plus the weather was AMAZING

So I'm just back from my first trip to the Hay Literary Festival in South Wales (also my first trip to Wales!) and as much as I love Manchester and cities in general, the whole urban hustle and bustle, I have to say boo-hiss to leaving Hay.  I mean, seriously - this place has more bookshops than people.  It's like they made it specially for me.  And then to add author readings and talks and debates?  And for practically every local person in the area to throw their gardens open and bake cakes and brew coffee for all us marauding tourists, at prices that wouldn't get you tap-water anywhere else?  I had the best coffee-and-walnut cake OF MY LIFE this morning.  And the camp-site people had a coffee guy in every day selling us coffee in the morning and hot chocolate in the evening, and he was chatting to people in the queue about Dinos Chapman.  For serious. Best place EVER.  And because you pay per talk/event rather than for the whole festival, anyone can wander in and soak it up and sit in deckchairs reading and sipping the free coffee that some dudes kept handing out as taste-testers, and there was no scowly-faced bag-checking; people were bringing in picnics and bottles of wine and lying out on the grass and writer-spotting and reading.  And reading and reading and reading.  I've never seen so much non-exam-motivated reading in my life.  For once I wasn't the only freak walking down the footpath with a book open.  People were lugging paperbacks about like they were oxygen-canisters necessary for survival. WHICH THEY ARE.

We drove down from Manchester on Thursday, avoiding the M6 and meandering down all these mad little lanes and passing a road-side circus somewhere off the A5, and stopped for a break in a kind of awful café/restaurant place that had the worst-looking carvery meal, but a lovely field out the back with picnic tables and a horse:

We gave the horse our only apple.  We were totally at one with nature, as represented by that horse.  Then on to Hay, pitch the tent, wander around the festival grounds and buy a ticket for a gypsy-jazz disco-club-oddity for that night.  I'd had something of a dilemma about events: there were about twelve or fifteen things I'd have liked to have seen over the four days, but my budget is minimal, and I discovered that we could blag five free tickets each with our NUS cards, so I'd narrowed it down to the gypsy-thingy, Philip Pullman, and the five freebies: Hilary Mantel, David Shields, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Coe, and a guy who wrote a recent biography about Norman Foster.  Of course, Philip Pullman and Hilary Mantel promptly got wind of our scheme, and pulled out, the absolute bastards, but we pulled a sly one out of the bag by bringing several unwanted books along with us to the festival where we gave them to the Oxfam stand in exchange for another free pair of tickets, this time to a debate about the Pope.  Heavy, but it seemed sort of Pullman-esque.  So we were only down one event, in the end, and I got a Pullman refund, and Mantel had been free anyway.  So all's well that ends well, though I'd have loved to hear a reading of Wolf Hall.  Never mind.

The gypsy jazz was suitably bizarre; we got heartily drunk on Red Stripe with a couple of friends who'd been at the festival all week, and we all watched a gaggle of local teenage girls perform their own Pussy Cat Dolls auditions on a table at the back of the room by the bar.  Fantastic.  The next day was a little hungover, and we spent it in bookshops, armed with a bookshop-map of the town.  I can't begin to explain how exciting this was for me.  I think other people get like this about shoe-shops or wedding dresses or something.  I'm at my most babbling and excited and manic when I've got several million second-hand bookshops laying their wares at my feet.  Again, though, the budget (damn awful dreadful stupid I-hate-you budget) restrained me a little, and I made a £2.50 or less rule, and was very picky with what I bought.  This is me looking exhausted and rather delirious with my haul after Day One:

We went to the Norman Foster talk that night, and it was interesting, though the biographer dude was a little rambling and the slides showing Foster's buildings were pretty bad, with some of them only showing details, and some only showing really wide or cropped shots. 

On Saturday we started the day with a little Jonathan Coe.  I'd just finished his new one, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, which owes a lot to David Nobbs' The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (I haven't read it or seen the TV series).  I hadn't liked Coe's novel, but I'd loved his earlier work, so I had mixed feelings about the talk.  He read a section from near the start of the book and while I'd been bored reading it, I laughed out loud listening to Coe dramatise it.  I think perhaps the audio book might be the way to go there.  Anyway, Nobbs was on stage with Coe, and the two of them were a fantastic double-act - really witty and generous and friendly, and it would have been money well spent, had I actually paid for the ticket.  Ahem.  The rest of Saturday was devoted to more bookshopping and wandering along the banks of the Wye where we paddled and freaked out some passing chickens and ate lovely cakes in a lady's garden and walked back to the campsite along the river-bank.  

Then we  went to the Pope debate (This House Would Rescind the Pope's Invitation to the UK) which raised solid points from time to time but was in the end rather garbled with people talking at cross-purposes and no real conclusions or exciting arguments springing up.  A demented Prince-Charles-a-like was sitting to my left mumbling furiously to himself whenever people expressed opinions he didn't like; he made a ranting obscure point during the open-to-the-floor section that I didn't really follow because I was distracted by seeing the top half of my head on the big screen when the camera swung round to shoot the guy.  It seems I've got a massive forehead.  Let's not examine the photographic evidence.

Today, Sunday, there was more coffee and cake and tea and wandering in gardens and bookshops, and then a panel discussion about copyright featuring David Shields, Feargal Sharkey, John Sutherland and a woman from Google, and a journalist whose name I forget.  Again, some solid points emerged from a messy and inconclusive and at times irrelevant discussion, but the audience questions and comments were really astute and David Shields emerged looking a little foolish - especially when somebody pointed out that if he's got such strong opinions of sharing and copying and the dissemination of ideas and non-attribution, how come he copyrighted his book and published via Random House instead of just putting his text online, free to and for everybody.  He mumbled about how the world and the internet 'isn't there yet' - I was going to raise my hand and point out the Geoff Ryman, one of my tutors, made one of his recent novels available online as well as publishing it traditionally and that it used the non-linear hypertextual properties of the internet really well to create a new type of reading experience, and that many people (Fiona Robyn, for one) have been making their work available online, not to mention all the lit mags out there, so that to say we're 'not there yet' is totally fudging the issue and avoiding the question and is a total cop-out - but some other girl made a similar point first so I stayed quiet and didn't get my public rant on.  Another time.

Then we saw Zadie Smith read from her non-fiction collection, Changing My Mind, and though some of you will remember that I'm really, truly, cross-my-heart, NOT a fan of her fiction, I do like what I've read of her non-fiction, and her reading and Q&A was fantastic.  Totally the highlight of the festival-related bit of my Hay trip.  Book-buying-and-browsing wins overall, but Zadie's such a close second.  That woman can speak. If I were half that articulate - well, I'd still be here on the sofa doing nothing and complaining about my broken boiler, but man, I'd do it in STYLE.  Here's me back at home with our combined total purchases:

Can we skip to next June, please?  I want more Hay.


Claire King said...

Can you feel my envy, just through this short comment? Can you?

Valerie O'Riordan said...

I sort of feel envious of myself, now that I reread this very hastily-written post from my boring old sitting room...

Marisa Birns said...

Followed Claire King here. Hello!

How lovely to read about that wonderful festival; you've given quite a vivid description about all the great things, people, coffee, and books!

And congratulations on your inclusion in the Bristol Short Story Prize shortlist!

Valerie O'Riordan said...

Thanks Marisa! I'm so in love with that festival and the town itself - kicking myself that I've never gone before. And thanks for the congrats - this is the biggest thing I've ever been shortlisted for, so I'm extremely excited!