sun 25/08/2019

theartsdesk at the 26th Hay Festival | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk at the 26th Hay Festival

theartsdesk at the 26th Hay Festival

John Le Carré signs off, Lee Mack never stops, while Rome and Wales join hands

Mary Beard at Hay: 'You only talk about something’s relevance when you suspect it hasn’t any'All images by Finn Beales unless otherwise stated

Which came first: the performance or the platform? Writers used to say that festivals were never part of the deal. They’ve long since stopped now that the publishing industry has changed and the public demand has grown for authors who don’t simply tell stories, but sell them too. Hence Cheltenham, hence Oxford, hence Ilkley, hence Dartington. Hence, above all, Hay, which last night completed its 26th year. The nowadays global brand among literary festivals has 11 other homes around the world, from some of which theartsdesk has reported (next stop Kells in Ireland). But Hay in Hay-on-Wye is the daddy, which must be why John Le Carré chose a field outside a town full of secondhand bookshops to give what he described as his promotional swansong.

Le Carré (pictured below) was the headliner of this year’s Hay, the big booking on the same level as Updike or even Clinton. His encounter with Philippe Sands took a few minutes to ignite, and it was only once the conversation moved away from the new novel A Delicate Truth that the audience started eating out of the palm of the grand old man’s hand. Stories abounded, not only of his time as a spook and refashioning that life in the shadows as fiction, but also of his wonderfully shady father. Le Carré cited Graham Greene: “the credit balance of a writer’s life is childhood” – by which standards, he added, “I was born a millionaire”. Tales of his early years – his “immersion in life” - duly flowed, of his abandonment by his mother, causing the author for many books to paint women as either angels or whores (see Mrs Smiley), and of his father chancing his arm as a rule-bending career conman. The young David Cornwell made perfect fodder for a spy: to the secret service, he explained, “the attraction of someone with a semi-criminal background is practically irresistible… One of the reasons,” he added, “the secret service produced so many bad eggs is because they went looking for them.”

There were entertaining tales of Yasser Arafat, of Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (“being with Richard was to witness a human tragedy”) and being summoned into the presence of Yeltsin’s foreign minister Primakov (whose interpreter was also his taster). He concluded the main body of his interview with an elegant attack on the establishment, the inner sanctum in whose citadel secrets are stored up and membership of which is an intoxicant. “This notion that there is an elite of the indoctrinated is very pernicious”, Le Carré said, before publicly stating his aversion to any form of titular congratulation from the state. “I really want to stay out of the tent,” he concluded, and got a standing ovation.

Nowadays there are venue-filling draws for many different constituencies. On the same stage, but in another cultural paradigm entirely, I had an intimate ringside view when interviewing Lee Mack (pictured below by Elinor Williams) onstage about his gag-packed autobiography Mack the Life. He was all charm and modesty before going on, even slightly nervous about being tethered to a seat and obliged to answer questions in front of an audience. Then he was greeted by the applause of 1,600 people and it was as if a switch had been flicked. He started to work the crowd with astonishing skill that (I put to him) answers some kind of need. Mack wasn’t so sure, but intimated that he prefers doing comedy to analysing whether he really does have performance-enhancing ADHD. And he does it with extraordinary laser-guided proficiency, shuffling improvised riffs into a deck of well-worked one-liners. With the laughs coming at roughly every 15 seconds, my cheeks were in a rictus of agony long before we marched off each clutching Hay's honorary appearance fee of a white rose. The festival, for the record, was favoured with its first ever equestrian knob gag.

Of course it’s possible to avoid celebrity at Hay - those people who you’re just as likely to see interviewed on Graham Norton - and curate your own path through the schedule. I was there for the second half of the week and followed a trio of throughlines on Rome and romanitas, Wales and Welshness, and landscape.

Paul Roberts introduced the British Museum’s Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum in the style of a witty tour guide, while Mary Beard talked of her lifelong immersion in the classics with customary contempt for ivory towers. “You only talk about something’s relevance,” she said, “when you suspect it hasn’t any.” Everybody in the past was horrible, she said, including Boadicea and Alexander the Great who were probably Roman constructs anyway. And Caligula wasn't all madness and incest, of which more anon, on the telly.

Tom Holland, who interviewed Beard, himself lectured engagingly on the fall of the Roman empire. Trying to pin it down to a date, he embarked on a tour of Rome's post-imperial legacy, wandering around the east and across to Washington DC before coming to halt at a crowd-pleasing destination. When Britain seceded from the Roman empire, it was left in the hands of chieftains who were duly conquered by Anglo-Saxon invaders until the last bastion of romanitas in the whole of the West was, he argued, Wales. He even went a bit further than that, casuistically concluding that the last Roman emperor is none other than the incumbent Prince of Wales. “I know how to tickle the tummy of a Welsh audience,” he claimed. Not all Welsh tummies will have enjoyed that particular tickle.

I had a taste of giving a local audience what it wants when hosting a couple of talks on Welsh matters. Dr Alun Withey – a media don waiting to happen if ever there was one - gave great pleasure with a delightfully accessible introduction to Welsh medicine before 1750. And the poet Owen Sheers (pictured right) and journalist Carolyn Hitt talked with fire and humour about the secular religion that is Welsh rugby. As Hay’s international fellow, Sheers was busy across the week as he has been across the year visiting Hay’s various outposts. He performed new work commissioned by the festival with sundry other English- and Welsh-language poets on the occasion of RS Thomas’s centenary. He read movingly from Pink Mist, his new verse drama about young squaddies in Afghanistan. And he interviewed the nonagenarian doctor-poet Dannie Abse, who is still producing great poems and, what’s more, talking about them with considerable charm.

On the second weekend there came a chain of events about our relationship with the earth under our feet – Simon Garfield on maps, former National Trust director Fiona Reynolds on the changing face of the manmade British landscape, George Monbiot on the desirability of reintroducting wolves to mid-Wales (not all hill farmers agree). One delightful pairing was occasioned by Transport for London’s series of books about the London Underground. Danny Dorling reported on the demographic narrative of the Central Line while Lucy Wadham, whose book Heads and Straights inspired by the Circle Line was extracted on theartsdesk, toured the geography of a childhood that migrated between the King's Road and the Brecon Beacons. It was in the shadow of these proud Welsh mountains that her splendid grandmother told the author, “You know, darling, I still enjoy a ruddy good orgasm.”

Across the festival's 10 days, any number of comparable tales unfolded at the same time in the same place. But however different one person’s experience from another’s of visiting a group of temporary tents in a Welsh field, it's as well to remember what Hay does for anyone who shows up. Like all literary festivals, but more so given its relative remoteness, Hay is far more about community than individuality. We hear much of the digital friendships engineered by social media, but in those faceless communications there is always the dread looming presence of the ego. The great tonic of Hay is that there is so little of that in the mud and the sun among those tribes who like not only to read but to meet and to… well I’ll leave the last verb to Dannie Abse, who was asked by a young trainee doctor in the audience to name the best attributes of a physician. “Don’t you think it would be to listen?”

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