They don’t use the proverb ‘Make hay while the sun shines’ as a slogan for one obvious reason – the sun rarely shines at the Hay Festival. The sun could have made an exception for the festival’s 30th year, but it didn’t. No matter : the crowds came, rain or shine, and they came in hordes, making it the biggest literary festival in the world.
Hay-on-Wye is an unlikely place for a festival of any kind – it’s a small town, with far more sheep than people. It’s known for its antique shops and its many bookstores. Since the sheep here do nothing but graze on the rolling greens that make the place so pleasant to look at, it’s the people who must buy books. But is the population large enough for such a huge collection of reading material ? It isn’t, so Hay waits for its visitors who come from all over the UK.
Hay is an unlikely place for a festival for yet another reason : it has no infrastructure of any kind to hold a convention. So when 30 plus years ago, the Florence family , including the then young Peter who has now been running the show for years, sat around the kitchen table and said “Hey, why not a literary festival on Hay-on-Wye ?” they must have done it purely because it’s a good rhyme, even if there’s no reason. Since then the festival has been held in an open meadow inside tents specially constructed for the festival. The tents are large : the biggest, the Tata Tent (yes, our own Tata Group is everywhere!), seats 1700 people. Since more than 60 sessions are held there over the festival’s 11 days, that adds up to over a lakh of people passing through the Tata tent!
People come in these vast numbers because of the incredible number of well known writers who participate, and also because the programming addresses so many issues of contemporary interest. In that sense, the Hay Festival doesn’t differ too much from our own Tata Literature Live! Mumbai LitFest at NCPA in November. For example, the most sought after session featured Bernie Sanders, the professorial politician who gave Hilary Clinton a close run in the Democratic party’s nomination. In many ways, Sanders is like Jeremy Corbyn, UK’s Labour party leader, and the title of his talk, ‘Our Revolution: A Future To Believe In’, reflected a Corbyn-like optimism. Both Sanders and Corbyn are grey haired, untidy gentlemen, lacking in the charisma expected of political leaders, and both were written off by everyone when they launched their campaigns. Ironically, the appeal of both is to the young voter. So there were many students in the audience for Sanders, and they cheered wildly when he said what they wanted to hear. Much of it was idealistic, but perhaps, impractical though some of it may be, we need idealism in today’s world. Michael Sheen, the Welsh actor who made good in Hollywood, brought the roof down too when in dramatic cadences he raised socialistic
slogans. ‘But who will pay the bills?’ someone should have asked, but no one did.
For me one of the highlights of Hay was the appearance on stage of Michael Parkinson, the legendary television personality of the 1960s and 70s. If you were in England as I was then, you would remember many of his interviews. The best were the five he did over the years with Muhammad Ali, and there they were on the screen in front of us. ‘The Greatest’ was that for sure, whether sparring inside the boxing ring ,or outside.
Other highlights included two separate conversations, one with Elif Shafak, who is articulate, easy on the eye and a good writer too. Talking about her new novel, ‘Three Daughters of Eve’, she spoke passionately about her native Turkey, which sadly, and inexorably, is now sliding into dictatorship. Anthony Horowitz is another writer good on the stage – give him any question and he will fly off into a wonderful anecdote or a new witticism. With the proliferation of literary festivals around the world, it’s necessary for writers now not just to write well, but to speak well too. Shafak and Horowitz are masters of that game.
I was invited to chair a session too – a conversation with a young Oxford based, Indian origin writer, Preti Taneja whose new novel is imagining King Lear in today’s India. We were in a tent as large as our Experimental Theatre, too large I thought for something like this, especially considering that authors like Ian Rankin were on at the same time. I needn’t have worried : the hall was full, with an eager and knowledgeable crowd. I really shouldn’t have been surprised : at Hay, you don’t get an audience, you get people who read books..