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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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117. ‘Visiting Mrs.Nabakov,’ Martin Amis

117. ‘Visiting Mrs.Nabakov,’ Martin Amis

Visiting Mrs.Nabakov,Martin Amis

Martin Amis is one of the most famous contemporary British authors, having been included in The Times newspaper’s list of the fifty greatest UK writers of the post-war period, (not to mention being the son of legendary author Kingsley Amis, making them one of the few parent/sibling writing partnerships I can think of).

I had read one of his novels before, (the brilliantly bizarre ‘London Fields‘), but since this time last year I was on an essay-reading binge, it made sense to read this selection which I had picked up and had signed at last year’s Hay Festival, (which is on right now, if you happen to be anywhere near the England/Wales border). Here are my favourite bits.

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On the mind-boggling maths behind chess:

“Recently Kasparov beat ten computers simultaneously, blindfolded. How flattering for the species. There are over 288 billion possibilities through the fourth move…yet the mark of a good chess player is not how many moves he considers but how few…”

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Don’t tell anyone, but this is just Tippex on a screen… Photo from Chess Maniac used courtesy of Creative Commons license.

On Robocop actor Peter Weller:

“It’s like being in a room, or a trailer, with about fifty different people. Simon Schama‘s new study of the French Revolution is cracked open on the table; so is Teach Yourself French; so is Teach Yourself Italian. He puts down his trumpet, looks up from the stack of inspirational videos…and shouts out of the window for more classical CDs…He hums with vigour. I would too, I suppose, if I got up at three and ran 16 miles every morning…”

Photo from Flixist, used courtesy of Creative Commons.

Photo from Flixist, used courtesy of Creative Commons.

 

Next, Paul Theroux’s greeting to Salman Rushdie at the funeral of Bruce Chatwin:

“‘Salman,’ called out Paul Theroux, boyishly. ‘Next week we’ll be back here for you!'”…

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A conversation with Salman Rushdie on hearing that the latter had taken part in a celebrity writer’s football match:

“‘How did you do?’ I expected the usual kind of comedy (sprained ankle, heart attack, incompetence, disgrace). But I was given another kind of comedy, out of left field.

He said, ‘I, uh, scored a hat-trick, actually.’

‘You’re kidding. I suppose you just stuck your leg out. You scrambled them home.’

‘Goal number one was a first-time hip-high volley from twenty yards out. For the second, I beat two men at the edge of the box and curled the ball into the top corner with the outside of my left foot.’

‘And the third goal, Salman? A tap-in. A fluke.’

‘No. The thrid goal was a power header‘…

(I didn’t think I could love Salman Rushdie any more than I do. To be proven wrong is one of the reasons I read!)

Salman Rushdie, photo courtesy of technology.am, used under Creative Commons License

Salman Rushdie, photo courtesy of technology.am, used under Creative Commons License

 

And finally, an incredibly descriptive (offensive?) portrait of American writer Nicholson Baker:

“He is, to be sure, fabulously and pointlessly tall…”

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Posted by on June 2, 2014 in BOOKS

 

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77. Books Bought: Hay 2013 Edition!…

77. Books Bought: Hay 2013 Edition!…

Books Bought

On Fiction,’ Sebastian Faulks

All The President’s Men,’ Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

Bad Blood,’ Colm Tóibín

The Brief And Frightening Reign Of Phil,’ George Saunders

The Omnivore’s Dilemma,’ Michael Pollan

Trainspotting,’ Irvine Welsh

Noah Barleywater Runs Away,’ John Boyne

Is The Internet Changing The Way You Think?ed. John Brockman

Breaking The Spell,’ Daniel.C.Dennett

Creating A World Without Poverty,’ Muhammad Yunus

Expo 58,’ Jonathan Coe

Mr.Lynch’s Holiday,’ Catherine O’Flynn

The Braindead Megaphone,’ George Saunders

The Hunters,’ James Salter

Jerusalem,’ Simon Sebag Montefiore

Titans Of History,’ Simon Sebag Montefiore

Skullduggery Pleasant,’ Derek Landy

Philosophy Of Life,’ Jules Evans

Mack The Life,’ Lee Mack (x2)

The Shape Game,’ Anthony Browne

The Looking Glass War,’ John Le Carré

Maggot Moon,’ Sally Gardner

The Woman Who Changed Her Brain,’ Barbara Arrowsmith-Young

Finding Moonshine,’ Marcus du Sautoy

The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas,’ John Boyne

A Delicate Truth,’ John Le Carré

A Little Book Of Language,’ David Crystal

The Yellow Birds,’ Kevin Powers

If I am anywhere in or around the continent of Europe in late May, I do my darnedest to end up at the Hay noah+barleywaterLiterature Festival, and this year I had the good fortune of accidentally booking my return flight from Guatemala to coincide with the opening day of the book-bonanza on the Welsh/English border. The fact that I only had time to read one book in the week I was there, (John Boyne‘s beautiful ‘Noah Barleywater Runs Away‘), will tell you how busy I was there.

Mornings began in a small B&B a 7am before I dashed off to the venue site to don my luminous yellow stewards jacket, knock back some croissants and muesli for breakfast, and spend the next 10-14 hours tearing tickets, seating citizens, marshalling microphones around various venues and generally sitting on the sidelines whilst dozens, possibly hundreds of authors, poets, illustrators, entertainers, comedians, statesmen, Nobel laureates and musicians filled my mind, (and the minds of apparently 250,000 ticket buyers).

$(KGrHqMOKi0E0n2hln(iBNdbk7zUNg~~_35 This year’s line-up wasn’t quite as star-studded as previous years, (and my arrival direct imagesfrom Heathrow airport via train, rain, bus and foot was an hour too late to catch one of my planned highlights, childhood hero illustrator Quentin Blake, most famous for his collaborations with Roald Dahl). But with a dozen hours a day of people presenting their ideas, this merely meant that there were more new novelists to discover, (as if I didn’t have enough to read already): highlights included former Children’s Laureate, Anthony Browne, whose ‘Shape Game‘ allows children to be artists whatever their level, (and provided the perfect birthday present for my hilarious niece); George Saunders, (‘the new David Foster Wallace‘ and one of the nicest people I have ever had the fortune to meet at the fest); and the Iraq war modern classic, ‘The Yellow Birds‘ by Kevin Powers, the book which came garlanded with the most recommendations by friends working at the festival and which proved to be up to the praise, as I had finished it by the time I had returned home.

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There was the chance to meet a few authors of books I have long loved, such as the ‘Trainspotting‘s wonderfully Scottish Irvine Welsh; and to learn a little more about music, (being treated to an incredible hour-long performance from minimalist composer Philip Glass); meet legends of journalism like ‘All The President’s Men‘s Carl Bernstein, and food campaigner Michael Pollan; and hear a fascinating talk on consciousness by New Atheist philosopher and cognitive scientist, Daniel C.Dennett.

But as often happens, the show was stolen by new ‘young adult’ authors who had been recommended by friends working at the festival: firstly I was introduced to John Boyne, whose occasional collaborations with illustrator Oliver Jeffers makes his books as beautiful as they are deep and un-childlike, (hence me refusing to label them ‘kids’ books’): he is most famous for the excellent ‘The Boy With The Striped Pyjamas,’ the story of a Nazi concentration camp told from the point of view of the innocent young son of a Nazi Commandant. Even more powerful was the masterful ‘Maggot Moon,’ by Sally Gardener, the tale of a dystopian 1950’s dictatorship, part Nazi part Communist part ‘1984‘, which hopes to convince the world that…well, read it for yourself, due to the author’s childhood English teachers forcing her to read a certain number of chapters each day, she keeps them wonderfully short, making this an eminently readable parable.

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So, a couple dozen more signed books consigned to the depths of The Cupboard, (although, as you’ll see in the forthcoming Books Bought & Read, June 2013 entry, I managed to knock a fair few of them off before I fled the grey UK shores again), and another incredible ten days spent in the world capital of books, Hay-on-Wye. Join me there next year?

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2013 in BOOKS

 

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