Hay Festival 30

This was my eleventh year at Hay Literature festival in Hay on Wye, the book town near to Hereford just over the Welsh border. In its 30th year since very humble beginnings, the seeds of which were sewn around a kitchen table in 1987, this was probably the best yet. The first visit, a two-hour and twenty-minute drive visiting family on the way, was a chance for me to indulge. To be selfish and to return to the festival with only myself in mind. I walked the narrow pavements littered with stalls set up by local residents selling drinks, cakes, antiques, books and crafts. It was a scorching hot day. I took in the backdrop of rolling Welsh hills. The lush greens and browns. Excitement buzzing through me as i glimpsed the white tops of the marquees that spelled home for me. Inside I wondered through the festival, grabbing an iced tea from a familiar drinks stand, talking to the local stall holders, browsing new reads in the book shop. I checked the venue for the evening event I had a ticket to. Helen Fielding in discussion with Viv Groskop on the Bridget Jones franchise and the leap from stage to screen.

Later I walked back along the pavement into the town. Pubs, hotels, shops and houses were linked in unison with coloured bunting emblazoned with the festival message. Imagine the world. Words that seem all the more poignant right now. In the town square two students were performing poetry for £1. I was treated to Lewis Carol’s Jabberwocky by a jolly man with a cloth cap. There followed a brief conversation about the character’s appearance in Alice in Wonderland, which I admitted I knew better. But I praised and admired the men for their unique idea of bringing literature out onto the street, something which reminded me of the old days of street performance. Their chalk board was scrawled with familiar names like Keats, Wordsworth and Shelley. Their knowledge and memory of poetry was impressive. I have long envied the writers and readers who can directly quote their favourite poems or enter discussion referencing and comparing several different writers at one time.

That evening, I sat in a packed marquee listening to Fielding talk about her rise to fame as a comedy writer, and now winner of the Bollinger Everyman comic fiction award (for her fourth book Bridget Jones’ Baby). From her early days working as a journalist and writing books about her experiences in Africa, to the moment she was asked to write a sex and the city style column for the The New Yorker about her single life. This she exaggerated and adapted through the character of Bridget Jones which then went on to become a best-selling series of books and a film franchise. She admitted she was at first embarrassed to say she had written the columns, but later embraced it. As I listened to her talk I couldn’t help but see the Bridget in her. As she took her book from her ‘new’ handbag, which, Groskop noted, the author had insisted she bring on stage. Then popped a pair of fashionable frames onto her nose and said excitedly ‘my new glasses’. As she read a passage from Bridget Jones’ Baby, it was clear to see how much she loves her character and also how well she knows her. ‘I see everything through Bridget’ she commented as the interviewer asked if there might be another book in the pipeline. ‘Would people still want to read about a 50-year-old Bridget?’ The reaction from the audience was positive which delighted her. On a more serious note she fought of accusations that her books were anti feminist and commented that Bridget would be more accepted today, in light of the fact that being single at 30 is not a big issue anymore. 

My second visit to the festival was with a friend who had never been before. This time I was seeing everything through her eyes. Which encouraged me to see it differently too. We walked around and took some photos, sat on picnic benches under the bunting lined tents sipping coffee and homemade lemonade. We visited the food hall and tried different foods: smoked sausage, homemade pizza, brisket rolls and haloumi fries with chilli dip. Sat among other festival goers discussing arts and literature and politics. The ceiling of the food tent was decorated with cloth models of fish, meat and vegetables. It reminded me that Hay leaves no space empty. Everywhere is a canvas, everywhere is the blank page. The same goes for the town.  The castle was bubbling with life, the streets were filled with people selling things, promoting literature or events. Even the windows of the regular town shops had gone to every effort to create a display worthy of the celebration. In one of my favourite bookshops, while looking for folio editions of the classics we discovered a lovely cafe. Loose tea and homemade scones served in a modern building, walls adorned with book cover prints. The Importance of being Earnest caught my eye and reminded my friend to buy a copy.

We saw two events on the final weekend of the festival. Both of which left me inspired and excited. The first was a reading by the poet Simon Armitage of his latest collection Unaccompanied. Having accidentally discovered the Sheffield based writer at a free BBC event a few years ago, which focused on his involvement in The Great War: an elegy  a programme commemorating World War one. I really enjoyed the event and tapped into his connection with the war theme as it’s something close to my own heart and ingrained in my family history. This time I wasn’t sure what to expect, if the previous event was as impressive as I’d remembered. The hour spent in that tent, listening to the words of Simon Armitage reminded me why I love language, why I want to write poetry. He has a way with words, a dark yet often humorous message in each of his works. His ‘still life’ exercise, in which he picks a random object and writes a poem about it, to practice his craft, resulted in some clever interpretations of every day objects such as a chair or a bed. It was something which I immediately wanted to try myself. After the reading, we both bought the collection and queued up to have it signed. Simon was very gracious about our waiting and buying his book. I only wish I could have portrayed just how much I enjoyed the reading, and how much I admired him. My friend noted too how often when faced with someone whose work you have just heard and enjoyed, you’re not sure just what to say or how to convey something sincere.

On the second morning of our visit, we went to see a free event in the BBC marquee with Sherlock and Doctor Who writer and producer, Steven Moffat. I was particularly excited about this event, being a massive fan of the modern Sherlock and the writing of Moffat himself. The event was being recorded for Radio 4’s Front Row programme and consisted of an interview and question and answer session. Steven talked of his earlier work writing for shows such as Pressgang, Chalk and Coupling, while we were played sound clips of each. He vocalised his embarrassment at his early attempt at comedy, learning along the way and often falling for cheap gags and rude jokes. He sited the wonderful creations of characters like Sherlock and Doctor Who for giving him something more to work with. He appeared warm, funny and very graceful in relation to his great success with the two BBC shows. Although he will be completing work on Doctor Who alongside Christopher Eccleston after the Christmas special, the changeover he noted would be ‘slightly different than it’s been done before.’

More serious talk of Moffat’s treatment of women in his writing was offset by a question sent in by a ‘Mr M Gatiss’ asking what Sherlock ‘must never do’. This resulted in laughter from the audience and seemed to throw Moffat slightly, before he replied with ‘you can’t say your character will ever not do something. That’s just bad writing’ He then suggested the extent of Sherlock’s sexual experience was often in question.

We met Steven in the bookshop after the event, where he signed our tickets. He seemed very warm and genuine, asking if we were enjoying the festival and smiling when I announced my love for his work on Sherlock. Unfortunately I’ve never been a Doctor Who fan. But after hearing him talk so passionately about the show, maybe I’ll give it another go. After all, Hay is also about trying new things, about learning and growing as a reader and writer.

This year’s festival was certainly full of surprises and new experiences. Where else can you share your love of literature with others in one big tent, or a grassy patch in the middle of a field? Where else will you hear spoken poetry on the town streets, meet writers of best-selling TV drama or outstanding poetry? Where else in the world would you want to be in those ten days between the months of May and June? I know my answer.