Literary festivals bloom like flowers in springtime, some of them choice and fragrant and others more on the weed spectrum, yet Hay remains one of the brightest. It’s partly to do with the gorgeous setting of the place, in a lush scoop of meadows straddling the Welsh border a long way from motorways and railway stations, and somewhat to do with the alternative nature of the town – crammed with second hand bookshops, artisan delis and practitioners of quaint wellness therapies. Mostly, though, it’s the unique Hay-ness of the Festival itself that still appeals. There’s something magical about seeing locals and metropolitan literati and strutting slebs gathered with ordinary book-loving folk – most of whom will have travelled for many miles and fought almost to the death for a room in a B&B – in a series of big tents in a field to listen to people talking about their ideas. The amateur days of flapping canvas and mud avenues are long gone. It’s a slick and no doubt massively profitable operation, as the names of the various stages indicate: e.g. the Tata Steel tent and the Good Energy stage. (The Barclay’s Wealth Pavilion has vanished.) Bill Clinton’s over-quoted description of it all is ‘Woodstock for the mind’. Outside the big white sheds, though, there’s still just enough trampled grass and ice cream and limp bunting to recall something else for me – it’s more like taking your brain to the village fete.
This year it didn’t even rain. I went to a dozen events in three days – amongst them Tom Holland’s impressive delivery of the Christopher Hitchens Lecture, Steve Hilton (Cameron’s ex head of communications) whose likeable manner masked his eye-wateringly rightwing content, the admirable Germaine Greer, and Simon Armitage who was promoting his latest book about long-distance walking. He said a couple of things about writing and walking that chimed for me: that he doesn’t like to be the kind of writer who sits at home and writes, because if he did he’d just be writing about his study wall. And that he travels because it is a way of looking at things that are familiar, but to see them as a stranger. Exactly.
Almost at random I’d picked a talk by Professor Andrew Scull on madness and civilization. As often happens, it turned out to be the most stimulating of the lot. For example, he described how what was known in the First World War as shell-shock became combat fatigue in the Second, and is now termed post-traumatic stress disorder. There’s a character in my new book (Daughter of the House – coming in July! Did I mention??) who is ruined by his traumatic experiences as an ambulance driver in the First War, so I was fascinated to hear about society’s changing attitudes to battle and mental illness.
My three friends and I had unanimously but independently picked only one event when we ordered our tickets. This was to do with memory and learning, and clearly it sounded enticing to all of us. It turned out to be a couple dancing a tango and performing conjuring tricks, neither to a very high standard. Why? I have no idea.
Their audience gave them a polite hearing. That’s Hay for you.