I have just come back from my first Hay on Wye Book festival after years of wanting to go. It was made possible by a friend and her daughter, and a rather beautiful yurt on the banks of the Wye.
I’m used to Glastonbury, a festival the size of Sunderland, so I was slightly surprised when we reached a small field about a mile out of town. I was expecting to see large pointy ‘circus’ tents, but instead found a vista of huge white marquees with interconnected tunnels, and open grassy quads in between. This was clearly a tried-and-tested system; apparently Hay often has terribly wet weather, so the covered areas are a necessity; this is a festival of people queuing for events, and no-one wants to do that in the peeing rain.
We arrived on the Thursday, the first day, and it was very quiet and very cold. The venues had not had time to warm up with hot bodies, and the sun had not been out long. Then whoosh! On Friday the sun came out, the stars were out and the stimulation levels had reached epic proportions; it had livened up considerably and by the Saturday, the place was buzzing.
They allow wine bottles and champagne flutes into Hay, something I have not seen at a festival in a long time, and there were people sat around sipping and reading. Reading, writing, thinking, discussing. Imagine what could happen with all that reading and thinking. It might lead to more thinking and more writing and more books, and more reading … what joy!
The sheer quality of the speakers was breath-taking, and it had been very hard to chose who to see. It was also quite intense and exhausting – on the Saturday I saw seven different speakers, with barely a break in between. Maybe too much, but I wanted to cram in as much as possible.
And all that talk of Connections. The theme cropped up at the very first lecture, and thread its way through my festival. Mick Collins urged us to connect with nature, the planet and our inner Self; the Bands tried to connect through music with the audience and judges during their Battle. Diaspora are by definition connected – and disconnected – from their homeland or original group; Henrietta Bowden-Jones connects science with art in her online exhibition of The Art of Science.
Shami Chakrabarti urged us to remain connected to each other through empathy; put yourself in the position of that refugee, and connect with their plight. AC Grayling encouraged us to read even more books, as therein lie connections to the past and other people’s experiences. Germaine Greer talked of connections between all women, across the generations, and David Brooks asked us to connect with our inner peace and calm, not money and power, and find our ‘eulogy self’, the self we will be remembered for when it’s all over for us.
Ian MacMillan connected us to each other by having us write a poem together, and we connected concealed lines together to make five-line nonsense poems, only to find many of them made perfect sense. And of course, the comedians connected us to our inner beings, each other and the absurd, by making us laugh at ourselves.
Hats off, then, to the organisers, who manage to get the cream of British and International thinking into a tiny field in a quaint old town in the middle of Wales every year. It’s taken me a long time to get there, but I’m certain it won’t be my last festival; I am connected to Hay now.