Never mind the meltdown: Hay literary fest shows Britain still leads the world in words

By Jill Lawless, AP
Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Making Hay: British book fest conquers the world

HAY-ON-WYE, Wales — British industry is a shadow of its former self, the deficit is enormous, public services are facing huge cuts and London’s famous financial sector has taken a battering.

But there’s one thing Britain can always rely on — words. The land of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen still loves to read, and to talk.

It’s a talent on extravagant display at the Hay Festival, a 10-day literary gathering in a tiny Welsh town that has defied the downturn to become a major cultural event — and an important British export, with branches from Colombia to Lebanon.

Festival director Peter Florence says Hay’s formula for success is “serious conversation made light of” — something that’s needed more than ever in tough economic times.

“It matters in a recession that people keep talking,” he said. “The bonding-together thing, the gathering, matters. Because when you are vulnerable you want to have some form of strength in community.”

The term “book festival” doesn’t really capture the intellectual-carnival atmosphere of an event that draws some 100,000 people to Hay-on-Wye, 150 miles (240 kilometers) northwest of London. Former President Bill Clinton, who brought the town to a standstill when he spoke at Hay in 2001, called it the “Woodstock of the mind,” a label organizers have happily adopted.

Hay is a blend of highbrow and populist, heavyweight discussion and entertaining stunts. This year’s festival, which runs through Sunday, has already seen novelist Ian McEwan embrace a pig, model Jerry Hall talk philosophy and former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf boast of his huge Facebook following.

McEwan received the hog — and a jeroboam of champagne — as a prize for comic writing in his latest novel, “Solar.” Hall, one-time spouse of Mick Jagger, conducted an onstage interview with Alain de Botton, author of philosophical works about Marcel Proust and the nature of work. Musharraf, who left office in 2008, said his 200,000 followers on the social networking website want him to return to Pakistan and re-enter politics.

“The buzz of Hay is the mongrel mix of it,” Florence said, looking around the festival artists’ lounge, where 92-year-old Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm sat a few feet away from cross-dressing artist Grayson Perry, who was sporting in a shocking-pink frock.

“You have neuroscientists and novelists and politicians and warriors and thinkers, and it’s the interaction between them,” Florence said.

Tucked among lush green hills on the Welsh-English border, Hay is a year-round mecca for book-lovers, with a population of 1,500 and more than 30 secondhand bookstores.

During the festival, it takes on an atmosphere that’s a blend of lecture series, picnic, party and music festival. Visitors in their thousands attend talks, line up to have books signed by favorite writers and soak up the sun or — more often — shelter from the rain with a coffee, a beer or a glass of champagne.

“It’s a great way to spend a weekend,” said 47-year-old Londoner Gary Leigh, who comes every year with a group of friends. “We’re turning into a nation of festivals in the summer, and this is the beginning of the season.”

The party atmosphere extends to the speakers, who appear for free but are rewarded with large audiences — more than 1,000 people cram into the tented venues for some talks — and glamorous after-hours parties in nearby country houses.

This year’s lineup includes novelists Nadine Gordimer, Martin Amis and Roddy Doyle, humorist Bill Bryson, New Yorker editor David Remnick, playwright Tom Stoppard, environmental scientist James Lovelock and Harvard historian Niall Ferguson.

Real-life tragedies often add to the festival’s drama. Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell, author of the Wallander series, was due to appear, but was caught up in the Gaza aid flotilla raided by Israeli commandos on Monday. Israel’s ambassador to London, Ron Prosor, was due to speak at Hay Tuesday — on a topic listed tantalizingly as “events.” He canceled after the flotilla raid, which left nine people dead and sparked an international uproar.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is scheduled to appear on Sunday, and will likely be reminded that as an opposition lawmaker last year he wrote an article calling for Britain to stop selling weapons to Israel.

Founded by Florence and his late father Norman in 1988, the festival was held in the town’s primary school before outgrowing that venue and moving to a maze of tents, bars, cafes and organic gardens in a field on the edge of town.

While the festival has expanded, the publishing industry is facing uncertainty. Several speakers at this year’s event debated whether a combination of technological change and economic pressure was endangering the future of books.

For now, Britain remains one of the world’s book-publishing powerhouses, with a record 133,000 titles published last year. And judging by the lines of buyers snaking out of the festival book shop, the printed page is in no immediate danger.

“I’ve got an e-reader, but there’s nothing like turning the pages,” said Bruce Gray, 38, waiting in line to have books signed by philosopher A.C. Grayling. “You feel a lot more conscious of the words when you have the physical thing.”

A celebration of Britain’s literary riches and a forum for international intellectual exchange, Hay has become a major cultural export.

Since 2006 a spin-off festival in Cartagena, Colombia has helped bring a new generation of Latin American writers to wider attention, and encouraged visitors to a country that is often in the news for violence. This year’s event featured English-language writers like McEwan and Michael Ondaatje alongside Latin American novelists including Juan Gabriel Vasquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.

There are also Hay franchise festivals in Segovia, Spain, Nairobi, Kenya and Beirut, Lebanon.

Last week, Hay announced it is expanding again, teaming up with the British Council — the government’s overseas cultural arm — to hold new festivals later this year in the Maldives, the southern Indian state of Kerala and Zacatecas, Mexico.

“Britain exports culture, it exports writing,” Florence said. “But Britain hasn’t been good at embracing the rest of the world in literary terms. Trying to change that around is a very big thing for us.”


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