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142. Why on Hay…

142. Why on Hay…
May 2015 saw me return to my favourite book-hunting reserve, the incredible Hay-on-Wye literature festival, (or, as one comedian present put it, book festival. When challenged that it was actually a literature festival, he asked: “What’s the difference?!” No response was forthcoming…)
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Hay is possibly the largest festival of its kind in the world, and the place I fly to from anywhere in the world to spend two weeks in May any year which doesn’t contain a World Cup.
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I returned to my role as a smiling, ticket-ripping, joke-cracking, child-entertaining, direction-giving, little-sleeping, yellow-jacketed volunteer, and this year I did it whilst camping in a nearby field, to save money on the scarce accommodation in this tiny Welsh village. I have barely camped since I was an 11-year-old boy scout, and was amazed at the new-fangled tents they have invented which turn from the size of a plate into a rain-proof cocoon with the flick of a wrist: it always took us Boy Scouts three hours, several broken tent poles (stop snickering at the back…), and the tents rarely lasted the night. Aaaaahh, technology…
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Anyway, enough reminiscing! This is about BOOKS, and this year’s festival saw me take in 56 events from my privileged position, (from authors to comedians, from actors to musicians from around the world), save hundreds of pounds in entrance fees, and then spend most of those saved pounds in the festival bookshop, (where my bill was surprisingly under £200, thanks to both a propensity for paperbacks this year, and a staff discount).
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2015 was a year of anniversaries, and we were treated to talks on Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo (200 years ago this year); the Battle of Agincourt, (a six-century old confrontation between Britain and France which gave us Shakespeare’s ‘band of brothers’ and the famous British V-sign); and a guest appearance by one of the most important pieces of paper in world history, the eight-hundred-year-old Magna Carta, which restricted the powers of British Kings and was admired and adapted around the world, from France to the US Constitution.
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Old favourites are starting to become slightly too regular at Hay, (I was barely shaking when I met Stephen Fry again this year, and I’m starting to nod to journalist and book-machine Jon Ronson as if we’re old friends…although I’m pretty sure he is wondering why some strange guy keeps nodding at him), and the early days were just as much about the special events than the authors.
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Jude Law joining a host of actors to read from Unbound’s wonderful ‘Letters of Note‘ was a highlight, and I finally got to meet poet and comedian extraordinaire Tim Key, (aka Alan Partridge’s new sidekick), at a surreal last-minute comedy event which left the audience partly amused and mainly bemused).
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However, towards the end of the week came a day which could have been arranged just for me: after meeting Kazuo Ishiguro the day before, I had the joy of seeing two events each by two of my favourite authors, the ever-wonderful Neil Gaiman, (whom I later saw whilst invited briefly backstage to the Green Room and used my entire life-supply of willpower to not hassle: seriously, if you want to ask me to do anything, now is the time, I have zero willpower left), and my new Man Crush, David Mitchell.
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As if this wasn’t enough, Neil had brought along his heavily talented and equally heavily pregnant wife, Amanda Palmer, who was promoting her new book on ‘The Art Of Giving.‘ Her session featured several ukulele songs which actually brought me to tears not once but twice, first for its sadness, and in the very next song for its sheer joy.
(I almost cried again when I discovered after the talk that, not only was I sitting behind Mr.Gaiman, I had failed to realise that he was sitting next to Pink Floyd frontman David Gilmour. Mainly because I didn’t know what he looked like).
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Promoting his new book ‘The Bone Clocks,’ David Mitchell gave a fascinating talk in the face of a less-than probing interview, eyes lighting up as he gave the most stirring description of the beauty of language I have ever heard from a writer. His evening event, a midnight reading of an as-yet-unpublished ghost story, (now very much published, ‘Slade House‘), was so late that it gave me and some fellow volunteers (and fans) the chance to monopolise him at the after-event signing, (as we were the only ones who hung around for it).
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We got to reminisce about life in Japan, and my new friend Hannah caused such jealousy with the dedication he had written in her book that we invented a new sport: Competitive Signing, (much approved of by his agent), which saw me buying extra copies which the incredibly affable author was happy to inventively deface for me.
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Take that, Hannah, with your one-line dedication…
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From popular philosophy to sports psychology, ‘young adult‘ fiction to Nobel Prize-winning economics, yet again Hay gave me a reason to lie awake in a freezing field at 4am and to take all the abuse an entitled retired soldier can throw at me for allowing another line to enter a venue thirty seconds before his.
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And, of course, I will be back in 2016…
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Some things I learned, some quotes I heard, and some ideas I wrote down for you at this year’s Festival:
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British National Treasure, new hipster-beard-wearer and philosopher AC Grayling‘s advice for being a good teacher: “Nothing beats the combo of ignorance and enthusiasm!”
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80 people own the same wealth as half of the world, and 1% of the population will own half of the world’s wealth by 2016.
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Classic British girls’ magazine ‘Jackie’ was named after the hugely successful kids’ author Jacqueline Wilson, who was the youngest contributor to it when it was founded.
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Colm Toibín’s stunning short story ‘Mary‘ on the Virgin after the death of her son was originally a play, but when it ended after a few weeks he wanted it to be more permanent.
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Kazuo Ishiguro used to believe that authors peaked in their mid 40’s, the literature equivalent of a football player dropping back to midfield, putting their foot on the ball and pointing a lot. Now he’s older, though, he’s not sure he agrees with the thesis…
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An unforgettable line from Jude Law, during a reading of the war-time letters of lovers from ‘My Dear Bessie‘:  “Ooooooh, I wish I were a brassiere…”
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Author, comedian and political genius Sandy Toksvig’s father used to refer to literary editing as ‘filleting’!
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Toksvig again on the democratic origins of the USA, the Mayflower Compact, signed in 1620  by 41 men…on a boat of 110 people!!
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One more reminiscence from Sandy who informed an infatuated audience of 1,700 people that when at boarding school in Guildford, Surrey, students were allowed to go to the High Street everySaturday…but only to the left-hand side. No further details were provided…
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Rabbi Jonathan Sacks postulated that in Britain, we have removed nationalism as a relevant, acceptable sentiment since the wars, but not replaced it with anything, and hence religion has filled the vacuum. Who has managed to create a valid, modern British patriotism, he asks? Danny Boyle at the Olympic opening ceremony.
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In an early-morning, two-hour lecture on ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ I learned that the lovers share a sonnet in the scene when they first kiss: an alternating dance of lines entwining in poetry their sentiments, ending:
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Juliet: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Romeo: Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take…
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Alice in Wonderland,’ one of my all-time favourites, was revealed to be a story shot through with one of the obsessions of the Victorian times: classifications. “What are you?” Alice is asked so often.
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The same talk yielded this wonderful quote: “They kept a family newspaper, as so many Victorian children did…”
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Cedric Vilani, a real-life French version of Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka, informed his audience that acfordin tot he Wall Street Journal, in both 2009 and 2014 he worked in the number one job field in the world: mathematician.
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Neil Gaiman, promoting his gorgeous Sleeping Beauty sequel ‘The Sleeper And The Spindle,’ illustrated by Chris Riddell, brought the shocking news that not only was Cinderella originally a Chinese tale, (who else cared so much about foot size, as he points out?), it was only when it was imported to France that the original fur slipper, (made of ‘vair’), may have become glass (or ‘verre’).
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Resident comedian Marcus Brigstocke won my award for funniest and simultaneously most offensive comment of the Festival when he announced that “…Australia is just South Africa where the white people won… “
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Former Scottish leader Alex Salmond seemed relieved to be out of politics and to announce with brutal honesty, in response to a question of why British PM David Cameron gave in to so many of his referendum demands: “He’s no very bright… “
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(I also learned from this last day talk that in a referendum it is essential to be on the yes side:  people respond instinctively toto positivity, apparently. Although not quite enough to win Scotland independence.)
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Finally, one of my all-time favourite trivia facts was revealed by the clever elves behind BBC’s wonderful game show QI:  Noah’s ark didn’t actually contain two of all animals, but had seven of all clean (i.e. kosher) animals, and just two of the rest.
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If facts like that don’t make you want to join me next year, I am truly astonished that you made it to the end of this blog!
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Posted by on November 1, 2015 in BOOKS

 

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122. Books Bought & Read, July 2014…

122. Books Bought & Read, July 2014…

Books Bought, July 2014…

Non-Fiction,’ Chuck Palahniuk

A Casa Velha,’ (‘The Old House’), Machado de Assis

Coisas Frágeis 2,’ (‘Fragile Things’), Neil Gaiman

Matteo Perdeu O Emprego,’ Gonçalo M Tavares

A Little Larger Than The Entire Universe: selected poems,’ Fernando Pessoa

50 Contos,’ (‘Fifty stories’), Machado de Assis

O Gato Malhado E A Andorinha Sinhá,’  Jorge Amado

 

Fantoches,’ (Puppets), Erico Verissimo

Diálogos Impossíveis’, (‘Impossible Dialogues’),  Luís Fernando Veríssimo

Os Lusíades,’ Luís Vaz de Camões (10-volume illustrated edition)

A Bagagem do Viagante,’ (‘The Traveller’s Baggage), José Saramago

Manual de Pintura y Caligrafía,‘ (‘Manual Of Painting And Calligraphy), José Saramago

Compêndio para uso dos pássaros – poesia reunida, 1937-2004,’ (‘Compendium For The Use Of Birds – poetry compilation, 1937-2004’), Manuel de Barros

 

Books Read, July 2014…

Non-Fiction,’ Chuck Palahniuk

Diálogos Impossíveis,’ (‘Impossible Dialogues), Luis Fernando Verissimo

O País Do Carnival,’ (‘The Country Of Carnival’), Jorge Amado

Nocturno Hindu,’  (‘Indian Nocturne’), Antonio Tabucchi

The Cuckoo’s Calling,’ RobertGalbraith, aka J.K.Rowling

Matteo Perdeu O Emprego,’ Gonçalo M Tavares

A Casa Velha,’ (‘The Old House’), Machado de Assis

Coisas Frágeis 2,’ (‘Fragile Things’), Neil Gaiman

Pensageiro Frequente,’ (excellent but untranslatable pun on ‘frequent flyer’  which would be ‘Passageiro Fequente,’ but here using the word ‘thinker in place of ‘passenger’ as the two words are very similar in Portuguese, making it something like ‘Frequent Thinker.’ Only funnier in Portuguese), Mia Couto

O Mandarim,’ Eça de Queirós

 

A dozen new books bought, and one short of that read: THAT’S more like it!

With the World Cup ending on July 11th, (in case you were either living under a rock, uninterested in football, or Brazilian and trying desperately to pretend that the tournament had ended after the Quarter Finals), I was left with two weeks to enjoy the sun, sand, coconuts and caipirinhas of an east coast Brazilian beach.

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I delved into Brazilian literature, plowing through some excellent short stories by 19th century master Machado de Assis, (quite enjoyable), and some short essays by modern journalist Luis Fernando Verissimo, (ditto: to give you an idea of the vibe of this short story compilation, the first tale featured Batman and Dracula both trying to get euthanised at a Swiss clinic: one because he’s old and too weak to be a bat fighting crime, the other because he’s bored of being an ageless bat killing people…)

The highlight, though, was finally finding something by Gonçalo M Tavares, a young Portuguese author beloved by my beloved José Saramago, (the latter’s ‘He will win the Nobel Prize for Literature before too long’ quote is all over most of the former’s books).

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It was marvellous.

Matteo Lost His Job‘ was experimental and playful, linking a series of very short but beautifully crafted pictures of everyday yet strange people, in everyday yet outrageous situations, in a similar way to David Mitchell does in his masterful ‘Cloud Atlas.’ I can’t wait to find, buy, and devour some more by him to see if he can live up to the hype that I (and Saramago) have created for him.

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I was excited to find an unbelievably beautiful collection of ten illustrated volumes of the Portuguese epic poem ‘The Lusiads‘ in my favourite market, as well as the complete works of Brazilian poet Manuel de Barros who had been recommended to me by a new Brazilian friend.

However, since I don’t have several thousand spare €uros to spend on excess baggage allowance, my entire Portuguese-language book collection is currently being housed by my fantastic Czech-Argentina co-worker in an Alfama apartment in Lisbon.

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I will be back soon to reclaim it, to read it, and to let you know what’s good…

 

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Posted by on September 3, 2014 in BOOKS

 

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119. The Man Booker Prize Longlist, 2014…

119. The Man Booker Prize Longlist, 2014…

Today the longlist for the Man Booker 2014 literary prize was released, and long-time readers of this blog will know how much I love the Man Booker prize.

For the first time, writers from the USA were allowed to be included, and as expected this led to a decrease in the number of countries represented and an increase in the number of US-based works, (with Britain boasting a fair few of the thirteen positions, too).

The nominees are, (drumroll):

Joshua Ferris – ‘To Rise Again at a Decent Hour’
Richard Flanagan – ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’
Karen Joy Fowler – ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’
Siri Hustvedt – ‘The Blazing World’
Howard Jacobson – ‘J’
Paul Kingsnorth – ‘The Wake’
David Mitchell – ‘The Bone Clocks’
Neel Mukherjee – ‘The Lives of Others’
David Nicholls – ‘Us’
Joseph O’Neill – ‘The Dog’
Richard Powers – ‘Orfeo’
Ali Smith – ‘How To Be Both’
Niall Williams – ‘History of the Rain’
 

I have read a grand total of zero of these books. I have read a grand total of four of these authors’ previous works, and loved them all, (everything by David Mitchell; Joshua Ferris‘s hilarious debut ‘Then We Came To The End;’ the impressive ‘The Accidental‘ by Ali Smith; and at my first ever Hay Literature Festival, waaay back in 2002, I was lucky enough to meet the incredibly sweet Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan and loved every page, word and picture in his ‘Gould’s Book Of Fish; a novel in twelve fish.’

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(Yes, that’s right, I appear to be the only person alive not to have read a David Nicholls novel!)

Also excitingly, for the first time a book has been nominated for the list after having been crowd-funded by Unbound, a crowd-sourcing publisher whose launch I was also able to be present for at the Hay Festival a few years ago, supported by ex-Python Terry Jones, among others. The fact that Paul Kingsnorth’sThe Wake‘ is written in an invented Anglo-Saxon dialogue makes me twice as excited. Is that normal?

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In short, I plan to make up for my lack of reading/blogging over these past few footballing months by reading most, if not all of the books on the list, and letting you know about them.

Sound good? Good.

(As proof of my dedication to the cause, I just went straight to the Unbound website and ordered a copy of ‘The Wake,’ so that will be waiting for me when I get back to the UK next week, and will be the first one to appear here probably!)

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Posted by on July 23, 2014 in BOOKS

 

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