Poor Taff’s Festival or is Hay really in Wales?
Richard Lewis Davies
I first went to the Hay festival close to thirty years ago now. It was held in three tents stretched out alongside the river where the town begins to fall down off the bluff into the Wye. It was a close homespun affair then. The audience and the acts only a few feet away from each other. Tony Benn was a regular, in a double act with the folk musician Roy Bailey, one year he complained the audience thought they were there to listen to an extra-mural lecture as they weren’t laughing at his jokes.
There was a squashed, delightfully chaotic bookshop run by Diana Blunt. I can’t remember a coffee shop never mind a tapas bar, a couple of portaloos in the far field under the trees. For a drink there were loads of pubs in the town, just up the hill. Things have changed, as they do. The primary school was taken over for a few years and now a corporate field a mile or so along the Brecon road.
The festival has been good for the town and the town good for the festival. It’s an odd symbiotic dance of commercialism as the pubs change the menus and hike the prices hoping to make the most of all those toffs from London and Merthyr. While the locals come out to sell all sorts of garage sales treasures from their front gardens. Some even move in with relatives in Clyro for the week and rent their house out.
At its heart it’s about books. It really is. Sort of.
Writers love being invited to Hay. You’re part of the club, sales will rocket into double figures, you get invited into the Green room and get a free coffee, a chance to smile flirtatiously at Germaine Greer and listen to Stephen Fry talk about his bunions. You used to get paid in cheap Champagne until there was a deal with Visit Spain ™ and then it turned to cheap Cava. The festival was first sponsored by the Times, then the Guardian, Channel 4, Tata Steel, a few dubious oil states, Borat, a Russian Oligarch who was friends with Vladamir Putin and then the Telegraph. How low can you go? There’s a progression and a theme.
There’s always someone with cash who likes books. Rishi Sunak is sponsoring it this year along with Mark Drakeford.
I’ve enjoyed it over the years. Peter Florence and his father had a bit of vision to set up all those years ago, at a time when to sit and listen to writers talking about their work in a tent in a field was considered distinctly odd. The festival wasn’t always supported by the town. There were complaints that they were selling new books. Hay was about old books. The King was asked to intervene. He liked the festival and the festival in fecundity of the Welsh borders has prospered. It has taken a colonial interest in Welsh literature and culture, a bit patronising at times, like a great maiden Aunt congratulating you for passing your piano exam grade 3 and wishing you well before you have to go down the mines.
I’ve enjoyed sitting in cafes reading books, drinking in the garden at Kilvert’s waiting for fish and chips while my children trampled the flower beds. Swimming in the river with that pretty editor from children’s publishing I met in the Green room. It brings memories of old friends some now gone, Alun Richards eating my mussels, Dai Smith launching the Library of Wales in a top hat and tails with a song and dance routine to a packed tent, falling down a bit drunk in the falling down castle and Richard Booth’s enthusiasm for mavericks.
It sort of punctuates the Summer. I get the attraction: books, interesting people, picnics and swimming naked in the river. There was one event with Roger Deakin when the whole audience went swimming in the river after he read from this book Waterlog. While one memorable afternoon I was so overcome by emotion after watching Gifford’s Circus I had to lie down in a cold field.
The fabulous Topher Mills was at an early festival featuring in a profound performance poetry double act called Bogwiser with Ifor Thomas. One poem was performed shouting down a toilet, while another involved Ifor wrapping himself in clingfilm. It was great, anarchic fun.
Sometimes I’ve just stayed in the town and read.
There’s been some important schemes such as the Scritture Giovanni programme, the Hay International (Welsh) Fellow, the under-appreciated schools’ programme, the writers at work scheme, the writers performing at Parc Prison and captivating the audience.
It has made a significant difference to the careers of writers such as Owen Sheers, Horatio Clare, Cynan Jones, Alys Conran, Carwyn Jones. One year when Owen Sheers couldn’t make it for some reason they had to commission a blow-up life size blimp of him which floated above the car-park directing traffic. The festival has provided employment and generated wealth.
The British Empire was good at that as well.
So why in this year has the festival programme abandoned Wales? I know it’s online, most things are, but the level of engagement is paltry for a festival receiving a significant amount of Welsh government/ Arts Council of Wales, British (Welsh) Council money.
According to their website there are 138 events this year. From my reckoning there are four with any Welsh cultural content. It opens on the Llwyfan Cymru Digidol. Although why they bother with the translation I’ve no idea as there’s no events in Welsh.
The children’s programme has an even poorer representation, from twenty-seven events the closest thing to a Welsh connection is Bad Wolf talking about the process of adapting His Dark Materials. They have the English Children’s Laureate, a former Irish children’s laureate and one of the writers was born in Dorset which is only a few hours from Wales.
The Central Republic of Wimbledon is well-represented but there’s no room for Eloise Williams, the children’s laureate for Wales or any of the wonderfully talented children’s writers and illustrators that have a real connection and understanding of our culture.
We are again outsourcing our children’s reading culture to another country and in the case of Hay paying them for it. Where’s my fetlock again or was it the forelock I should be tuggin. For Wales see England.
Other Welsh sponsors of this cultural appropriation include the Arts Council of Wales, The National Lottery (of Wales), Aberystwyth University, The National Library of Wales, Swansea University, The Open University of Wales (Welsh Campus), The National Library of Wales, all anchoring it down. But perhaps being digital the festival has become unmoored from the land, existing out there in the ether somewhere between Bloomsbury and the Cotswolds.
And this year the guests don’t even have to travel to Wales. We have culture and science from everyone from Tony Blair to Jo Jo Moyes, to Simon Schama to the Reverend Richard Coles. I’m not sure how more middling England it’s possible to be in Wales. It’s the type of programme designed by Alistair Campbell. And he’s in it as well, promoting the twenty-sixth edition of his interminable diaries. The Blair years were really the Alistair Campbell years.
Here’s one sales pitch for event 136:
“The QI Elves are the brains behind the hit panel show QI and the hugely popular spin-off podcast No Such Thing As A Fish. Every week the Elves appear on The Zoe Ball Breakfast Show’s ‘Why Workshop’ where they answer the ponderings and wonderings of Radio 2’s most inquisitive listeners. Join Anne Miller, James Harkin and James Rawson for a live show as they prepare to answer questions such as: “If spiders can walk on the ceiling why can’t they get out of the bath?”, “Why is there an Essex, a Wessex, a Sussex but no Nossex?” and “Is Hay in Wales?”
A festival of similar stature, the Edinburgh International Literary Festival always features a broad day of Scottish talent. Their 2021 programme isn’t announced until June but Ian Rankin and Val McDiarmuid are already front and centre on the website and they will champion new and emerging talent in high profile events.
Richard Owain Roberts won the Not the Booker prize in 2020. He doesn’t get a gig at Hay. Prophets and countries never really get on. But where’s Huw Stephens talking to Peter Lord, Manon Steffan Ross, Niall Griffiths, Christopher Meredith talking about his two new books Please and Still?
Where’s the celebration of 40 years of publishing by Seren Books? Where’s Will Hayward talking about Lockdown Wales with Adam Price? Abeer Ameer about her award-winning poetry? Where’s Liz Jones talking about best-selling author and the Queen of Romance Marguerite Jervis? Or Rachel Trezise talking discussing her novel set over on the day of the Brexit Vote in the Rhondda (“the best political novel about Wales for a generation” Lewis Davies.
Perhaps John Sam Jones talking about growing up gay in Wales and receiving electric shock therapy treatment from the NHS in a Denbighshire hospital in an attempt to cure him. Or Bill Rees, author of the Loneliness of the Long Distance Book Runner talking about his late middle age obsession with playing ping-pong Table Tennis a la Carte. It’s being reviewed in the Times.
Or leading historian Jeffrey Weeks talking about radicalism of the Gay rights movement in London in the 70s and the woeful Conservative government’s response to the Aids epidemic in the 80s. Parallel worlds.
I know I shouldn’t make a fuss. It’ll look like I’m narked that they haven’t picked any of the writers Parthian has published. I should take the long view. I know that. But I can’t quite bring myself to do that this year. Tugging my fetlock to the descendants of the King while I steal away on poor Taff’s prize goat.
I was introduced to Prince Charles there one year. He was charming.
They’ll be rolling out the on-line jamboree soon and I wish the writers involved well, there’s some fabulous books. There always are. It’s a question of being ignored in your own country and if we are to cede completely to the colonial attitude which seems to have seeped into the process of making the decisions in the Hay locked in bubble.
I wonder how it would go down in Edinburgh if the festival went ahead without any Scottish writers.
Yes Cymru but no thanks Welsh culture.
Alex Wharton is one exciting young Welsh writer who does feature in the schools programme. I first met him a few years back when as an unknown and self-published writer who’d turned up to support an event featuring Eric Ngalle. He introduced himself to Eric in the melee afterwards and they bought each other’s books. Ngalle is another writer who has been supported by Hay. That’s what Hay could be about, an exchange of ideas.
Hay traded for a while on being the Woodstock of the Mind thanks to Bill Clinton but it’s becoming
more like shopping on-line for wallpaper at John Lewis and that never ends well.
This year leading Welsh writers with new books being published include Jeffrey Weeks, Rachel Trezise, Gary Raymond, John Sam Jones, Christopher Meredith. None of these writers have been invited.
I know Richard Booth declared Hay independent and crowned himself King. He was a showman and an entertainer. I don’t think he would like the new republic. The festival has become an outpost of Bloomsbury on Wye and has sorely missed the influence of the Florence family’s depth of engagement with Welsh culture.
The festival will claim that they need to sell tickets. Well, yes of course. It is a festival with an
international audience. But is that only what is about? Just money? I thought books were more important than that.
“There’s more to life than books, you know, but not much more”
Richard Lewis Davies is a writer, publisher and publishing director of Parthian Books and the Library of Wales.