Apologies for the extreme length of this post.
I have meant to go to Hay Festival for years, knowing I suppose that once I had dipped my toe into the waters of the Hay Festival I would want to go every year. I already knew the town well having visited several times.
The festival runs for about ten days, though I decided to just go for the weekend – staying in Hereford (18 miles away) as accommodation in Hay-on-wye is hard to find. As a non-driver I was grateful for the special festival bus that runs from Hereford station to Hay several times a day. There was a lovely camaraderie between those of us gathering for the 10.15 bus on Saturday night- the last bus back to Hereford that day – everyone was there in good time – no one staying in Hereford wanted to miss that bus.
I had tickets for six events, and although I had intended to spend some time in the town of Hay I found I only went there to catch my bus – instead I spent the whole of two long days at the festival site (a little up the road) soaking up the atmosphere – and standing in queues. I loved the way the festival site was organised, covered walkways, a huge festival bookshop, Oxfam bookshop, lots of cafes, restaurants and bars, grassy areas to sit out in (we were blessed with fine weather) and great signage – signage is important when rushing between different stages.
I don’t intend to talk in too much detail about each event I attended –– I didn’t take notes. I was alarmed to see many people around me doing just that – dutifully scribbling down little nuggets of wisdom – while I sat there a rank amateur. So a little flavour – you might well be relieved to hear – is all I will be able to manage.
Shirin Ebadi talking to Helena Kennedy
(in Farsi with English translation)
Shirin Ebadi is an Iranian human rights lawyer who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. Her award was confiscated by Iranian authorities (although this has been naturally denied by the Iranian government). Shirin Ebadi’s latest book Until We Are Free tells the story of what happened to her after she had won that prize. It is this that Helena Kennedy talked to Shirin about – it is a remarkable, harrowing story of terrifying intimidation at the hands of the authorities, including menacing phone calls late at night. Through all of this Shirin kept fighting for justice for others. She became something of a theologian as she argued in court over points of law – particularly the interpretation of Islamic law which she believed to be always the worst possible interpretation. Time and again she and her team won small victories – each one meaning so much to the people they involved. She was responsible for changing the custody laws, which now favour mothers. Shirin made many enemies – and for this reason she now lives in exile in London. There was an awkward moment when a young Iranian man tried to ask a question – in Farsi – which the interpreter had to deal with – but never did get to the point or ask his question, he did I suspect get a bit over excited – and started making a speech, and was cut off in no uncertain terms by a very irritated Helena Kennedy. My first event and what a one it was – a wonderfully inspirational woman – I was proud to queue up to meet her and have her sign my book.
Svetlana Alexievich talking to Bridget Kendall
(In Russian with English translation)
Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for literature this year and until then there were people I think who hadn’t heard of her – me included. It was the first time someone had won for non-fiction writing – her work – which does really appeal to me though I haven’t read it yet – explores the oral histories of Russian people living through terrifying and extraordinary times. Svetlana explained how she approached her work, for example, how as a woman she was able to follow the women out to the kitchen hear their stories of war – having been regaled with the male stories of valour over dinner, she knew the women’s stories would be different – and they were. The women who had left their homes to be snipers – their stories were not of killing or heroism, and this enraged the men listening who disapproved greatly of these stories. She talked a lot about this difference between the stories of men and women, how the attitude to conflict is so different – the women, much less interested in heroism and valour.
Tracy Chevalier, Lionel Shriver and Joanna Brisco – Reader I married him
Tracy Chevalier has edited a new collection of short stories, called Reader I Married Him. In the year of Charlotte Bronte’s 200th birthday Tracy Chevalier commissioned lots of already well known writers to write a story inspired by the most famous line in Jane Eyre. Novelist Kirsty Gunn was also supposed to be on the panel but was unable to attend for personal reasons. Tracy Chevalier began by explaining her own relationship with Jane Eyre – how she first read her parent’s copy at the age of ten. She explained how the stories only had to be inspired by at that line – they didn’t have to be about Jane Eyre or even refer to it – they didn’t even have to include the line itself. What she ended up with was a diverse range of stories; stories of people coming together, of relationships which should never have been, one story narrated by Grace Poole. Lionel Shriver and Joanna Briscoe both then read extracts from their stories, each very different to the other, but definitely compelling. A friend bought me this collection for my birthday, so really looking forward to it now.
Chris Packham talking to Horatio Clare
I had looked forward to this all day and I was not to be disappointed. I was enthralled by Chris Packham from the first moment. Horatio Clare – declared that Chris Packham was not just a TV personality who had written a book – that he is in fact a writer – a distinction many readers will appreciate. Chris Packham talked about how he began to write some years ago – purely as an exercise for himself with no thoughts about publication. He wrote short stories initially, then later while abroad filming began writing his own story. Fingers in the Sparkle Jar came out recently to rave reviews I believe; another book I already had at home unread – and Horatio Clare explained to us the unique structure of the book, how sections are written in the third person – unusual for an autobiography. Chris explained how he had wanted readers to have an adult perspective for aspects of his childhood. He delighted us with descriptions of how he had sketched out his ideas on graph paper stretched out around his living room. Chris talked honestly about his Asperger’s and how difficult and miserable his adolescence was, and how in his love of creatures and the natural world and the kestrel he kept as a boy (and writes about in his book) he found himself. During an enthralling hour or so we learned what tadpoles taste like (I know!) and heard what Chris thinks about rabbits in hutches (he’s not wrong) and how he believes we as a species are simply not looking after ourselves. He spoke with moving honesty, great wisdom and a lot of humour. When a child in the audience asked what his favourite British animal is he answered her brilliantly- talking about grass snake poo (children love that kind of thing) and turning the question back on her.
Lionel Shriver talking to George Alagiah
Lionel Shriver’s new novel The Mandibles has just come out in hardback – and I haven’t bought it yet but I think I will– I have had mixed feelings about the three Lionel Shriver novels I have already read, although I think she is a fascinating writer. She is also a great speaker at events too, I first heard her speak at the Birmingham literature festival a few years ago. Her new novel is set in the very near future, and imagines the complete financial collapse of the US. Her novel features four generations of a wealthy family – the eponymous Mandibles. Lionel explained how really her novel is not that far-fetched – how when countries have such enormous debt that will never be paid back – the money becomes in effect fake currency. It was fascinating to hear Lionel Shriver talk about the current financial situation in the US which led naturally enough to George Alagiah to ask her the inevitable question about the rise of Trump. Her response was brilliant – saying she probably doesn’t spend enough time in US to understand it. Reading from her novel – which she says she put an older version of herself into in a character I think George Alagiah particularly liked, – Lionel Shriver was every bit as entertaining as I have found her to be in the past.
Peter Carey talking to Martha Kearney
Peter Cary is another writer who I have only read about three times and have had mixed feeling about. He is however a very interesting man, and in this talk – which I found meandered around just a little bit – he talked about many different things, only one of which was his most recent novel Amnesia – from which he also read. He rather lambasted the US – referring to the removal of the Whitlam government in the 1970’s – which I know nothing about. His novel concerns an Australian woman who furious at US political interference – like that in the 70’s – releases a computer virus into the computers of Australia’s prison system – hundreds of asylum seekers walk free. Was it a mistake or has this young woman declared cyber war on the US? The book sounds fascinating, as were many of the other things Peter Cary had to say – he talked about what it means to be an Australian now living in New York, and how he reconciles that with the things he so vehemently disagrees with. Obviously a man with an eye on political situations he said many people in Australia are ashamed of their goverment’s attitude to refugees, reminding us of how Australia was a country created by exiles. I suspect a lot of his comments would be seen as controversial – I wondered how he is viewed in his country of birth. He too talked about Trump – and how he believes the media have helped the rise of Trump – as they talk of almost nothing but him.
Terribly aware of the length of this post already – I am going to leave it there. I had a lovely weekend – the sun was a bonus – and I only bought five books for myself (two others for my sister and a friend) – which considering the temptation I had wasn’t bad at all.