02 June 2009

Hay Festival May 2009

I first visited the lovely Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye nearly ten years ago with my friend Amita who loves the place and takes all her friends there.
This year, my annual pilgrimage to London coincided with the dates of the Hay Festival, and we decided to spend two days there. Often described as the town of books, Hay has the ruins of a small castle on top of a hill, but its chief attraction is the small lanes filled with all kinds of bookshops. Some of these are “honesty” stores without attendants – where prices are marked, and customers can drop the money into a box left near the door and I remember going a little mad with all this bounty on display.
Originally called the Hay Festival of Literature, it is an annual event founded in 1987 and held in May or June in the picturesque little town of Hay which nestles in the idyllic Welsh countryside. It is a major event in the international literary calendar – said to be the biggest book event in Britain – and attracts around 80,000 visitors and some of the world’s top writers and personalities. Over the years participants at Hay have included Bill Clinton, Bill Bryson, William Dalrymple, Kiran Desai, Germaine Greer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Mark Tully, and Shashi Tharoor, to name just a few. As the Guardian puts it, “In two decades it has gone from a whim to a global event.” Bill Clinton called it the Woodstock of the Mind, and Henry Miller apparently thought it was some type of sandwich until he tried it and found it far more appetising.
To tell someone that you are attending an event of this hype is to impress them, and I did so shamelessly, preening with the sheer glamour of it. What a relief when the 2 days there turned out to be not just great fun but also a learning experience at many different levels.

One of my favourites was Sam Winston, a contemporary fine artist whose works explore language. At Hay, he was working on a collaborative word-art project. We watched, intrigued, as he invited festival visitors to contribute a favourite word. They could either give a real word, with a sentence explaining why they liked it, or an invented word, explaining what it meant. Some of the invented words were “wumper” (woolly jumper), “pregret” (to regret something before you do it), and “ice bream” (a cold fish). We remarked to Sam how smart the invented words were and he replied, “Well these are all literary people!” The invented words were hand-written onto a slip of paper, and the real favourite words were typed and printed out on a strip. Sam then pasted each of these onto two separate collages – one a skyline of tall buildings entitled “Towers of Fact”, and the other showing “Clouds of Fiction”. Trying to think of a favourite or invented word we soon realised how difficult it was – there were so many words to choose from, how could we pick one favourite one? What if people thought our word was silly, or not good enough in some way? But the inducement of a limited-edition canvas bag carrying an image of a Sam Winston creation was motivation, and we soon found ourselves contributing our words to this interesting project.
Before this, we had attended our first event at the Festival, a live studio programme in which Mariella Frostrup, the Sky Arts presenter, introduced the Hay Festival to the channel’s viewers around the world, and interviewed some of the participants. We were part of the studio audience, and it was interesting to watch a live anchor in action and see things from the other side of the television – with well-chosen words flowing freely and smartly. It was also interesting to be instructed on when to start clapping and when to stop for the camera!
Festival participants were not only authors, but comedians, musicians and media personalities. It was entertainment of the highest calibre, and there were visible efforts to make books and words the focus of most events.

The food critic Jay Rayner was here to promote his book – The Man Who Ate the World: In Search of the Perfect Dinner. Jay had travelled around the world eating at expensive restaurants and returned home to write this book.
Well known for his hilarious criticism which readers apparently enjoy more than his favourable reviews, his spontaneous wit made us laugh. In fact, many other programmes were also distinguished by high-quality humour – and not just from the participants but the audience too, with comments during the show as well as their questions at the end of it. One member of the audience had apparently eaten dinner at a local restaurant with Jay at an adjoining table. He wanted to know whether Jay had enjoyed the meal and how he rated the meal as a food critic. Luckily Jay had enjoyed it, and even said that this restaurant was probably trying for a Michelin rating. Up popped the next question, this time from the owner of the restaurant who happened to be in the audience too! With just the right touch of indignation, he wanted to know why anyone should assume that the opinion of a tyre company would be of any concern to him!
So although there were successful people from around the world attending, the feeling was one of a close-knit community. As a quote from the portal Wales Online puts it, “It’s basically the same festival but it’s just got bigger. It was always a circle of friends, and although the circle has got bigger, the essentially slightly chaotic informal character remains”.
This chaotic casualness was reflected in the artistically-created but carelessly-maintained entrance to the venue, and also in another event we attended, the premiere of a short film Still Life, made by The Rural Media Company as a collaborative community project in the nearby town of Bromyard, where this little film unit spent one year, identifying issues in the town, producing a script and making the film. The film was a sweet story about a girl whose parents had recently separated – and most actors and crew were picked from the local community. Many of the young actors were present at the premiere in Hay and the atmosphere was charged with their excitement. However, watching the movie, it was hard to understand why it should have taken a whole year to make!
At another venue, Jay Rayner interviewed Heston Blumenthal, a celebrity chef, author of several books and owner of The Fat Duck Restaurant (ranked No. 2 in a list of the world’s top restaurants – with the Bukhara Restaurant in Delhi at number 65 and the Wasabi Restaurant in Mumbai at number 70). Heston uses chemistry in the kitchen to highlight flavours and create intriguing dishes that taste and look distinctive – almost gimmicky though considered intriguing. These include Green Tea Mousse, Bacon & Egg Ice cream, Warm Chocolate Wine and even Snail Porridge. Heston clarified that he had not studied Chemistry but started working straight after school having fallen in love with French food as a boy after a meal at a restaurant in France.
The Hay Festival lasted ten days (21-31 May 2009) and featured over 500 events, including the children’s festival, Hay Fever. We were there for only two day, and as a result missed some of this year’s highlights, including events featuring Kamila Shamsie, Amit Chaudhuri, Monica Ali, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, David Crystal, Chris Patten, Alan Bennet (whose event was sold out several months before), Shazia Mirza and Amartya Sen.
On the first day the venue, a well-laid-out series of marquees in a field on the edge of Hay, had seemed open and relaxed - and we spotted many participants mingling with the visitors. The next day was bright and sunny and visitors poured in. It was the first day of the children's half-term break of ten days, and also of Hay Fever. Soon the site was filled with people lounging on the grass sunbathing, picnicking, reading and wandering around. It was glorious, but the crowd was as thick as you might find at rush hour in a commuter train station. We felt fortunate to have had the space to explore on the previous day and become familiar with the different stages, restaurants, bookstores with authors signing copies of their books, stalls and other settings of the festial, before the vibrant busy buzz began. The Hay Festival was a wonderful, stimulating experience, though the town of Hay-on-Wye (twinned with Timbuktu) is a special place right through the year.
The drive from London to Hay (around four hours) takes you past beautiful mountains and gorges, and the historic Tintern Abbey of which Bill Bryson once famously remarked had given rise to a poem by William Wordsworth entitled I Can Be Boring Outside the Lake District Too.
Bryson's remark that chlorophyll must be the principal industry of Britain was also validated by the dense, bright green of the trees and meadows along the way.
Wales is famous for its terrible weather - it can be grey and blustery, but Hay is always worthwhile. If on the other hand you are blessed with blue skies and a gentle sun, as we were, it feels like heaven and we left promising ourselves that we would soon be back.

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