Last weekend, we took ourselves to the final two days of the Hay-on-Wye literary festival. For those who don’t know, Hay-on-Wye is a small town on the border between Wales and England which has become a major centre for second-hand books. You will appreciate then that this is a dangerous place for me to visit, though to be honest I came away with comparatively few books. Having said that, I did spend quite a lot of money on old photographs, including a rather fine hand-tinted view of a German city which I at first thought was Berlin, but which could quite easily be Stettin (Szczecin). More research needed.
The idea of the exercise was to see two of our favourite authors – Philip Pullman and Iain M. Banks. I also got tickets to see Vanessa Redgrave, but traffic on our way put a stop to that. Trying to drive through Hagley and Kidderminster on a Saturday morning is one of the forms of purgatory not imagined by Dante. The situation is made worse by ultra-cautious drivers who, not wanting to get a speeding ticket (or another speeding ticket) drive at 5 mph below the speed limit almost everywhere. What should have been a two-and-a-half hour drive took us nearer three-and-a-half.
This gave us time for a first wander around the town, sampling local produce and listening for a while to a local group of musicians, Bandemonium. Think Bellowhead but a bit more jazz/light classic oriented. Hay itself is a strange mixture of the rural and the touristy, especially during the festival; there are street musicians, people handing out flyers for philosophy lectures and the urban elite rubbing shoulders with ordinary punters, farmers and just plain tourists. It also has to be said that the town does not appear to be immune to the recession; one shop had recently changed hands and was in the process of getting rid of its stock at £1 per book.
Still, we saw Philip Pullman in interview. He was eloquent, and thoughtful, and inflammatory, and angry. His inflammatory statements were mainly reserved for C.S. Lewis, whom he despises (much to the horror of some of his audience, who mainly hadn’t noticed that Lewis’ Narnia books are thinly veiled Christian allegory, though I suspect that to be the least of his crimes in Pullman’s eyes); his anger was reserved for the Coalition Government’s actions in allowing councils to close down libraries to save money (though not very much of it) and suggesting that they could be run by volunteers. That was a more popular viewpoint.
I did something I very rarely do – bought one of his books and queued up to have it signed. I’m normally content to not get autographed copies, though if I have a choice between signed and unsigned, I’ll choose the (pre-)signed one. In fact, I hadn’t intended getting my copy of The good man Jesus and the scoundrel Christ signed, but by the time we were ready to leave the festival site, the queue had gone down so much that it was worth spending the extra 5-10 minutes to get the autograph.
As we’d booked late, we weren’t staying in Hay, but in Kington, a small town about ten miles north. Only the well-heeled can afford to stay in Hay – not so much because it’s necessarily expensive, but because the festival programme comes out so late that those of us who have to pick and choose who we want to see – especially if they aren’t headliners – need to go through the whole programme to decide which events to go to. By which time, those who can afford to take a whole fortnight out of their diaries have already snapped up all the best places. Still, that meant we got to stay in the Burton Hotel in Kington, which was a gem! Easy to find, friendly staff, a room so clean it almost sparkled and a wonderful local produce breakfast made it well worth the trip.
After a wander around Kington the next morning, we went back to Hay for more bookshop exploring, and then a visit to Giffords Circus, another Hay fixture. Their show this year is “War and Peace” – yes, a circus rendition of Tolstoy’s masterpiece, complete with what to my untutored eye looked like authentic Napoleonic-era uniforms, cavalry charges, the Russian winter, the Great Comet of 1811, plus acrobats, jugglers, a clown (without makeup) and a trained goose. Anyone who is going to be anywhere in the West Country anytime up to the end of September should try to get to see this.
Then our final event was the Iain M. Banks interview: it was actually the final event of the whole festival, with the exception of the wrap party with Bob Geldof performing (and for a while, it seemed as though his sound check would be a constant background to Iain). Whereas Philip Pullman was erudite and all the other things I said, Banks was his usual madcap, entertaining self. Billed as an interview promoting his latest Culture novel, Surface detail, it turned into a general discussion of his writing, his life, the Culture and his science fiction. And this was the reason for our going – because at this “literary” festival, we were seeing Iain M. Banks and not just Iain Banks. The literary world tends to be a bit sniffy about science fiction, and for no good reason. Just because some of the key works of the genre aren’t necessarily great writing is no reason for feelings of superiority; there have been enough bad novels published that aren’t science fiction for there to be a distinct outbreak of pot-kettleism in the haughty dismissal of the genre that some writers and commentators hand out. And Iain M. Banks is the perfect antidote to this.
(Funnily enough, we saw him again two days later, in Birmingham. The Birmingham Science Fiction Group are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year, and arranged for Iain to come to give a public interview in conjunction with Birmingham library. Interestingly, his talk in Birmingham duplicated very little of what he said at Hay, which in itself is quite remarkable. So many authors on a promotional tour would come out with the same material at every venue.)
All in all, a good weekend. The only downer was that as we were coming back on a Sunday, our favourite chip shop in Leominster was closed. And there were a few bookshops we didn’t get to see. A good excuse for another visit…