Sunday, May 27, 2007

Town of Books or Town of Telly? Cultures Clashing in a Welsh Valley

Three years ago I read at the Hay Festival, and I guess you get a different perspective as a reading author, but I don't know, I had been before as an anonymous punter, and things seemed very different to me this year. I went as a guest of Debi Alper, who was standing in over the first weekend for John Baker, blogging reporter for SkyARTS, the new sponsors of the festival.

First surprise: I drove down with my partner, and as we entered the town from the north the festival signs directed us not left as before but right: the festival is now so huge that it needs a much bigger site, three-quarters of a mile or so out of town, and a shuttle bus to take you between the two. No more wandering straight from the tents into the scores of second-hand bookshops in the hour or so between shows. And there was unsettling evidence of institutionalised crowd control: police tape lined the roads and guys in luminous jackets waved us into the parking field and charged us £4.50 (I never remember paying before!) and pointed to the spot we must park in. We got out, and below us was the huge white-tented site with the SkyARTS flags flying and, scoring the hill above it, the works for the oil* pipeline which is crossing Wales from Milford Haven.
(* Edited-in correction: Not oil, but gas! But then, even David Miliband, the environment secretary, apparently appeared to reveal at Hay that he didn't know what it was, or anything at all about the pipeline itself.)

You're not supposed to bite the hand that feeds you, and Sam, the Sky PR who met us, was as sweet as the schoolgirls who had minded me last time, but I'd be betraying my dead Irish dad's injunctions about being true to my hunches if I didn't report to you, dear bloggers, that my heart sank with a sense of corporate might quite antipathetic to the festival's creative origins.

And wouldn't you know it, my first event was a media event: the daily roundup of the festival with Mariella Frostrup, filmed for Sky TV. The woman next to me, on the other side to Debi, was a veteran of the festival. Well, she said to me ruefully, without much conviction: we have to move with the times and nostalgia's a terrible thing. And then on came Mariella, beautiful and intelligent, and interviewed Peter Florence who began the festival 20 years ago, and indeed she questioned him precisely about the change in the nature of the festival - less emphasis on literature and books and more on politics and the media. It hasn't really changed, he said, not in spirit, but boy did he seem defensive to me, and of course, this was telly, so she let him get away with it, and then he was gone and there was a break and the makeup woman came in and redid Mariella's makeup and hair and powdered the bald head of composer Michael Nyman who was due on next.

Ha! 'What did you think?' asked Sam afterwards. 'Isn't Mariella professional?' we said truthfully. 'And isn't Sandi Toksvig quick-witted?' 'Oh yes! But what did you think of the stage?' Ah yes, it was true, that was the real star, the stage...

And where were the books? There were things mimicking books: Penguin-cover deckchairs, Penguin-cover mugs:

huge models near the entrance:

but books, real books? At last we found some, in Pemberton's festival bookshop, but only the festival authors were stocked there, and there simply wasn't time to get into town between shows for that staple traditional Hay experience - emerging inspired from a literary event to browse the fund of literary history on offer in the town (or to escape the Sky-high site food prices!).

Of course we went into town. It was dead, but then it was only Friday and the festival hadn't really got going. How do you feel about the change? we asked one bookshop owner. It had definitely made a difference to her trade, she said. At the Honesty Bookshop, where you leave the money for your book in a box, there was no one around to be honest or cheat:

This and the Castle Bookshop (below), which has a fantastic stock of old prints, were not the only ones we found empty.

Back at the festival, and there still wasn't much literature on offer. Debi and I attended a comic revue with Bonnie Langford and Sandi Toksvig and then my partner and I went to a concert given by the contemporary folk musician Seth Lakeman in the biggest tent of all, a huge stadium which filled up with young people who suddenly appeared from nowhere in their droves, but were no longer in evidence next day.

Next day, Saturday, things were suddenly buzzing - queues of traffic down the lanes (and police everywhere) and long queues of people at the ticket office and outside the events) - and it looked as if the festival would be unlikely to have a detrimental impact on the town businesses after all. And at last, there was a literary event I could go to: David Freeman, who runs the Meet the Author website, interviewing two novelists, Australian Gail Jones and Booker-shortlisted Hisham Matar. Freeman's gushing style seemed designed to provoke a self-congratulatory stance in his guests, which Matar failed to avoid altogether. However, even I was near to tears when he described how a friend smuggled copies of his books into Libya and he thought, like Ovid (overlook the self-flattering comparison) 'My book has gone back without me.' This interview seemed to me somehow to sum up the culture clash at the heart of this festival, and which has perhaps been at the heart of it all along, and of all author readings. The whole thrust of Freeman's questioning was to make parallels between the books and the authors' lives, or even to privilege their lives over their books. Gail Jones, an academic clearly aware of such problems, smartly side-stepped this trap, but then she sounded off-puttingly like an academic, so hey... (Hay). Matar had a Thing about not signing books for dealers, and as an author I can see his point, but he even refused to sign blank copies for Tim of KC Books, not knowing perhaps that Tim had sponsored this event...

And then we thought we'd check out an aspect of the Fringe Festival which has started up as a response to the changes. Each day this week there is an event sponsored by Welsh Academi at the Hay Poetry Bookshop in the town, and on Saturday the internationally esteemed Irish poet Tony Curtis was reading from his brilliant and moving new book, The Well in the Rain. What a difference! A tiny space, crammed with an audience, no microphones needed, the poet (a poet!) chatting to us all individually, informal in his reading, even answering his phone halfway through and giving us all a laugh. The kind of event with which festivals begin... But then how much money did that event make, eh, and for whom?


Back at the site the protesters to the pipeline had set up outside.



A big concern of the festival this year is the environment, and the first day, Thursday, was devoted to a conference on the topic. However, the pipeline protesters were keen to tell me that they'd been offered a stall by one of the local shop owners, but had been evicted by the festival organisers. You could say they were paranoid, but of course this was the day Gordon Brown was speaking, and it was hard to think they were with this security guard standing at the entrance nearby:

and these signs on the gate to the 'VIP' car park:


But not everyone's so hot on security. The Guardian seem to be having a high old time in their festival bus. On Saturday afternoon my partner wandered into their enclosure and had a glass of champagne and a scone with jam and strawberries and cream, before he realised he was in a private party...

I'm left with the words of the woman who runs the Castle Bookshop. 'We've hardly had a soul in all day,' she said on Friday. 'But even so, we've had something stolen.'
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