The Hay Festival.


I spent the last four days at the Hay Festival.

Given its location in the heart of Wales, it is not a venue for the faint hearted. Bad weather is an iconic part of Hay, as is Pimms, copies of the Telegraph and the constant whirr of animated chatter.

As in previous years we were duly rigged out for the wet and cold and treated the mud as a regular fixture of the entire event.

Overall, there was the perennial air of a large event organised by artistic people. That is to say that there is a lot left to the imagination when it comes to efficiency. A polite confusion rules the day with people somehow or other scurrying to their venue on time and enjoying their respective events despite the mayhem that pervades the site.

For those who have not yet been to Hay or a literary festival, you may have the same initial trepidation that I did when I went for the first time five years ago.

Let me elaborate.

When I first attended Hay, I went for one day only with the main event being a converstation with Stephen Fry. Amidst the plethora of talk shows back in the day I feared the worst.
I imagined a scenario like something from the Johnathan Ross Show: As member of a live (or TV ) audience,I would be ushered in to watch some luminary talk about their latest book, film or life event, while they share flaccid in-jokes with the interviewer, leaving us (the audience) with the sensation that we were looking into a party with our faces pressed against the window -excluded and uninvited other than to marvel from a distance, and clap when prompted by a man with a large cue card.
I had grown to hate these narcissistic exhibitions as the guest and for that matter, the host seemed to have lost track of the reason they were on air, which was to entertain the audience , and not so spend an hour or so slapping each other on the back praising their respective mediocrity.
To my relief, I enjoyed my first day, and when it came for the Stephen Fry event, I sat, trasfixed as he and his interviewer took us through the ABC of his life. At every twist and turn, the audience was fully included, everything was shared as if we were all sat in a large circle, communing in one unique experience.

Yes, Mr Fry was the at the epicentre of it all,and we the moths around his incandescent flame. We all sat in wonder as he polished his sharply honed intellect like a well worn pair of shoes. The entire experience was a pleasurable one, and I left the auditorium thinking that Mr Fry was a jolly nice chap.

Well that was then and this is now – so, has anything changed?

Our chosen events were this year a truly eclectic mix: Mervyn King,Tony Fadell, P J O’ Rourke, Robin Ince and Rebecca Front were just some of the speakers we saw. Oh yes, and Stephen Fry!
As with my first expericence at Hay, none of the speakers entered into the exclusive conversations I dread, but more opened up the book that is their life, sharing some of their secrets from the pages, and baring their imperfections as well as their triumphs.
Mr Fry entred the auditorium late having arrived only minutes earlier, out of breath and a little shaken. He continued like a true professional but I felt that his unease stayed with him all day. I saw his talk later on Shakespeare and detected him struggling to bring to mind key facts that eluded him, and here and there he made slight quips to excuse this very human trait.

How very honest of him.

Ms Front likewise transmiited to her audience her fear of flying, train travel, tunnels and lifts, exposing herself to possible criticism by telling all about her cognitive therapy and sharing its ups and downs with us, along with her daughter who was sitting in the front row.
Robin Ince, bounded around the stage as if his feet were on fire , taking us through an anecdotal journey of some aspects of his life. He referred to a death in his family and to the fact that he no longer drinks.

Bold statements from those who ply their trade by entertaining us.Lesser mortals would fear expsosing such chinks in their armour.

It would have been so much easier to take the “Look at me,I’m really great!” route. After all, we had all paid our entrance fee into the circus tent, so they would have been able to do pretty much anything they wanted with us.

But they chose not to.

They were searingly honest, empathetic with our questions and downright bloody professional from the first enunciated word to the end. We loved them all the more for their foibles and imperfections as for those magical minutes, they were as we were,ordinary people talking to others about thier lives, warts and all.

I am a devotee to the festival and will go for as long as they stage it. I will overlook the inherent ignorance of the few who push past, walk over your feet and try and jostle in front of you by brandishing a dangerously poised golfing brolly. I will forgive the lady who admonished me for sitting on the end of the row as it made it difficult for her to be seated. Despite the fact I am disabled, I was apparently not allowed to do that, not in her eyes anyway.
I shall try and forget the dozen or so officials who tried to oust me from the auditorium despite the fact I was about to see the next speaker in a few minutes.

“We have to empty the auditorium between shows” was their stolid and unimaginative mantra
When I tried to explain I was unable to carry all the things my party had left behind, they weakly pointed to chairs a long way off just outside the doors as if they provided the solution to the dilemma.
No offer of help came to carry the items and then house manager tried to eject me as a last resort.
As a last retort I a shouted at her, very loudly and that seemed to bang the message home.
I have decided not to forgive her, and may even pen a complaint to the organisers, who would doubltess be amazed they had overlooked my needs and others like me.

What poor service from a supposedly enlightened group of individuals.
Never mind, we can all hope that things improve on these fronts and that the other thoughtless individuals will try a little harder next time.
They may even consider not having a disabled car park with no firm parking base, forcing those who are most precarious on their feet take their lives in their hands by walking on one of the most unstable surfaces known to man to gain access to the site. It was interesting to see that all the official cars were parked on a hard base, though I suspect that was to preserve the patina on their new riding boots and wellies rather than to assist the less able boded among them.
Come on Hay people – get with your programme and act as informed as you pretend to be. If I can grapple around Hay with my walking sticks, you should be doing your damndest to make sure my epxerience is as good as the next man’s!


4 thoughts on “The Hay Festival.

  1. Hi Helen,

    I am a PhD researcher at Monash University, Australia, doing a project on audience experience at literature festivals and events. I am looking for people who attended this years’ Hay Festival and might be interested in answering a few questions via email about their expectations and their experience at the Festival.

    I enjoyed reading your blog post, and I was wondering if you would be able to answer a few questions for my project? These comprise 12 short answer questions, asking about your background with reading and writing, your expectations and experiences at the festival, and your opinion about literature festivals more generally.

    If you’re happy to do this, that would be amazing. If you email me at maweb5 [at] student [dot] monash [dot] edu I can send you the questions – and answer any questions about the project that you might have!

  2. Pingback: St Clementin Litfest. | Helen Aurelius Haddock.

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