It starts with a tingle
…says author Graham Swift, as he tries to explain his process of writing, having returned to the genre of the short story after an absence of many years. This was how he started his writing career, as a teller of short stories, and at that time he never imagined becoming a novelist.
Nine novels later and he’s published a collection of 25 stories called England and other stories His belief is that the function of fiction is ‘to reveal the invisible world, the unspoken, I try to tell a story that wouldn’t otherwise be told’ he said, he is drawn to those inarticulate characters as ‘most of life is inarticulate.’ He then read ‘Saving Grace’ from the collection, a simple but cautionary tale of love, race and morality.
The genesis of this book was the 2008 Cheltenham Literary Festival and a battle with Mary Beard over the relative merits of the Greeks and Romans. Edith won the debate and resolved to take a break from academic books and write something for a wider audience, a book that might help pay her children’s university tuition fees.
Her enthusiasm for the subject started early. Most eight year olds were reading the Beano when Edith first became interested in the ancient Greeks.
The Greeks were seagoing. The Ancient Greek words for ship and mind were almost identical and they anthropomorphised their vessels. To understand the Greeks you have to appreciate how important the water is to Greek civilisation. In Greek mythology many of the heroes are sea captains and great swimmers. The Odyssey is a prime example. Greek myths are also unlike any others with their stories about the raw pursuit of power and influence.
Edith claimed to be nervous but a more animated, enthused and confident classicist would be hard to imagine.
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 .
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”.
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.”
Mary Portas was appointed by Steve Hilton in David Cameron’s office, to look at how we might revive the British high street. Most of the country is desperate to regenerate the high street, she believes and she’s speaking in a town where feelings are running high on that subject. The people of Hay, perhaps as many as 85% are opposed to the arrival of a new supermarket, which Portas was careful not to name, but is known to be Tesco.
She has spoken to the campaigners leading ‘Plan B for Hay’ and is clearly sympathetic and supportive. Her views nationally and their’s locally are clearly aligned. She does however express some concern as to whether ultimately the people of Hay can have an effect.
Portas turns to the question of manufacturing and acknowledges that we will never match the capacity of India and China to produce low cost high volume clothing but she points out that designer manufacturing has also moved offshore from the UK. She believes that with the right strategy we could bring as much as 30% of fashion manufacturing back to the UK, but we only have 10 years in which to do it before we lose our native skills. She tells us how delighted she was to hire a former seamstress for her Kinky Knickers project who had been stacking shelves for Tesco.
Internet has replaced mediocre retailers and for many chains has reduced their need to be in as many places. We need to better define what the high street is for. Last year’s rioters were people with no sense of belonging, we need to create community by turning high streets into multi functional civic places.
Portas shows us a short film about Margate, which shows just how far decline of the high street can go – she will be working with Margate to attempt to arrest that decline an involve the retailers are the core “decision making should be the responsibility of the people of that town”.
She believes she is making inroads with the government but some of her more radical proposals are “still under review”. The scale of her task is brought into sharp relief when she mentions that on her visits to number 10 she is “always bumping into the head of publicity and marketing for Tesco”.
She finishes with a quote from Gandhi relayed to her by David who drove her to Hay “be the change you want to see”.
The sun is out and it makes it somehow even more appropriate to head over to HowTheLightGetsIn, the fringe festival that sprang up in Hay four years ago.
We’re in the more bohemian surroundings near the centre of the town to hear Michael Eavis, Hilary Lawson and Melvin Benn talk to Mary Ann Sieghart about Festivals. Lawson is the founder of HowTheLightGetsIn, Benn is the man behind Latitude and Eavis, well you know who Michael Eavis is.
We begin with a short history of the beginnings of Glastonbury. A little over 42 years ago Eavis attended the Bath Blues Festival and decided he could do something similar. T-Rex was on the bill for the first Glastonbury, entry was just £1 and Eavis gave away free milk, illegally as it turned out as the milk was not pasteurised. Clad in tweed jacket and denim shorts Eavis also talked about the bleaker years of the festival such as 1985 when a bunch of barrier jumpers attempted to set fire to Michael’s house. Despite some ups and downs Glastonbury holds a special place in the hearts of everyone who has been there. Hilary Lawson thanked Michael for “many years of wonder”.
Lawson spoke of the great community that characterises the best festivals and their levelling nature. Benn spoke about how he set out to create a live version of a Sunday review section with Latitude. All of the panelists talked about the tough economics of the festival business. There was agreement across audience and panel alike as to the special experience you get at festivals. How wonderful to be at one, in the sunshine.