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.'


Ms Baroque said...

Great piece. I've been reading all about it for days and you're the first I've red that mentioned the local booksellers. Or the books!

Debi said...

Great post and interesting to see the difference the day after I left.

I'm hoping that the Fringe will go from strength to strength so that there will be something for everyone in years to come.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Fascinating post, thank you.

I have never, I am ashamed to say, been to the Hay Festival, and it now looks as if it has finished in the format that made people like me want to travel half way across the country to mooch, mingle and maze.

BUt the most worrying lines, (for this writer) were these...

'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.'

Oh, I know there is interest in the people behind the pages, just as there is interest in the person behind the foot that boots multi-million footballs, or the human being behind the face on East Enders.

But it sounds as if this is eclipsing what makes fiction fascinating... that it comes from the air.

Why should writers have to become navel-gazing introspecive self-psychoanalysts in order to try and explain a bit of magic?


Anonymous said...

EXCELLENT piece. Hay is no longer about books and to have it way out of town like that destroys finally one of the things that were so special about it. I will never go again, but have wonderfully happy memories of the Old Hay Festival.
And of course writers' lives have nothing to do with their books - the text is the text. Once it leaves the author it stands alone. Only that way it doesn`t make money for people like David Freeman.
Blogger will not accept my perfectly correct username and password so in an oil-pipeline type protest I am now writing as anonymous but signing myself as


Elizabeth Baines said...

I'm so glad you all share my feelings. On the festival site I was beginning to think I was just paranoid!

Kate Harrison said...

Really interesting: such a pleasure to read such a carefully argued, bias-free analysis of the event. Must admit I've always fancied going but previously I found the idea of it a touch intimidating. Now I'm not too bothered about not having made it - I wonder where the more grass roots literary festivals are now? I do like the idea of the Fringe being the future, though...


Stephanie Zia said...

I don't like the sound of that field, but the bookshops you featured sound wonderful & have made me want to stop off next time I'm in the area. THANK you. You have both done a brilliant job on giving us the bigger picture. Now off to John Baker...

Tania Hershman said...

I am so glad you've written this blog post because I am here at Hay for the very first time and have been wandering around feeling so disappointed and wondering whether it is just me. My poor partner has had to put up with me moaning about it being nothing whatsoever to do with literature, just with media celebs promoting books. Why does the Festival bookstore only stock Festival authors? And why all this emphasis on the environment and then the pressure is on to buy brand-new hardback books printed on non-recycled paper? The food is expensive as hell, people aren't friendly at all, there's just no atmosphere. I went to one event with three young novelists, and the tent was mostly empty. The three novelists, no doubt demoralized, didn't really seem to want to be there at all. It's all pretty sad.

dovegreyreader said...

Thanks for your honesty.I stuck my neck out a few weeks ago about my lit-fest phobia that has been growing in recent years and at Hay it's all about my complete aversion to camping plus that vain search for the heart and soul of the festival.It's the mood which I've never felt there.I had a day planned there this week but I'm having real second thoughts now!

jau said...

I once worked in a bookstore whose new manager had been a successful shoestore manager. The theory was that selling and managing were the operative issues, not that which was sold. The Hay organizers seem cut from that mold so books = folk music = rock or anything else. Perhaps the so-called fringe will become what Hay was and should be.

On your other point, I have taken writing classes in hopes of learning how to shape ideas into stories with style. Each one of them (5 at last count) sounded like what I wanted. Each one turned out to demand memoir or autobiography, and to refuse any other process. I cajoled, objected, and whined. To no avail, of course.

I guess I'm just a literateur who reads impersonal books sold in small old shops.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. I was there, too. And it's very interesting to see it through someone else's eyes.
You didn't mention what it did to your feet. I found that it really hurt that part of my anatomy.
And by the time I got there it was extremely busy. Some of the panels were good, some not so good. But throughout the punters were wonderful and friendly and I loved soaking up that atmosphere of people travelling to this point from all over the world, sitting together in the rain and chatting about every dubject under the sun.

Elizabeth Baines said...

John, what did it do to your feet? It was dry when I was there, so my feet were fine (and I knew from past experience to wear good boots!)

Yes, I did find the punters friendly once you got talking, though I'd agree with Amanda that there's not quite the laid-back, unreserved atmosphere I might expect (and I passed Ruth Rendell with a definite scowl on her face!). I have to say that Hay has always seemed to me a predominantly middle-aged, middle-class affair. It's true that young people were drawn in for the Seth Lakeman concert, but as I say, the next morning the crowd seemed m-a, m-c again. And those prices: you need to be pretty well-off to pay them (on top of accommodation, and then to buy those new hard-backed books being promoted!)

Andrew Cooper said...

I, also, have always thought it would be good to go to Hay one year but you've certainly put me off. It sounds as though it's gone the way that everything goes once the marketing people get involved. A victim of its own success, obviously.

Given that Hay has lost its way, which other festivals would anyone here recommend?

Elizabeth Baines said...

Oh dear, it wasn't my intention to stop people going!!!!

There are in fact some very interesting debates going on at Hay, even if they aren't much literary, and people should be part of them!

Anonymous said...

Just want to disagree with Susan Hill when she says "of course writers' lives have nothing to do with their books.." Duh.. the books spring out of the lives don't they? I nearly always find that knowing something of the writer's life deepens and enriches my appreciation of the book. The book does stand alone and shouldn't be overshadowed by the life but me, I always want to know the biog. Horses for courses.
Thanks for a really interesting post. I felt I'd been there.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Of course books spring out of writers' lives - or more accurately out of their 'personalities', as Zadie Smith recently pointed out - but that doesn't mean that you can necessarily draw parallels between their lives and their novels. Novels are an alchemical mix of the novelist's own experience, observation of other people's experience, and pure imagination, in different proportions in different novels, but to such an extent that the novelist would sometimes be hard put to tease them all out. In any case, teasing them out is beside the point for most novelists: a novel might spring from the life but it is something else entirely different from the life, and the reason so many of us are touchy about the current obsession for doing just that, is that in the process the novel is seen as something much narrower (ie merely a monitor of the author's life) than it is.

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth, I didn't mean that novels are simply monitoring the writers' lives, and if that's what the Hay man was suggesting then he was wrong and you were right to object. Autobiographies monitor the writers' lives, novels are a product of the imagination and, like children, stand on their own separate from the person who created them. That's clear and true. But, that said, I think that to say that writers' lives have nothing to do with their books or that the books 'come out of the air' is just silly. Writers, like everybody else, have a unique life experience and a unique personality, they take those ingredients, apply their imagination and create something which transcends both. But, for me, to know some of the ingredients does help to deepen my understanding of the book. If I know, to take the first random example that floats into my head, that Daphne du Maurier was very ambivalent about her sexuality and felt that she was really a 'boy' (the famous 'boy in the box') then that does shed light on 'Rebecca' even though nothing remotely similar ever happened to her. I could go on and on with the examples. It's a personal thing. I just like to know about the life. Nosey maybe. People are different. I don't think you should knock it. Though of course the book itself is what matters and should be the main focus.
Thanks again for transporting me to Hay. I don't have a password, hence the 'anon'. I'm Joan and I came to you via Debi's blog. Sounds as though you both had a whale of a time.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Well, yes, fair enough! And I of course like to know about writers' lives. My comments come out of a long discussion I've been having on this blog about a worrying tendency to 'autobiographize' novels - to the extent that publishers have been reported to sell novels as autobiographies. (eg the case of James Frey)

Kay Richardson said...

I want to set up a genuine Hay festival where songs are sung of hay and poems are written etc. Can you eat hay? If so, I'd make hayburgers.

Enjoyed your post, as somebody else wrote, it doesn't fill me with desire to visit.

Anonymous said...

A very good article. This is the first Litfest in 10 years that we have not attended as the new out of town site totally destroys the atmosphere that made Hay Festival so very special.
We totally agree that it seems to have become so over marketed, 'smug' and self satisfied with itself ("up its own rear end" was my 29 year old daughters comment last year on her 8th outing ) that the originality and humour of past years has all but disappeared. We have decided to spend a weekend in Hay at the end of June just enjoying the book shops, restaurants locals and clothes shops without the hassle of the parking problems.
It would be so good if the school and the castle grounds could be the main sites as in the past and more emphasis on original authors, comedians and singers. I guess I can dream!

Vanessa Gebbie said...

well, its a tad late, but as "come out of the air" was my phrase up there somewhere, and as it's been called 'silly', I feel I ought to defend it!

If it happens that an image, a connection, a character, just arrives unbidden, and is impossible to attribute to a specific memory, event, experience... then to this writer, it is 'of the air'... and to this writer, it happens, although not often enough, and I am inordinately grateful.

And I would no more answer intrusive and (to me) irrelevant questions about sexuality or any other aspect of my private life than I would give up writing!


Anonymous said...

Deary me Vanessa. No need to take it personally. I wouldn't dream of asking you about your sexuality or any other matter which is private to you and I wouldn't expect anybody else to. However if, as D du M did, you were to reveal those private things in letters or conversation and if that information then became public and freely available to me I would be interested, particularly if I enjoyed your work and wanted to understand it as well as I could. And if it shed a little light for me on your work, then I would absorb the information and feel that my experience of that work had been enriched. I'm not even slightly judgemental or prurient about the 'boy in the box' but, since I do know it, I might as well apply it to my appreciation of the book. Should there be a ban on biographies and autobiographies in your view? Do I have to feel guilty for liking them?
I retract the word 'silly'. It seemed like that to me at the time but on reflection I see that you do genuinely experience those revelations, images etc as coming 'out of the air' and want to leave it at that. Which is fine. I don't myself. I also experience 'out of the air' images and thoughts and dreams etc but I know they don't really come 'out of the air' but from my own life experience and personally, having the character that I have, I want to at least try to chase them back to their symbolic source. Which is fine. We're just different. Neither is 'silly'. Sorry.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Not taken 'personally' as such, Joan, I just felt it was fair to explain on both my own behalf and on behalf of the many writers I know who shake their heads in wonderment at what appears occasionally 'from the air' when they write.

I do understand that, if one has a particular interest in analysing the work of a writer, that it can be helpful to know about them on a close personal level.

Biography is slighly different, isnt it? I suppose my reaction to the biographies of writers is that of course it's fine to find out about them on a personal level, if the reader is interested so to do.

It doesnt make the writing from that writer any better or worse though, and I would worry that, for example, that there might start to be some sort of judging taking place that unvalidated a pece of work just because the bio didnt say the writer had personal experience of a topic... therefore the fiction becomes 'unauthentic'.

I might write about (for example) a rape, an incidence of abuse, a love affair, an illness, a particular place, a religion, ... and it will be accepted as 'authentic'... the reader (if I have done my job properly) will suspend disbelief.

if I do not write well, and the reader cannot suspend disbelief, that is my fault as a writer.

For the reader to know whether or not I was really raped, abused, loved, suffered from this or that, ... etc etc, actually (some might argue) gets in the way of them judging the fiction for what it is.

this is a fascinating topic though... it's made me think... so thanks!