Hay Festival Impressions and Connections


My first Hay after years of wanting to go, now made possible by a friend and her daughter, and a rather beautiful yurt on the banks of the Wye.

I’m used to Glastonbury, a festival the size of Sunderland, so I was slightly surprised when we reached a small field about a mile out of town.   I was expecting to see large pointy ‘circus’ tents, but instead found a vista of huge white marquees with interconnected tunnels, and open grassy quads in between.  This was clearly a tried-and-tested system; apparently Hay often has terribly wet weather, so the covered areas are a necessity; this is a festival of people queuing for events, and no-one wants to do that in the peeing rain.

We arrived on the Thursday, the first day, and it was very quiet and very cold.  The venue tents had not had time to warm up with hot bodies, and the sun had not been out long.  Then whoosh!  On Friday the sun came out, the stars were out and the stimulation levels had reached epic proportions; it had livened up considerably and by the Saturday, the place was buzzing.

They allow wine bottles and champagne flutes into Hay, something I have not seen at a festival in a long time, and there were people sat around sipping and reading.  Reading, writing, thinking, discussing.  Imagine what could happen with all that reading and thinking.  It might lead to more thinking and more writing and more books, and more reading … what joy!

The sheer quality of the speakers was breath-taking, and it had been very hard to chose who to see.  It was also quite intense and exhausting – on the Saturday I saw seven different speakers, with barely a break in between.  Maybe too much, but I wanted to cram in as much as possible.

And all that talk of Connections.  The theme cropped up at the very first lecture, and thread its way through my festival.  Mick Collins urged us to connect with nature, the planet and our inner Self; the Bands tried to connect through music with the audience and judges during their Battle.  Diaspora are by definition connected – and disconnected – from their homeland or original group;  Henrietta Bowden-Jones connects science with art in her online exhibition of The Art of Science.

Shami Chakrabarti urged us to remain connected to each other through empathy; put yourself in the position of that refugee, and connect with their plight.   AC Grayling encouraged us to read even more books, as therein lie connections to the past and other people’s experiences.  Germaine Greer talked of connections between all women, across the generations, and David Brooks asked us to connect with our inner peace and calm, not money and power, and find our ‘eulogy self’, the self we will be remembered for when it’s all over for us.

Ian MacMillan connected us to each other by having us write a poem together, and we connected concealed lines together to make five-line nonsense poems, only to find many of them made perfect sense.  And of course, the comedians connected us to our inner beings, each other and the absurd, by making us laugh at ourselves.

Hats off, then, to the organisers, who manage to get the cream of British and International thinking into a tiny field in a quaint old town in the middle of Wales every year.  It’s taken me a long time to get there, but I’m certain it won’t be my last festival; I am connected to Hay now.

Review: Melvyn Bragg

Melvyn Bragg was the highlight of my last trip to Hay (though he also had the dubious honour of being the sweatiest speaker I saw, bringing new meaning to the phrase ‘dripping with enthusiasm’. Fortunately for Melvyn, though not for the rest of the festival goers, the temperature has dropped fifteen degrees in the past four hours, so the front row was safe).

I feel a little bit as though I have been run over by an intellectual bus, and cannot hope to do justice to everything Bragg says. He was fizzing with ideas and digressions and asides, so the best I could do was try and get the gist of it.

Basically, there are those, like Dawkins, who write the King James Bible off as a consolation or a sop, arguing that it makes people weak and passive. Bragg says that no: the Bible has been a positive, active, liberating force which has steamrollered all progressive movements of the past four hundred years – from abolition to female equality and even science.

More recently, we’ve tended to play down the Bible, whether deliberately or out of neglect or indifference. Bragg thinks this is a huge mistake. You may not agree with the faith, but you can’t deny it’s impact, he thunders. And you don’t have to believe it to be grateful for it.

Bragg speaks a lot like the Bible reads – all poetic and rhythmic but also with serious power. In terms of clever ideas per minute, this was the best value event so far.

Of course, he’s so clever that my own brain fell out of my head in the signing queue at the thought of approaching greatness. Instead of making some sensible remark, I managed to forget how to spell my own name and blather on incomprehensibly. Sorry Melvyn. I am not worthy.

Review: Victoria Coren talks to Rosie Boycott

Professional poker player and writer Victoria Coren was in Hay to talk about her love affair with the game, as described in her memoir ‘For Richer, For Poorer’. The soundtrack to her book wouldn’t be the upbeat and dancey ‘Poker Face’ but the much more ominous ‘Hotel California’. Poker sucks you in, and not in a good way – as the song says, you can check out, but you can never leave.

However, this Friday night event concentrated on the silly side of the game. The way Coren tells it, there are no ‘normal’ people in poker – everyone is quirky and borderline dysfunctional. She began playing at the tail end of the old school era, which has been completely turned upside down by tv and the Internet. She described the bemusement of shabby Texas cowboys wandering the halls of Vegas casinos, who cannot understand the rise of the Scandinavian maths geek in their slightly disreputable game. Coren doesn’t have much time for people who claim the romance has been lost, though – as she says, the game is much less seedy and much safer, and what’s not to like about that? And poker is a game of skill – no matter how good you are at maths, in tournaments you still have to be able to read people.

However, psychology was secondary to comedy in this discussion – it was Friday night, after all, and Coren said, her father’s advice had always been, why make a serious point if you can make a joke? People laugh if you are funny, whereas there is no noise to say, what an astute point you have made.

Review: Michelle Magorian celebrates the 30th anniversary of ‘Goodnight Mr Tom’

Goodnight Mr Tom must be one of the few books which hasn’t had all the joy sucked out of it by being on the school curriculum. And Michelle Magorian must be one of the few authors at Hay who stood up and sang to her audience.

She talked about how Goodnight Mr Tom has really taken on a life of it’s own over the past thirty years, being endlessly stretched and transformed and turned inside out in different art forms. As well as being one of the most successful and enduring books Puffin has published, it is also a musical, stage play, radio play – and most famously, of course, an ITV drama with John Thaw in the title role. Far from being precious about ‘her’ story being lost, Magorian was positively enthusiastic about the opportunities to explore different themes and ideas within the story. For example, Willie’s mum is a much more prominent character in the musical – and Magorian sang one of the character’s songs (which she wrote – she is seriously multi-talented).

Magorian trained as an actress – and it showed in an absolutely gripping reading, with not only the voices but also the faces of her characters. And in possibly the most unlikely literary inspiration in history, it turned out that Goodnight Mr Tom was inspired by Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Specifically, Magorian planned to write stories based on all the pairs of colours, and ‘green and brown’ turned into Goodnight Mr Tom. Well, if this is green and brown, I’d love to read ruby and orange and violet and fawn.

Review: An Andrew Davies Masterclass

Andrew Davies is not a man ashamed of his public persona. His attitude was very much, well, if people think I revel in the rude bits, I’m damn well going to revel in the rude bits.

Davies was here to talk about his latest adaptation, of the Winifred Holtby novel, South Riding. A significant proportion of the audience was made up of people with an insane crush on David Morrissey, who giggled when his name was mentioned, and sighed when clips of him were shown on the big screen. Each to their own.

So, does he deserve his naughty reputation? Davies did say that he had wanted the main characters to have enjoyed some ‘torrential’ sex but had been overruled. But he doesn’t just comb the pages looking for potential rudery: Davies is just as interested in excavating the humour from the books he adapts. He had particular praise for Anna Maxwell Martin for bringing that ironic humour to life, as well as the hapless (and, inevitably, lustful) Alderman Huggins.

His next project looks set to be an adaptation of Les Mis, which made the David Morrissey fans very happy. Marius, perhaps?

Review: Mavis Nicholson talks to Sarah Compton

I can only hope to be as sparky and sparkling as Mavis Nicholson when I’m an octogenarian. Her book, What Did You Do In The War, Mummy? is a collection of interviews with women about their wartime experiences – from WI stalwarts to spies to the little known but awesomely named ‘landjills’. The audience for this event was definitely on the older side and there was much knowing nodding and finishing of Nicholson’s sentences for her.

Nicholson had two particularly interesting takes on social change and the Second World War. First, that while women found freedom, independence and adventure in the war, by and large they went back to ‘ordinary’ lives afterwards. What changed most were their expectations and relationships with their daughters – they gave up on liberation for themselves but wanted it for the next generation. Second, she argued that women’s willingness to be volunteers is ‘why they don’t rule the world.’ Women want to be liked, so they are content with gratitude; men want to be admired, so they start to compete.

One particular woman stood out for me: Odette, who spent two years in solitary confinement as a prisoner of war. To stop herself losing it, she would mentally redecorate people’s houses – and was often surprised on returning home that they hadn’t followed her advice.

There was definitely a sense that no one had ever asked these women to tell their story before. At a time when every celebrity has churned out three autobiographies by the age of 25, it’s worth remembering whose memories really matter.

Lyndsey writes at teadevotee