Sunday, 1 June 2014

The Hay Literary Festival: Heroes, Assassins and Dragons

The year before last, I received an email headlined: "Hay Festival." Terribly excited that at last I had been invited to speak at Britain's best-known literary festival, I opened it, only to find it was from a PR company telling me what the line-up was. So when, this year, I received another email with the same headline, I ignored it for ages. Luckily I eventually opened it, as this time round it was an actual invitation. I couldn't have been more delighted.

The train that I took from Paddington on a Tuesday afternoon was pullulating with people, most of whom seemed also to be doing talks at Hay. ("We live in a post-ironic world" was the general level of conversation.) On arrival at Hereford, I shared a car with two other authors, and was driven through impeccably lush countryside to my B and B, a charming house which belongs to an artist called Shan Egerton.

In the author's tent,  I ran into a friend who works for PEN and The White Review, and we had dinner and talked about Chilean anti-poets dancing at the age of 90, and how there's no time to read everything anymore.

Everything was muddy the next morning: hordes of people wearing sensible parkas and wellies were the order of the day, in contrast to my brogues and light summer jacket. I should have listened to Charlie Fletcher, one of the two authors I was doing my talk with (the other being Justin Somper), who advised bringing some seriously weatherproof kit. Still, I managed to make it through the day virtually unscathed, spending the time before my event sitting in the hospitality suite, and spotting famous writers gradually filling up the sofas: Sebastian Faulks was there in a smashing purple jacket.

I had an hour or so to look at the bookshops, and of course bought something in every one I went into. I would like to be able to spend a day or more there. What I love about second hand bookshops is the serendipity of things: there is no bullish marketing, or bestsellers thrust into your face, but you can turn a corner and find something beautiful. I came back with a version of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex for children, with startling Indian illustrations; a PG Wodehouse novel which introduces the excellent Psmith to Blandings Castle, and with a Chris Riddell cover , and a nineteenth century translation of the Greek Anthology.

The talk itself went well, chaired by the admirable Julia Eccleshare. We discussed making magical worlds; did some readings, and then went into questions. In the Starlight tent everything took on a  gentle glow, and, fortunately, nobody fell asleep.

All too soon I was back on the train, lugging my box of Berry Bros wine, and with a white rose in my lapel. A fellow passenger took me in and said, simply, "Why?" I shrugged. "Hay," I replied. It seemed to do the trick.

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