Preview of the 2012 Hay-on-Wye Literature Festival
Exactly a decade of years ago, I had the fortune to be between countries for the summer and managed to land the most perfect pair of jobs in Oxford: working in a homemade ice-cream shop during the days, and serving cocktails in a restaurant in the evenings. However, the moment my good friend Jess invited me to come and help out with a little project, I quit both jobs and the City of Spires and jumped on a train to the Welsh border fast enough to leave Wile.E.Coyote dust marks in my wake.
Jess was interning at the 2002 Hay-on-Wye literature festival, a festival of books, authors and thought which has been running since 1988 and has exploded from a tiny local event to a worldwide phenomena: there are offshoot festivals in eight different countries now, from Kenya to Colombia, and authors are joined by politicians, Presidents, comedians, actors, musicians, Nobel laureates and around 85,000 visitors for the Welsh edition alone.
Arriving early to hang out at the festival back in 2002, (which had expanded to be taking place largely in the local primary school, rather than the smaller fire station, apparently), I was luckily enough to offer my services as a jack-of-all-trades, planting flowers around the grounds and helping to set up the on-site bookshop, as well as discovering the joys of being a steward: a bright orange vest, the chance to interact with the visitors, and free entry to any event I wanted to attend. My suitcase on leaving was stuffed full of books, most of them signed by the likes of Paolo Coehlo and Philip Pullman.
Somehow, it took me nine years until I made it back there, and how things had changed: a new sponsor, (from the left-wing Guardian newspaper to the right-wing Telegraph, aka The Torygraph), a new purpose-built site, and a lot more seriousness (and security!) meant that showing up a few days before the festival started and wandering around the site offering my services led to security escorting me off the premises, rather than a chance to help run things. Still, I got accepted to be a steward again, and even landed a job showing people how to use iBooks, which not only subsidised my week of book binging but also allowed me to wander around with a brand new iPad 2 for the duration of the festival, (although promises that I would be able to keep it after the job had finished proved…what’s a polite word for lies? non-forthcoming, perhaps…)
After almost a decade absence, I was determined to make it back-to-back visits, and from Thursday May 31st I will return to the place reputed to have the highest bookshop to resident ratio in the world, (one bookshop for every 36 residents, since you ask, although I’m not sure if the fact that it only has 1,900 people living there makes its 30+ bookshops less impressive, or more: the town also boasts a ‘King,’ but that’s another matter).
Highlights for me this year? There are always unknown, unexpected highlights, (last year including the movie premier of the amazing youtube clip compilation ‘Life in a Day,’ the appearances of Her Maj Camille Barker-Powles, and the less-than royal mastermind of wikileaks Julian Assange), but there are several appearances already circled in my Hay 2012 program vigorously enough to almost go through the paper:
–STEPHEN FRY! After years of begging Jess to book him for me to see at Hay, she has come through this year. I may already have paid too much to see him at the Royal Albert Hall this year, and waited an hour afterwards in the freezing London cold to get my copy of ‘The Liar‘ signed, but this would surely be a highlight of anyone’s festival.
-SALMAN RUSHDIE! I have no idea if he is still under the fatwa, but I can safely say he’s not in hiding anymore, (unless he is presuming that Muslim extremists either don’t read The Daily Telegraph or refuse to visit Eastern Wales for some reason). ‘Midnight’s Children‘ remains in my Top 10 of all-time favourite books, (although anyone who knows me will realise that my Top 10’s can often consist of dozens of items!), and having read the majority of his back catalogue, I can’t wait to meet the wordsmith.
-IAN MCEWAN! One thing I remember about the first festival I attended was how Ian McEwan was there every day, even when he wasn’t giving a talk, and he was held up as a prime example of how relaxed an atmosphere Hay creates, a place where even writers go to relax. I didn’t know his work at the time, but ten years later I’ve rarely read a work by him which I haven’t enjoyed, (although I’ve found his more recent work a little too self-referential than his more enjoyable, varied earlier novels…why are so many of his books about writers?!?).
TERRY PRATCHETT!!! This is a biggie. Upon recently picking up one of the more recent Discworld novels, I was disappointed that it wasn’t the literary masterpiece I’d found it when I was twelve, but he was still a major part of my childhood reading life, as well as collaborating with Neil Gaiman on the excellent ‘Good Omens‘. It also promises to be emotionally and intellectually fascinating, as I’m certain Alzheimer’s and his decision to carry out assisted suicide will be a major part of his talk. Is it bad that my main question is whether or not he will be well enough to sign books?
Other encircled authors range; from A.A.Gill to War Horse author Michael Morpurgo; bad-boy Martin Amis to good-boy Michael Frayn; Louis de Bernieres to Wild Swan Jung Chan; Curious Dog Mark Haddon to DNA Nobel laureate James Watson; and too many more to mention, from Mayors to musicians, (did anyone else know that Harry Belafonte was still alive?!). The comic element will be provided by two of my favourites, Bill Bailey and Jack Dee, amongst others.
Who wants to join me?