urge you to do so.

Jennifer Saunders, Bonkers.

Yes she is, a little, and endearingly so. Interviewer Francine Stock was mid- introduction when Saunders sauntered onto the stage, looking indignant, clutching a Claridge nursing home bag, cracking jokes. She remarked how someone asked her why didn’t she go on stage alone and talk, reply that she had always been part of a double act, and Francine should regard herself as Dawn French for the duration!

I could hardly take notes for laughing, as she commented on various parts of her memoirs, Bonkers, , which were loaded with humour as you would expect, but what also came through was the warmth and love of her family, her friendship with Dawn, and her honesty.

Almost upstaged by the sudden unplanned appearance of her dog, and a question from a member of the audience who professed her love for Ade Edmondson (who also made a brief appearance to huge applause), it didn’t phase her. I don’t usually read memoirs or autobiographies, but I’m about to go and buy this one. Still smiling!

Simon Armitage – The Great War: An Elegy

Simon Armitage talked about his commission from the BBC, in composing seven poems to commemorate the 700,000 men who died during WW1.

He took an alternative approach, by exploring the lives of ordinary people and how they were affected by the war. He also stressed that he wanted to find a way to elegise them, in case these kind of experiences should disappear from memory. One of the most poignant was that of nurse Edith (Edie) Appleton, who kept meticulous diaries of her experiences of nursing soldiers who had been injured on the battlefield. One element that struck him was how she sought solace in the coast, away from the battlefield on her days off, and often swam in the sea, as if to wash away the experience.

He read some of his poems, and some were shown on excerpts from a film he’s made which will be shown in the Autumn on BBC two. Sea Sketch, Remains, Lazarus, In Avondale, The Thankful, Considering the Poppy, Memorial took us on a journey of different experiences of various ‘ordinary people’ who had extraordinary tales to tell, reminding us how far removed we are today in the 21st century western world. When asked by an audience member if he had felt anger when he was writing, he answered no, he just felt a tremendous sadness. Armitage also added that he didn’t feel that he had the authority to feel that emotion, unlike the war poets such as Sassoon and Owen.

Johnny Vegas/Michael Pennington

Or, is it the other way round? The man we saw on stage was not the one we’ve all come to know and love in the world of comedy – here was the real man, Michael Pennington, his soul laid bare both here and in his autobiography Becoming Johnny Vegas. Michael began by talking about his time at Seminary school where he believed the priesthood was his future. Achingly homesick, he fought against the institution which resented individuality, he soon realised how priests were in fact fallible and human, they didn’t have all the answers. He touched on the unspoken abuse that occurred, and how torn he was because he felt he was representing the sensibilities of the community he had left back home.

Peter Florence’s questions were, as usual, intelligent and sensitive – for here was a man who battled for many years with the demons of his alter ego, Johnny Vegas. We were left with a clear indication of what Peter called ‘a kind of quasi schizophrenia’ which existed in his life, as Vegas took over and took to the stage, disregarding the carefully written stand up routine. Even Pennington struggled to explain the juxtaposition between him and Vegas at times. Maybe it was a subliminal reaction to what was going on around him at the time, he wondered.

Now, it seems that Vegas had been locked into a small suitcase, maybe never to return. Michael Pennington has found strength in his new family and success with acting, directing and writing.

Stewarding at Hay

Another blog from my other half:

For someone who has been going to the Hay literary festival for the last 7 years, I have a confession to make.

I rarely read novels. The last I finished was Engleby, by Sebastian Faulks. it took over twelve months and I didn’t enjoy it at all. Before that, I think it was The Book of Dave, by Will Self.

And that explains why, for the first two years at Hay, I was extremely bored during the day. Whilst my very literary wife (currently taking her masters in English) was attending session after session, I sat around, read the Guardian, wandered into town, did the shopping, chatted to strangers in the Pub, scoured the bookshops for sporting biographies and Wisdens and attended the Early Edition for a laugh, before meeting up with Jill for an evening’s entertainment of music and comedy.

My days at Hay are now complete by being a steward. I was always struck by how helpful those in hi-viz jackets were, and now feel very proud to continue that tradition.

The large number of volunteers who collect your tickets, guide you to the last available seats and run around with the microphones love the festival as much as those paying to attend the sessions. I get to see some sessions whilst working inside the tents that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise (it surprised me that I knew so many words to The Gruffalo, and know the Rainbow Magic dance) and have made many good friends amongst those working at the festival.

It’s hard work, being on your feet for long spells and isn’t for everyone. You do need to bite your lip at times (One man swore at me several times as he claimed his event had been moved 5 times – it hadn’t) but the number of smiles and thank yous more than makes up for the very rare idiot.

A few years ago, Peter Florence attended a meeting about volunteers and their role in London 2012. “We want GamesMakers to be like the stewards at Hay”, he was told. It has been a pleasure to been involved in both events.

We are all counting the days off until 22 May 2014 when we can meet up with old friends again in a field in our spiritual home.

Jo Caulfield

I was still poorly on the Saturday, so my other half went on his own to see Jo – here is his review:

It’s so refreshing to listen to a very funny comedienne, as there aren’t that many about. Jo Caulfield finished her tour at Hay on Saturday, and kept her audience laughing until the end of the set (and then to the end of the queue to buy her CD and chat).

I squirmed with embarrassment (whilst laughing heartily) when Jo said that her husband wore a football shirt to watch his team on TV (like I do), and couldn’t understand why. After all, she said, ‘I don’t dress like a slut when watching Nigella.’

A case of mistaken identity developed into lunch and an invite to an evening wedding reception in a brilliantly crafted story, and the observations on shopping “All Saints; clothes for Dickensian syphilitic orphans” wickedly close to the mark.

The funniest routine for me was how Jo viewed a porn film which she was watching with her husband. I wouldn’t have noticed the matching Dualit toaster and kettle, or the kitchen cupboards, or the fact that when the plumber had fixed the Zanussi washing machine that the housewife put her white blouse in with her red mini skirt to test it.

I’m sure her next show will be just as well observed and funny.

Part 2: Michael Vaughan on the Ashes

imageMichael reflected firstly on the two recent series against New Zealand. saying that England were poor in NZ, and were possibly a little overconfident. The 2-0 home series win was due to the bowling being much more threatening in more helpful conditions, and to the return of Grahame Swann to full fitness after his elbow operation.

The question was asked about the return of Kevin Pietersen to the team, and Michael thought that if he was not fit then there would be no change. But he would pick KP if he were fit,  saying that KP is the best player he ever played with for England, bringing the “x factor” to the team. Fitting KP into the line up means that one batsman would have to go, and Michael thought that would have to be Nick Compton. He would promote Ian Bell to open, maybe even Joe Root.

He thinks that England has the bowling lineup to take 20 wickets and thus win matches, and thinks that if the batters can total 325-350, we will win the series comfortably, 4-0. As always, a good start is important, and the conditions on the morning of the 10 July and the toss will be key to the series.

Bring it on!