Anna Reid – Leningrad

Anna Reid is a journalist and author and former Ukraine correspondent at the Economist. She began with a quote from a thirty year woman trapped in Leningrad during the siege “there’s a corpse for every family..altogether the library has lost at least 100 people…what saves you is bestial indifference to human suffering”.

Three quarters of a million civilians died of starvation or a related illness, or over a quarter of the population.

Germany invaded the USSR in June 1941 taking the Red Army completely by surprise. Their advance was swift. By September 8 they reached Leningrad. No food stocks had been made nor evacuation plans laid. The city fathers were in disarray.

The siege began. A month’s worth of food was all the city had. Health problems set in as a result of poor diet, gum disease, scurvy and oedema. By November people were collapsing in the street.

Fuel also ran low. Normal life collapsed. There was no sewerage. Public transport ceased and the snow arrived. As the winter progressed the death toll rose from 11,000 in November to 100,000 in January. Corpses were left where the died. Doorways and abandoned trams were filled with the dead.

Temperatures dropped to minus 40. People queued from 3am until lunchtime for 125 grams of bread. Forced abandonment became commonplace, people who secured permits to leave did so leaving family members to face certain death.

Rations weren’t equally allocated and your ration card was a likely indicator of your likelihood of survival,

Rosie Boycott interviews Jung Chang

Jung Chang is in Hay 21 years after the publication of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. She opened the session dramatically by producing her grandmother’s shoe, evidence of the cruel practice of foot binding.

The book is the story of the women from three generations of her own family. Her grandmother was required as a young woman to become concubine to a warlord to whom she bore a child, Jung Chang’s mother. She later married a senior officer in the communist party.

Jung Chang herself was born in 1952 an grew up under Mao as a privileged child of a senior party official. Eventually her parents fell victim to the cultural revolution, her father was excited and does prematurely and her mother was paraded in the streets before also being exiled.

The writer became deeply disenchanted with Chinese communism and the Mao leadership and came to Britain in 1978. She was one of the first 14 people to come to the UK to study and the first from the 90 million strong Szechuan province. She gained a doctorate from York University in 1982.

Following the success of Wild Swans Jung Chang spent 12 years with her husband Jon Halliday researching a biography of Mao. She is deeply critical of Mao and accused him of being knowingly causing mass starvation amongst the Chinese population by selling food to buy weapons and military technology. Mao Zedong: The Untold Story was published in 2005.

Daniel Pick – The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind

Daniel Pick’s study of ‘Hitler, Hess and the Analysts’ prompted sufficient interest to merit a move from the Wales Stage to the headline Barclays Pavillion. It was a little strange to listen to an exploration of the nazi mind in the same venue where Rob Brydon had been making laughter flow the evening before.

Freudian analysis was at the core of this deconstruction of nazi thought. The concept of the super ego for example sits comfortably with the idea of a mind that embraces nazism. It is clear from first hand accounts that Hess was a damaged and in many ways weak and impressionable man.

Daniel Pick is Professor of History at Birkbeck at the University of London and this was an academic session. It was a history rather than a psychological investigation and left me better informed about the character of Rudolph Hess but little nearer to understanding the triggers that turned his mind to nazi ideology.

Rob Brydon

Actor and author Rob Brydon is in Hay to talk about his autobiographical work ‘Small Man in a Book’. In case you are wondering he does ‘the voice’ at the top of the session, better to get these things out of the way. He also does a very creditable Alan Bennett.

Brydon is a raconteur whose voice and delivery evokes memories of some of the great Welsh actors. He tells several side-splitting show business anecdotes slipping in and out of impressions, many of them of stars called Jones; Tom, Catherine Zeta, you get the picture.

Brydon knows what the audience wants, cue a Michael Caine story with accompanying impression. He doesn’t always go for the obvious or easy line, his story about a message left for Ray Gravell after he had a foot amputated was brave, funny and deeply dark.

You have to be brave to ask Brydon a question and several are. One was rewarded with an exclusive on series two of The Trip with Steve Coogan. No promises but Italy has been talked about.

Stephen Fry, Ruby Wax and Monty Don Talking About It

Talking about depression and bipolarity in front of an audience of over 1000 people, many of whom are themselves sufferers is bound to result in awkward moments, which it did.  There were moments of hilarity too, with Ruby Wax and Stephen Fry on stage that was also a given.  One of the funniest moments was when Fry addressed Monty Don by his surname. “You keep calling me Don” said Monty.

“Oh my god I’m so sorry Montague.”

“I really don’t mind” replied the affable Monty.

There was a rawness about the session.  Ruby was adamant that she never experiences mania,  though her on screen persona often conveys the energy and charge that characterises many descriptions of the ups of bipolarity.  Stephen Fry revealed that he struggles with lows even when working and that many episodes of QI had been recorded whilst fighting the mood disorder.  Monty talked about how the rhythms of nature sometimes help with his inner discord.

There were parallels drawn between the struggles for acceptance that the gay community had experienced in the past and the discrimination that people with mental illness face today.  Fry talked about how artistic people in the gay community had carried the flag because they had less to fear in the work place “you’re not going to get kicked out of your job being Elton John because you are gay.”


Maryam d’Abo and Hugh Hudson discuss their Film ‘Rupture’

Actress and producer Maryam d’Abo suffered a near fatal brain aneurism, whilst exercising on a stair master. She was staying with friends in LA. For three days it went undiagnosed. Eventually she was rushed to Cedars hospital to “have the machine repaired”.

During her long recovery Maryam and her husband Hugh Hudson decided to make a film; both about her experience and the broader experience of brain haemorrhaging.

The film which is screened at the new cinema in Hay all this week is called Rupture. We were treated to several clips of what is clearly a highly impact-full and at times shocking study. It is existential and philosophical whilst interweaving detail about the physical form and function of the human brain. It touches also on the more prosaic experiences of loneliness and sadness experienced by those recovering from haemorrhaging, as well as the range of long term impacts, physical, mental and emotional.

The session was chaired by The Times’ Sacha Bonsor, who has written a book about her own two brainstem bleeds.

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?