Sunday, 31 May 2009

Have a Happy Hay-On-Wye Time

It's that most, wonderful time...of the year!

No, not Christmas (thankfully). It's summer festival time, a period of a few months when the media go music-latest-band-mad. Newspapers are packed with photographs of music revelers basking in sun...or wallowing bravely in mud and torrents of rain. And the obligatory retro-comeback star (a la Shirley Bassey) in wellies.

But as much as I love my music (don't get me started on how much I adore Rufus Wainwright and how he re-seals my wounded soul), my favourite festival is actually one of the book variety. The 2009 Hay-On-Wye literary festival comes to a close, and once again I am left counting down the days to the 2010 festival.

Hay-On-Wye has always been a favourite jaunt of mine. My parents took us there frequently as kids on rainy Sunday afternoons when we had exhausted all the local castles and museums. Admittedly, I probably wanted to go to Disney Land if I had had the choice, but I am glad for it now. It was at Hay I realised as a kid how much I loved books, or rather how much I adored a good story.

The Hay-On-Wye Festival reminds me a lot of Wimbledon. No really. And given how much time I spend wandering the grounds of SW19 trying to spot Cliff Richard and Virginia Wade in her pink cardigan, I probably see more tennis at Hay than I do there. You've got the Pimms, the odd queue, the cravats and the DelMonte Man hats. And the celebrities.

There's something about these events that seems to nurture comedy value and entertainment. They seem to harness a microcosm of British eccentricity that makes me feel all warm inside. If you ever start believing the exaggerated claims the country is 'going to the dogs' (thought we were a nation of dog lovers anyway so why should that be an issue...), go to an event like the Hay festival. It reminds you that quite the opposite is true.
It is a photographers' and observer's dream. Personally, this is aided by being accompanied by Mother, who never fails to provide me with amusing interludes. We had only been in Hay five minutes before Mother quipped "Oh! I need to remove my fleece! Never known it so hot. Not on a Sunday."
Not to mention her hyperventilating at the sight of Monty Don strolling towards her, Mr Cool-Clark-Gable-esque, a train of adoring ladies agog at the vision of him. I guess he's the Zack Efron of the middle-aged-gardening world, he didn't even need to wield his parsnips. But I will remember to bring a brown paper bag for Mother to breathe into next year. Or an oxygen cylinder.

Hay gives you an opportunity to see writers, philosophers and politicians, people who often don't scale the dizzy heights of the media attention because they're not in the Big Brother house (yet). Although you do get stars of TV and film too. Where else can you stand next to DJ Jo Whiley in the bap queue (Mother: "She doesn't look like a media personality. Tsk."), and then watch Jane Asher floating by, with Mother commentating LOUDLY: "I was so very upset when she split with Paul!". You learn that Richard Madeley possibly needed a shave that day, or that in real life, Melvyn Bragg resembles Columbo.

Amongst the various eating establishments- I recommend the homemade Welsh cakes, simply exquisite- the little stalls selling fascinators to elderly ladies, or literary-themed merchandise (a hatstand quoting the entire works of shakespeare anyone?), and the grassy areas where you can laze and read away to your hearts content, you can sit and chill. And listen. One of the things I enjoy most about the Hay festival is the people watching, overhearing delightful snippets of random conversation that are so sparkling, they could be part of an Alan Bennett monologue or a Zoe Heller novel.
Two older ladies heading towards the Jenni Murray book signing queue are overheard saying loudly one to the other: "Have YOUR periods stopped now?" rather mockingly as if the one couldn't join the others' gang unless she was menopausal. Or one lad to another: "There's that politician....David Cameron" Labour MP Ed Milliband didn't look impressed as he shifted by the fudge stall. "Pimms Jeremy?" said one cravated middle-aged chap to his friend in a snazzy baige blazer. "I never say no!" replied the friend enthusiastically before pausing. "Apart from earlier. Actually, I'll say no again". "Sammy wanted to come," one trendy young lady said to her equally trendy friend. "But she said she's seen enough of Stephen Fry on twitter to last a lifetime". Oh it was a never-ending wonderful stream of consciousness....

But aside from the comedy aspect, there is a lot of evocative and thought provoking material on offer. As there should be. You share the appreciation in the genius of words and language, an art form into itself. And I must admit, I find the Hay Festival inspiring. Melvyn Bragg's talk on his autobiographical fiction was both heart-wrenching and emotionally draining; he spoke so eloquently about his experiences in writing about topics that had affected him, and it was fascinating. It was also extremely close to the bone, and touched me a great deal. Zoe Heller's warm and sparkling wit combined with a down-to-earth personality was impressive and motivational. With a few titters, I learnt from Susie Dent that Nottingham used to be called Snottingham. The astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, spoke of the possibilities that perhaps, our brains are not designed to ever comprehend the universe in its entirety - leaving my own (already confuzzled) mind spellbound and enlightened. To see Alan Bennett in the flesh, one of my favourite writers was a real joy to behold. Even Mother was about to pass me the brown paper bag to hyperventilate into, her turn to chuckle at my expense.

Ah sweet Hay. You tempt us with your literary treats and do not disappoint. You make us want to dive into a swimming pool of books and gorge ourselves on shakespearean prose. I've seen the festival grow from a small town affair held in the village school, to a major world renown event. I'll even forgive all the 'making Hay' puns. And the cravat-action. Forget Christmas, I wish it could be the Hay Festival every day.

See my 2009 Hay Festival photos here

1 comment:

Jose said...

How I wish I had gone. Next year, yes, next year...