Way on High


I… have been on a jolly.

Another one! mutters John.

It’s true: I’ve been putting myself around a little more of late. I went to see May earlier this month, I’ve been to see Ukuleles, I’ve been out with friends for a curry, I’ve been to see Crowded House, I am off to the RSC tomorrow night, and I have just spent the entire weekend in a collection of damp fields straddling the Welsh/English border, happier than a naturally well-disposed piglet in first-quality poo, at Hay on Wye literary festival.

I realise that this may not be an event with which everyone is on first-name terms, so I shall pinch some newspaper quotes, simply because I am feeling awful tired and rather reprehensibly lazy. The Los Angeles Times rather nonplussedly states that “The small market town of Hay is an unlikely setting for one of the world’s biggest book festivals… a literary extravaganza that is now firmly established as the biggest book event in Britain… In fact it is the unlikeliness of the location that makes the festival so glorious”. The Guardian thinks that “Hay hoovers up the best writers published in the world. This has over the years, created a self-reinforcing phenomenon: they get the best, and so the best want to come.”

Prominent politicians litter the turf as thickly as authors, comedians and musicians; with the exception of the odd ex-President (in particular yesterday’s interview with Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf) the security is superficially non-existent and the artists mingle freely with the crowd. Henning Mankel was supposed to be appearing, but has a current engagement – in more than one sense – that he can’t exactly excuse himself from. Ron Prosor, the Israeli Ambassador, was likewise expected and has, unsurprisingly, sent his apologies. We nearly bumped into Ed Miliband; Nick Clegg is expected later in the week.

Hay audiences are famously amongst the most intellectual in the world. Then I turned up, and the mean average IQ slumped a little.

Actual built accommodation is sold out years in advance, so Shannon – whose inspired idea this whole jaunt was – and May (these ladies, incidentally, speak more languages between them than the inhabitants of Babel) and I all converged on an enormous pre-pitched tent in this picturesque fold in the hills, toting an array of sleeping bags and widely divergent footwear. 

John has been wetting himself laughing at the thought of me in a tent; he reluctantly handed over his pristine and (supposedly) polar-suitable sleeping bag with a grumble about it really being far too good for a tent-hater like me and that I was bound to be ridiculously hot and that I should really take the ancient and cobweb-thin one instead.

I was not ridiculously hot. It was Wales. It was Spring. There was rain. We were, all three, perishingly cold, as well as managing to somehow end up lying on our respective zips after struggling womanfully into the unaccustomed straight-jackety confines of our sleeping bags (a voice in the dark from May’s corner of the tent, stoic but with a frisson of aggravation: ‘I feel like the Very Hungry Caterpillar.’) atop comparatively comfortable but comically undulating airbeds. 

You would have laughed at us. We were laughing at us. And despite the cold, and even despite the chokingly bad chemical smell in the portaloos, we had a thrillingly good festival. I kept phoning home to say hello to Harry (who would snatch the phone and utter a brief Errro! before droppping the reciever like a hot poker and rapidly beetling off) and enthusing wildly to John ‘I am having SUCH an amazing time! You would HATE it here!’

Because – it’s maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but maybe you would have liked to have been there. I watched a multiplicity of wondrous drawings climb effortlessly from Quentin Blake‘s pen, and it was Good. We all went to see Kazuo Ishiguro (ostensibly being talked with, but given that the chair was John Mullen, he was actually talked at) and his phraseology was exquisite and it was Good. I went to see David Mitchell speak about his latest book and was charmed and captivated – ironically, much beyond my words – by his passion for language, and it was Very Good. We all watched Giles Coren (a distinctly more attractive chap in the flesh) get mildly hot under the collar, and it was Good. May skipped off to see Ed Byrne whilst Shannon and I stuck it out with a discombobulated Beth Orton and it was Strange. And Good in places. 

Then there was the tent interlude.

The next morning, surrounded by a fair breeze and increasing sunshine I listened to Sir Peter Stothard talk about his new book – I bought it, he signed it – and was reminded just why it is that my classics degree was not, in fact, a big fat waste of my time. I then scurried back to ensure that a copy of Aliens Love Underpants was dutifully inscribed to Harry – a huge fan of the Underpants trilogy – by illustrator Ben Cort. 

May and I inserted ourselves carefully into the thousands-large audience for Lord Robert Winston – a personal hero of mine – in order to faciliate my rapid emergence and gallop towards the bookstore where he would be signing books afterwards. By virtue of my Olympic-standard use of the Wifey Elbow I managed to be the first adult in the queue. I greeted him in admiring and overwhelming awe (sans vowels, again. Must work on this.), had books signed for Harry and myself, and had a brief chat to him about what a lovely bloke David Attenborough was. May was then obliged to shepherd my quivering form for a coffee – we all drank helluva lot of coffee – whilst I clucked happily and patted my bag of books. 

In fact, the weight of our respective book bags was becoming tedious; I spared a thought for Shannon, out combing the 39 bookshops of Hay on Wye (population: 1400) and now, doubtless, in dire need of a sherpa.

The unremitting high-interest of the lectures couldn’t last. I went to see Janet Todd discuss the new edition of Jane Austen’s collected works; she read large passages from her juvenilia and unfinished novels with which I was already fairly familiar – so, most unusually, I nodded off. I think people noticed. My bad. Mea culpa. etc. However, May and I finished off in electrifying and enchanting style hearing the incredibly engaging David Mitchell discuss the magnificence that is Cloud Atlas, quizzed, alas, by the garrulous John Mullan who had a most unfortunate tendency to remind me strongly, on a number of levels, of Alan Partridge.

And then it was nightime on Sunday and the three little girls had played away from home for quite long enough. Boooo. I managed to capture May and bring her home with me for the night, as well as subjecting her this morning to an over-crowded Stratford Upon Avon, John’s rowing on the Avon and an ebullient toddler – who timed his ascension of the potty-throne for his shockingly smelly morning dump to mid-breakfast perfection – before waving her off on a train back to London. 

I am now absolutely tuckered out, but with a towering pile of new books perched promisingly by the side of my bed and a steely determination to return, because there was very much more indeed that I would have lovedlovedloved to see, hear and do during this festival.

I’m going back next year. With heated caravan.


14 Responses

  1. Oh what a wonderful time. I’m so glad you got a chance to get away and do something that sounds like so much fun.

  2. Now that sounds like a good time…except for the tent part.

  3. What an inspired idea. Genius. Well done you three!

    (I’m not envious at all. No, no, no. Of course not).

  4. Oh, oh, my *jealousy!* I don’t know what I’m most jealous of, the glittering literati (the likes of which I used to regularly mingle with in graduate school) or the company. Dammit, I’d give my left tit (and it’s The Big One) to spend the night in a tent with you lot!

  5. Every time I read a nameI went ooh aah in jealously ! seriously what a lovely way to spend a weekend

  6. Still green with envy. Sounds like heaven. I watched Mariella interview Bill Bryson and Grayson Perry from Hay and wished I was there. Now I wish it even more.

  7. Hey on Wye is one of my most favourite places on earth but i have never been to the festival, i am suitably jealous! Lucky ladies.

    Abs x

    ps Alan Partridge, he he

  8. Ooh, fun! Ooh, Quentin Blake, cool!
    A camper van would be the thing, maybe? Surely a sign of (my) middle-age, but they seem more and more attractive with every passing year.

    (Harry is expanding his vocab to salutations? Isn’t that very good!)

  9. Oh woe, woe indeed. How did I not know about this and organise my travel so that I too could partake of this utterly amazing treat? Cloud Atlas was my 2009 read of the year and I only completed GhostWritten yesterday. Loved Black Swan Green and have Number 9 Train sitting in my To Read pile. I want David Mitchell to come and do the same talk in Melbourne. Hello! David, are you listening?

    And what is there to say about Kazuo Ishiguro that hasn’t already been said by a million clever critics. These two write the kind of books that when I close them having come to a very reluctant end, I think: “That’s why I could never write a novel. I’m just not in that class.” Then I think of the total rubbish I waste time on the train with, Victoria Blake, for example and I figure this writing lark can’t be too difficult if this kind stuff manages to get published.

    But Ghostwritten. Have I said how utterly fantastic the language is? And the story threads woven together in a magnificent tapestry that engages and delights. And makes you think.

    I am pea-green with envy. And shall probably remain that way for some time.

  10. I have been on a Hay mailing list for the last couple of years and was salivating over this year’s luminaries so I am ragingly jealous of your trip.

  11. Oh. How. FUN!!! I probably couldn’t have afforded a book jacket, let alone a book at such a place, but it would have been so cool to see!!!

  12. I think my feet have finally thawed out. I cheer them on by going into the spare room and patting my book-haul.

    Harry was adorable and extremely angelic, John was gracious patience, and you are a star and a darling and thank you so much for putting me up for the night.

  13. […] even more fantabulous to go with friends, so I went with Ann and Shannon, who arranged it, bless her (why, yes, I am spectacularly gifted in the friend […]

  14. I know the rain of which you speak, I was in B&B’s this week, though we were sharing them with many festival goers, but I did spend the rest of the daytime on horseback. That rain was blinking cold!

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