Sunday, May 27, 2007


No Net

I'd been hoping there would be internet access at the hotel so I could blog as I go, but no joy.

Instead I'm writing these posts in longhand and will type them up from home.

You'll need to imagine me typing this in a Welsh field as opposed to a London flat ...

Ready? Here we go then ...

Thurs 24th May
Wails from Wales

Arrive at hotel.

'Debi Alper? How are you spelling that? We don't have a booking in that name ...'
'Oh! Is it booked in the name of Sky Arts? Or ArtsWOM?'
'No ... Hang on a sec. You're not something called a ... blogger, are you?'

45 min wait for room.
I use the time to go to a cash machine.
£51 train ticket.
£33 taxi from Hereford to Ross.
Hay is nearly 50 miles away and I've been quoted £50 for cab to get there from hotel.
There'd better be no problem claiming those expenses ...

Where are all the punters?

The taxi from Ross to Hay takes an hour and costs £70!

The driver asks me - 'So do you write ... books?'
He infuses the word with the same degree of blank incomprehension as the hotel receptionist when she said 'blogger'.

So now I'm at the 20th Hay Festival.

It's not what I was expecting.
I imagined it taking over the town but it's in a big field.
(You probably knew that already, but I didn't.)

They're still setting up.
I eventually find some nice friendly people from Sky Arts and pick up my tickets.

But the festival itself so far has an eerie Mary Celeste feel about it.

Some small groups of media types.
Bunches of people in fluorescent jackets.
Some seriously hard-looking security - all suits, shades and shoulders.
The odd tractor ...
I buy a coffee.
I'm the first customer.
The guy can't get the till to work.
A woman at a nearby table gives me change.

Being accustomed to the toilets at rock gigs and marathons, I am s-o-o impressed by the upmarket portaloos.
I spend some time admiring them.
There's not a lot else to do.

Pick up a copy of the Festival programme.
It says, '... the Hay audience ... some of the most interesting, intellectually adventurous, socially attractive people on earth.'

So where are they??

Warming Up

Ah, here they are.

I find the Greenprint event, chaired by Adam Boulton (Sky News anchor) and featuring Zac Goldsmith (The Ecologist), Jeremy Leggett (Solarcentury) and John Sauven (Greenpeace) discussing the adoption and advocacy of environmental sustainability for the creative industries.
This is the last part of an informal 5 event conference.

Jeremy Leggett warns the audience that the government have 'lost the ability to be embarassed' as the current situation is 'disfunctional to the point of being suicidal'. He points to some leadership from local governments and also some businesses (though he says the committment is sometimes less than the claims would suggest). Carbon rationing is inevitable, he tells the audience. He believes that supplies of oil and gas are far less than we are being told and that they are going to run out within the next few years.

Zac Goldsmith is upbeat, saying that retailers are now competing with one another to appear green - essential as science has come as close as possible to a consensus on the dangers of climate change. He's clear that the way forward has to be a combination of energy saving, energy management and exploration of alternative energy. It's therefore essential to price environmenmtalism into the market by way of carbon trading and offsets. He also teels us that the most important thing ordinary people (that's us, guys!) can do is put pressure on central government.

John Sauven points out that if energy inefficient lightbulbs were phased out, the savings would be the equivalent of 2 power stations. He also mentions bloggers (yay!) as one example of people using alternative means of spreading the word and putting on pressure.

A couple of facts to chew over:
If everyone in the world consumed as much as the average person in the US, we would need the equivalent of 5 planets to meet the demand.
The figure for the UK is 3 planets.

The comments from the floor are intelligent, articulate and well-informed.
One person points out that climate change itself is only a symptom - over consumption of resources is the real problem that has to be tackled.

Sandi can't see me now

I was supposed to be booked into The News Quiz hosted by Sandi Toksvig.

But I've just checked my sheaf of tickets and this one's not among them.

I wander round the marquee maze 'til I find the venue.
It's full.
So the milling crowds I'd expected are packing out the events if not the walkways.

I spend some more time wandering and gawping and feeling vaguely spectral as anyone else around (and there's not many of 'em) seems to be rushing round doing things.

The one thing that does hit me is that there's a huge emphasis on the environment - which I'm delighted to see and support.

But it doesn't seem very ... er ... lit.
Like ... er ... where are the books, man?

Maybe tomorrow ...

I've made a friend

A big up to Sam, the taxi driver, who works 15-18 hrs a day, 6 days a week, fuelled by Red Bull and roll-ups.

He's not the 'what's-a-book?' cabbie, but the bright, intelligent, good-looking one who's agreed to fulfill all the rest of my cabbing needs while I'm here.

So, Sam, if you're reading this ... thanks for driving me round and being such good company.

I hope you find a woman who deserves you!

Friday 25th May
Today's the Day

After breakfast, I jump on the shuttle bus from the hotel with Samantha and Colin from Sky Arts and Sarah Jane from the Evening Standard diary.

An hour's bumpy ride through the stunning countryside brings us to Hay.

This is it.
My one full day.
I'm excited ...

But the atmosphere hasn't changed much since yesterday.
It still feels somewhat surreal and disembodied.
As though it's teetering on the brink of something about to happen.
You know that feeling when you're throwing a party and you're not sure if anyone's going to turn up...?

I sit in the Sky Arts cafe to take stock and I can hear applause from somewhere.
That's reassuring.
I'm not the only person here ...

I work out that it's coming from the Segovia stage.
The programme tells me that Carmen Callil is behind the shrouds of white canvas, talking about pieces of writing that have meant most in her life to Diana Quick and Richard Mitchley.

Fateful Choices

This is a little strange.

I realise that although I'm booked into 4 events today and will be on site for 13 hrs ...
... only the first event is about a book.
A flick through the programmme reveals that the more obviously literary events start tomorrow.
And I leave ...
... tomorrow.

My first event is with the historian, Ian Kershaw, talking about his about-to-be published book, Fateful Choices, which recreates the thinking about 10 critical political and military decisions made between May 1940 and December 1941 that dictated the course of the war.

His lecture makes you realise how easily the future of the world could have been changed if any one of these decisions had gone a different way - there may have been no Holocaust, no Israel, no Middle East conflict ... Alternatively, the Nazis could have won ...

I find it fascinating - and heartening - that more than 60 years after the end of the war, there is still room for new analysis.

A week ago I went to the Margaret McMillan Centre in Kent with Little Guy's class, looking at the experience of evacuees.

It's vital to keep the lessons of the Holocaust in public consciousness and I'm relieved to hear Ian Kershaw say that the further we get from those horrific events, the more important they seem to be in the historical perspective.

I agree. I lost one branch of my family tree to the genocide.

Think Link

Check the Festival blog here at the Guardian.

You can also follow the Hay Relay Story as it unfolds.
Started by Beryl Bainbridge, a new chapter will be written each day by a different author.


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A roundup of my favourite deckchair quotes:

'Politics hates a vacuuum. If it isn't filled with hope, someone will fill it with fear.'
Naomi Klein

'Everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.'
Margaret Atwood

'Only the impossible is worth the effort.'
Jeanette Winterson

'The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.'
David Hare

'Everything has a meaning, if only we could read it.'
Philip Pullman

'What one writer can make in the solitude of one room is something no power can easily destroy.'
Salman Rushdie

Books - at last

I've met up with my guest.
Meet the wonderful Fiction Bitch aka Elizabeth Baines.
Now I have a fellow wanderer (and her partner) and together we ...
... find some books!

It has to be said - books don't really take pride of place at the Festival in the way I'd imagined.

There's one large marquee, selling work by people appearing at the Festival and one smaller tent with children's books.

The other stalls are mainly concerned with the environment.

Not that that's a bad thing - just not quite what I'd expected ...

Smile - you're on tv

The dear Bitch and I go to the televised Hay on Sky event with Mariella Frostrup -
- aired each day during the Festival at 8pm on Sky Arts channel no 267.

Ah. Nice comfy chairs for this one.

Lights, camera, action!

The first guest is Peter Florence - the founder of the Festival, who tells us that 20 years ago, when he approached Arthur Miller to ask if he'd like to participate in the first festival, the response was,
'Hay-on-Wye? Is that some kind of sandwich?'
(See here for the history of the festival.)

Peter justifies the move away from the strictly literary focus of previous years and says that the festival now welcomes anyone who's 'good with words - brilliance with language is what's interesting. But the spirit remains the same.'

He points out that the careers of many diverse household names were launched at Hay, including Eddie Izzard, Bryn Terfel and Arundhati Roy.

He also says that the official start of the Festival is today - which certainly explains the lack of buzz yesterday!

During the commercial break I watch as a makeup artist scuttles over to Michael Nyman, the next guest, with a powder brush to take the shine off his bald pate.
Michael tells us about his interesting way of working - when composing he does so with a background of noise from both radio and tv.

Seth Lakeman, who is described as being influenced as much by Led Zeppelin as by English folk music, then performs a track from his award winning album, Freedom Fields.

The final guest is the very funny Sandi Toksvig, recently named as radio broadcaster of the year. Among other things, she talks about her friendship with Bonnie Langford - on the face of it an unlikely partnership, though in fact they have been close friends for 25 years. (See here.) Sandi tells us they have plenty in common - for example her knee is the same size as Bonnie's arse!

She also talks about how much she hates pigeonholing. (A subject close to my heart too, as many of you will know.) Interestingly, she reveals that of all the activities on her eclectic cv, her favourite activity is writing.

The show winds up with each of them talking about the 3 books they will be taking on holiday with them this year.
(Dammit - none of them are mine ...)

Ghost Town

The Bitch and her partner have discovered there's a frequent shuttle bus service running between the Festival and town, so we jump on.

Once in Hay, there's no indication that there's a major international event going on just up the road.

The setting is just as I'd imagined (those wonderful bookshops!) but the streets are deserted.

I'm wondering if I should worry for the retailers and cafes in the town.
The shuttle bus isn't widely publicised at the festival and the site is very self-contained.
We pick up a leaflet for the Hay Fringe, which does take place in the town itself.

Don't forget that Hay, where there is one bookshop per 36 residents (could this be what heaven's like?) is the inspiration behind the festival.

I speak to one bookseller who's quite upset.
She says the festival has become a corporate event having outgrown its roots, but she reckons it has lost its original inspiration and atmosphere.

But then someone else tells me that everything will take off this weekend, when the town and the festival site will be awash with people moving between the 2.

So that explains it -
- they've been waiting for me to leave ...

Short and Curly

Back at the festival site, the Bitch and I take our seats for the show by Bonnie Langford and Sandi Toksvig.
In spite of hearing a couple of the same jokes as she'd told to Mariella Frostrup earlier, Sandi is one of the few people that truly crack me up.

Think Link (2)

For festival news and a daily podcast, check the Haycast.
To follow the virtual festival online, go here.

The thanks bit

Big thanks to the following people:

John Baker - for the invite
Samantha and Colin from Sky Arts - for looking after me
Simon from Artswom - for the advance organisation
The dear Bitch - for the company - and the grub!
The staff at The Chase - for not setting off the fire alarm (more of this later)
Sam the cabbie - who I mentioned earlier
G - for keeping the home fires burning (but not literally I'm relieved to say)
First Born and Little Guy - for the phone calls and texts

In conclusion

Although I've never been to the festival before, my intial instincts about the way it had changed were confirmed.

It's clearly outgrown its original location in the town - which many would say is to be welcomed as evidence of its huge success.
(At the larger events I calculated there were about 800 people.)

Whether the gap between the current site (about a mile outside Hay) and the town itself will prove problematic remains to be seen.

Opinion was divided among people I spoke to.
Some feel the town and its traders will lose out.
Others predict that, as the Festival hots up, particularly over this bank holiday weekend, the roads outside the site will be packed with milling crowds.

It's moved beyond being a literary festival and now offers a much more eclectic mix.
Again, some people will welcome that as progress and others may complain at the loss of focus on authors reading from their work.

Clearly, it's become far more of a corporate event as the years go by.
The evidence being the self-contained site (you have to make the effort to go into town) with roaming guard dogs, police tape and security guards resembling bouncers outside a heavy London club, the expensive food (£1.80 min for a coffee, £3.80 min for a sandwich) and the limited number and range of books on sale.
(On the other hand, it was pointed out to me that if more books were sold on the festival site, there would be less incentive to go into town and the Hay retailers would be more likely to lose out.)

The Hay Fringe, which started last year, seems to be the answer to the possible problems of the town feeling neglected.
If, as I very much hope, Fringe events are a roaring success as much as the main festival, then presumably you'll get that rare occurence - a win/win situation in which there's something for everyone and everyone's happy.

The final word

My final Hay experience was giving Sam, the cab driver, a signed copy of Nirvana Bites.

So ... I went to Hay ...
... and did a book signing!

The final FINAL word

As I'm walking up the street towards home, 6 hrs after leaving Ross, the Bitch phones me and says that today both the festival and the town were heaving.

I'm delighted to hear it and don't feel in the slightest bit peeved that they waited for me to leave before starting the party proper!

Hey, man, everyone has their own trip and this was mine.
I hope you've enjoyed it.

Here endeth this lit blogger's experience of the 20th Hay Festival.
This post has taken me nearly 5 hrs.
Some kind of record?

Over to you now, John.


Meloney Lemon said...

Sounds like a whale of a time!
Can't wait to hear the gossip in RL

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post, Debi! I must admit I did wonder about the literary merits of the festival when I first perused the programme, because it seemed jam packed with everything excepts authors talking about books!

Debi said...

Mel - gonna have to wait - we're off tomorrow.

Kim - as I said on your blog, I'm only sorry that you couldn't go yourself (though not instead of me!).

Anonymous said...

It doesn't sound at all like I imagined, but then I'm not sure what I imagined...

I don't like the sound of this 'fewer readings from authors' business though - how come authors' readings start going out of fashion just as I'm gearing up, huh? Huh.

Anonymous said...

Debi, reading this I felt as if I'd been there with you. Also a strangely familiar sense recalling places/festivals etc which were not what I expected. It's a shame if they haven't been able to find a way to fit the festival into the town - the town itself is the whole raison d'être of the festival and a charming place when it's buzzing with book-lovers. Many years ago I came to Hay to talk to Richard Booth, self-appointed King of Hay, castle-owner and originator of the town's book-fame (he imported truckloads of secondhand books ). Is he still around? I hope his eccentric legacy hasn't entirely gone.

S. Kearney said...

Debi, excellent post ... wow, what a marathon read! Great work. It was nice to have your perspective, which you don't get from the newspapers or other media. I don't like things that get too big and corporate, with bouncers and lots of officials. The Lyon novel festival is approaching (starts next Wednesday) and I'm looking forward to hearing from the writing stars. This is a first and lots of talks with authors about novels. Lovely.

Anonymous said...

Wow Debi, what a fantastic read - as good as reading one of your novels. It will be interesting to hear what feedback you get from Hay, especally a few months down the line when you've almost forgotten about it.

A friend of mine is away this week and has got a copy of Trading Tatiana as her holiday read, she's gone to Cornwall so I think sun bathing isn't going to be much off an option - luckily reading will be. Have a good break and don't forget the SPF stuff.

Unknown said...

Goddess, I have 'long post' trauma!

What a great insight, but like you, this wasn't what I was expecting. I am going to try to get to the Port Eliot Lit Fest next month - I hope that there will be some books there!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Great post Debi - and thanks for inviting me!

Unknown said...

what a post Debi, you must be shattered now, and earning your well earned break!

Hay sounds like an interesting experience for you, not what I'd imagined it would be like, but definitely one worthwhile for you.

Coming home is always nice though!

Anonymous said...

Hay Festival this year seems a rather strange marriage between Murdoch and The Guardian.

I daresay that the strawberry seller will still manage to do a roaring trade in Hay town.

Within 5 years many of the Hay bookshops will likely be replaced by vanity shops to cater for the modern Festival goer who will just luv to visit Hay, outside festival time, for the beautiful shopping experience ("We buy our books on the internet"). A pretentious soul-less wonderland for the monied.

Stephanie Zia said...

I really enjoyed that, thank you. I have such a clear image of the festival which has always been a blur until now.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that, Debi. Great post. Everything was a little more worn-in by the time I got there. But the split between town and festival was still apparent.
The place still had a wonderful literary feel to it, though. People who read and people who think, and the rain which followed your sunshine did much to improve the social scene. For some reason bad weather seems to bring people together.

Liane Spicer said...

I enjoyed reading this, Debi. To echo other commenters, it's not quite what I expected of a literary festival, but the focus on environment is not a bad thing at all.

日月神教-向左使 said...
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Nitesh Sharma said...
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