The Unthanks: Live with Magpie


“It hits you in your soul rather than your head. I love them” says Adrian Edmondson. On Wednesday night The Unthanks did just that with an astounding set in the Telegraph tent.  From the very first song, Hawthorn, they were mesmerising.  Both Rachel and Becky Unthank have pure haunting, soulful voices which blended with the exquisite trumpet playing of Victoria Rule of The Amadè Players.

The music is sweet but also dark. “You had the choice tonight between the misery of Jack Dee, or the deep, deep misery of The Unthanks” said pianist and the group’s manager Adrian McNally, “you people need to take a long hard look at yourselves.” The songs are powerful and the exceptional voices are coupled with fine musicianship including Niopha Keegan on violin and backing vocals with Chris Price on bass.

The new album ‘Mount the Air’ is available now – you can order it here.

Neil Gaiman: In Conversation with Claire Armitstead

Neil Gaiman 2

Before she begins Claire Armitstead receives rapturous applause from half the audience when she mentions that she is the Books Editor for “the opposition”, The Guardian. She then mentions that one of the stewards on the way asked the if they were here for the ‘Neil Gaiman’ event. Levelling and so very Hay Festival.

Gaiman talked about his personal and professional relationship with the late Terry Pratchett.  They collaborated when Neil was just 27. Gaiman’s first novel Good Omens was a collaborative effort with Pratchett and he described how they each wrote sections and shared them with each other over the phone.

He shares his favourite memory of Pratchett. “I was in a taxi on my way to a book signing and my phone rang.” Terry, suffering from Alzheimer’s, was writing an autobiography and he had a lapse of memory that he thought Neil might help with.  In the US in 1990 during the promotional tour for ‘Good Omens’ after a memorable and chaotic radio interview the two of them were signing a ‘They Might be Giants” song on the street.”Were we on 39th or 40th St?” said Terry.

“Terry was somebody who used anger..it was something that drove him” said Gaiman. People who say he was a sweet man had never met the real Terry Pratchett.

Gaiman also talks about his new book of short stories ‘Trigger Warning’ and reads from July. It is one of twelve stories in the collection entitled ‘A Calendar of Tales” created after Blackberry invited Gaiman to request ideas from fans via Twitter and then create stories around the replies.

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.

Letters Live with Stephen Fry, Jude Law, Sandi Toksvig

Photo: Finn Beales

Photo: Finn Beales

My first event and my first ever experience of the Hay Festival and I knew it was going to be amazing. Having followed Letters Live for more than a year and finally receiving a copy of Letters of Note at Christmas; the anticipation was immense. As we stood in the queue to the Tata Tent, Stephen Fry strode boldly by, we gazed in awe. The excitement was at fever pitch and we were not disappointed.

Heartthrob Jude Law read beautifully and my favourite of all the performances was his narrative of Sol Le Witt’s letter to Eva Hesse, where Sol tells Eva “you belong in the most secret part of you…if you fear, make it work for you – draw & paint your fear and anxiety” and ultimately “Stop it and just DO”. Law’s delivery of the letter was enthralling, he executed the grammar perfectly and with a theatrical edge that brought the content to life.
Fry narrated a timely and moving “Dear Mama”, an honest and touching coming out letter where the subject says that his homosexuality has taught him the “limitless possibilities of living”. Fry begun his narrative by warning listeners that he may cry, as he’s a soppy bugger. This emotional connection was felt throughout the reading and there were many a tear from the audience. Within the letter, the subject says that coming clean about his true soul means that he no longer has “to lie to the people who taught me the value of the truth”.
Sandi Toksvig was another star of the show, bringing the house down with theatrical and hilarious renditions of letters including “The Matchbox”, where Sylvia Townsed Warner describes all the things she likes most about the matchbox her friend has given to her as a gift. The humorous writer uses a brilliant sarcasm and over enthusiasm saying that the best thing about her matchbox was that it was empty.
Letters Live was an emotional journey, at one point tears of sadness and heartbreak and the next of joy and laughter. One cannot help but wonder if today we are more reserved about our feelings, as Charlotte Bronte once wrote with raw truth about her feelings since the passing of her sister Emily.
The show stars the most incredible performers and allows us to appreciate the purest form of the written word. I recommend it to anyone and cannot wait for next year.

Simon Armitage – ”What I did on my Holidays’

IMG_1060Probably our nation’s greatest poet, Simon Armitage has published a follow up to Walking Home called Walking Away – a very entertaining travelogue of his walk along the south west coastal path as a modern day troubadour, reciting poetry to groups of people in exchange for bed and board. He undertook the challenge after getting ‘itchy feet’, he confessed, needing to get out into the world in order to discover things to write about. The south west path was almost the same distance as the Pennine way, and although it seemed to be an easier walk, it required a great deal of concentration, as in one direction was a steep cliff and the sea beyond…

He read an extract detailing a horrendous night spent at a Butlins Holiday Camp, which, he admitted ‘could have formed a book on its own’ During the walk he encountered the generousity of strangers and met some good people, and it was these experiences that kept him going despite the tiredness and melancholy that often accompanied him. Walking gives him a balance between writing in solitude and being out in the world, finding and experiencing things to write about. Training for the walk wasn’t something he thought about; ‘walking on day one is training for day two!’

After a slide show of photos (‘what I did on my holidays’) from the walk, he confessed that he probably won’t be writing any more fiction or non fiction, feeling that he is more ‘wired up for poetry’ Either way, I still remain an avid fan.

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.