#4 – Attend the Hay Festival of Literature
I have always loved books and reading, even as a tiny child, and I followed that through by studying for an English Literature degree so I can’t actually remember when I first heard about the Hay Festival. I’m guessing probably more than 20 years ago. It’s taken me that long to get around to visiting ‘one day’, which is why it’s on the 40 before 40 list; so I had no choice but to make it happen.
The Hay Festival ( https://www.hayfestival.com/wales ) is a ten day festival celebrating books and writing in the village of Hay-on-Wye, in the Welsh borders. Hay is the self-proclaimed ‘Town of Books’ with numerous secondhand bookshops so it’s a natural location for a gathering of writers, journalists, academics, poets, scientists and other luminaries for whom writing is both an art and a way of earning a living.
It turned out that getting tickets for the Hay Festival is the easy part – once the programme is released you simply choose the sessions you want to go to and book. There’s no ticket required for entrance to the festival site, only for the sessions you want to attend. The hard part is finding any accommodation. Hay is tiny and what accommodation is available is booked years in advance by returning guests who come year after year. This year though, I was going even if it meant camping. It did, for part of the time at least.
It was so exciting receiving the programme, selecting sessions and booking up. The anticipation of hearing famous names like Germaine Greer speak, putting together a spreadsheet so I knew where I had to be when, and the tickets arriving in the post was a delicious prelude to the main event. I was like a child, eager to set off on a much anticipated holiday.
The night before I had a crisis about what to pack. What does one wear to a literature festival? Is it Glastonbury grunge and thigh high mud, or more the tweed set with Barbour jackets and Hunter wellies? I packed jeans and a maxi dress and decided that would have to be good enough.
I’d persuaded a couple of friends to join me for the experience, and we arrived on Day One of the Festival. I was relieved to find it’s hugely civilised; decked walkways with canopies forming a covered path around the entire festival site, drinking water taps available, lovely restaurants serving good quality local food and bars with Pimms and Prosecco on tap. The dress code turned out to be relaxed with a bit of everything. There were some in tweed and tomato trousers, along with a good deal of gloriously creased linen, but that was by no means the majority.
Our first session was to hear Griff Rhys Jones discussing Wales and welshness, the theme of his new book ‘Insufficiently Welsh’. It was a lovely gentle introduction to the Festival, with some laughs and nothing too intellectually challenging. The Festival site was quiet on the first Thursday, there are only a few sessions and it’s like the site is holding its breath, waiting for the main action. A chance for us to find our way around and see how it all works. As Griff himself described it, we were there for “the foreplay”.
After that, sessions followed thick and fast as the Festival got busier and busier. The days merged into one glorious stream of listening to fascinating talks, relaxing in bars, exploring the town of Hay, soaking up the atmosphere and buying books. The whole town joined in. People had set up little shops and stalls in their front gardens, selling homemade goods, or serving food. A quirky junk shop was open late for the duration of the Festival as a cocktail bar so I found myself wandering among the hat boxes and cowboy boots and a dentist chair, sipping an apple margarita. I was hugely amused by the Festival’s queueing system, which was so terribly English. No barriers, no crowd control, just a few lines spray painted on the floor. If you arrive early, join Line 1, when that’s full, Line 2 and so forth. When the doors open, in file Line 1, then Line 2, then Line 3… No pushing, no jostling, everyone politely doing exactly what they’re told.
I’d picked a variety of sessions on different topics, with both known and unknown names. I heard from an archaeologist on excavations undertaken in Hereford Cathedral close, where the skeleton of a medieval knight was found along with cist burials (stone lined graves). I sat, largely bewildered, through a session in which a scientist diffused various chemical substances through various other chemical substances to demonstrate how interactions in developing DNA might give the zebra its stripes. I came out with absolutely no clue of how the zebra got its stripes but with the experience of having seen someone draw a graph via the medium of interpretive dance. I heard the moving story of Thomas Buergenthal, who survived a childhood in Auschwitz and went on to become a Human Rights lawyer in the Hague, and bought his book ‘Lucky Child’. I was fired up and inspired by Caroline Criado-Perez, the woman who campaigned to retain a woman on the Bank of England banknotes and received rape and death threats on Twitter for her trouble, on her book ‘Do It Like a Woman’ with amazing but also frightening stories on women who are beating the odds and challenging the assumptions that to have power you have to be male. I was horrified by some of the stories and statistics Caroline could quote and came out of that talk feeling that if I’m not a feminist now, I certainly ought to be. An area where I need to do more research.
The science continued with David Bainbridge’s Curvology, an exploration of why humans are the only species where the female body is significantly different in shape and skeleton from the male. The (predominantly female) audience laughed nervously when David was introduced as a vet but his explanations were fascinating. It would seem child bearing hips are not called that for nothing; it’s the fats stored in a woman’s hips and thighs which are needed to nourish a baby’s brain because human brains are, relatively, five times larger than other animals so need a lot of feeding whilst they’re developing. I groaned, along with a substantial number of the audience, when Germaine Greer announced that her talk on Shakespeare’s women wasn’t going to mention Lady Macbeth “because she’s an absolute ditz”. And for light relief in the evenings I took in some comedy with Jason Byrne and Jo Caulfield.
On hearing Austen scholar John Mullen canter through the characters and situations in Jane Austen’s novels, searching for a kiss in order to prove that it’s not what we’re told but what we’re not told that matters in Jane Austen, punctuated by laughs and groans and sighs from the audience as we shared a moment of collective recall of a particular situation in a particular book, I remembered how wonderful it was to be in a room full of people who have read and enjoyed the same books as me. My overriding experience of the Festival was that it was like being back at University, but only going to the lectures I wanted to go to with the best teachers. I remembered my love of learning and studying and discussing which has got a lost in the practicalities of working for a living.
The other, less formal, side which made Hay so memorable was the people I met. Chatting to strangers in the bars, in the queues, even in the bookshop. Strangers who were fascinating; intelligent, articulate and informed, who loved books, or politics, or current affairs. Strangers who write. Strangers who share thoughts and debates, maybe over a drink or two. Strangers brought together by the power of the written word.
When it came to leaving, again I was like a child, this time sad to see the end of a very special and enjoyable holiday. Sad at the thought of having to leave this magical and inspiring place to return to the humdrum of everyday reality. Of all the amazing experiences I’ve had as part of my 40 before 40 this was most definitely the best. As one sage stranger in the Festival bar said “Ah, yes, you’ve been bitten by the bug now, you’ll come back again”. I most certainly will.