Thursday, 19 June 2008

Bargain Books, Brilliant Minds and Biblical Rain – Hay Festival 2008

Each year, when I go to the Hay Festival, I feel I’m getting something that I missed in my youth; a taste of that elusive university life; hob-nobbing with clever people. Brain food. I love it. Every time I come away from Hay I feel fired-up, mentally invigorated, inspired. I’m ready to write. My brain cells have been super-charged by positive arty vibes.

Some say it’s the best book festival in world. I’m sure they’re right. And if the festival itself doesn’t do it for you, then what about the bookshops in Hay? There are dozens of them. Second-hand bookshops cram this tiny town, they are squeezed into every passage and alleyway. Each year my only regrets are for the books I didn’t buy (there’s always a limit to the cash), and for the ticking clock – so much to read; so little time.

The previous two years have seen rain, and last year it was quite cold, so our arrival in sunshine on the Thursday prior to the opening weekend was cause for soaring spirits. Hay is a little town, and if you want to stay you have to bring your accommodation with you. For many this means a tent. We take our caravan and park it in a site about two miles from the festival ground.

We had nothing planned for the Thursday so we had a pleasant evening of writing (I use an old car battery to power my laptop) and painting, (Sarah, my wife is an artist) and we savoured the promise of what was to come.

Our first event was a political debate about the US election, but it wasn’t until late afternoon. This gave us the day to buy books and eat excellent veggie food from The Granary. We did both to excess. Many of the second-hand book shops have a room – an entire room – dedicated to SF. This is bliss. All the stuff I missed when I spent my wilderness years away from the faith – it’s all there: Jack Vance, William Gibson, BobShaw, Robert Heinlein… there are anthologies, Analog, Writers of the Future from the sixties and seventies. It’s hard not to drool.

The weather moved in, mid-afternoon. We’re very eco-conscious and walk or cycle whenever we can. By the time we returned to the caravan we were paddling. But it stopped, it cleared, and it tempted us out on foot once more for the first of our pre-booked events. I enjoyed the debate, though US politics is Sarah’s choice more than mine, and it kicked off our festival to a solid start.

It rained all night and temperatures plummeted, and by morning it was February again. We started early, ten o’clock with Steve Jones, the geneticist. It was edge of the seat stuff and by the time he wrapped up his hour-long session I had half a dozen story ideas in my notebook. The festival site was crowded. They put deckchairs all around for festival-goers to chill out between sessions with a book or newspaper. (Everyone reads The Guardian. This is because they are the sponsors, and when you buy one you get a free canvas bag in which to carry it.) The deckchairs, though, were empty and sodden with rain. The floral decorations were flattened. Tents and bunting flapped and rattled and strained in a North Atlantic symphony. The water started to rise. Sheep and cows, watching from nearby fields, arranged themselves in pairs and got their embarkation passes ready.

By mid-afternoon Sunday, the fire brigade had arrived to pump-out some of the marquees. It was wonderful. The Glastonbury spirit had set it. There were no miserable faces. This is what it’s all about.

I heard AL Kennedy in the evening, a writer of whom I am in awe, and this was my personal festival highlight. I was able to chat to her for a while afterwards, while she signed a book of her short stories for me. I’ve just finished reading “Day” and find myself languishing in a pit of inadequacy and self-pity. Oh, to write like that!

And that was Hay 2008. Over far too soon – the restrictions of the day job don’t allow me to stay for longer than the Bank Holiday Weekend. Sarah and I returned home cold, wet but happy. Can’t wait for next year.

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