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Robert Day's thoughts on his photography, his writing and his business

Hay in May

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABack in May, we spent some time at the Hay Festival, which I’ve mentioned in previous years. The main attraction was to go and see Neil Gaiman, of American Gods fame, being interviewed by Stephen Fry.

In the science fiction and fantasy world, Neil Gaiman now has a considerable reputation as “the coolest guy in the room”. Best selling writer of novels, graphic novels and screenplays, Gaiman has an ‘in’ to almost any project he cares to name. He crops up as a guest writer on any tv show you care to mention that has a fantastic theme and any sort of cachet for originality. He is married to a bona fide rock star – Amanda Palmer, formerly of The Dresden Dolls – and can command superstar status wherever he goes. He was on the programme for Hay because he has a new book on Norse Myths out.

The appearance of any genre author at Hay is worth celebrating, as it happens so comparatively rarely, considering the position of genre literature in the book trade generally. Oddly, this year, Hay also had Cory Doctorow speaking, but that was on a day when we weren’t really able to get. But Gaiman is hardly treated as ‘genre’ these days;  being interviewed by Stephen Fry, usually considered to be a total A-lister, is quite a thing. It was worth seeing for that alone.

Because Fry’s attitude was ever-so-slightly one of his nose being out of joint. Here were a thousand or so people turned up not to listen to Stephen Fry. It must have rankled just a bit (though I’m sure he’d deny it). And then to rub matters in, Gaiman arranged for Amanda Palmer to come on and read from the Norse mythology book.

Otherwise, we were entertained for an hour or so by Gaiman talking about a world that Stephen Fry has little conception of, that of fantastic literature. I know Stephen Fry took up with Douglas Adams’ work way back, but a proper appreciation of Adams relied on his audience recognising the tropes Adams was satirising. Equally, for all the ‘mainstream’ success Gaiman now enjoys, many of the people I know who are enthusiastic about his writing have followed him for years, way back to his work with the Sandman comic book series. Meanwhile, Chris Riddell, the current Children’s Laureate and illustrator for some of Gaiman’s earlier works, including The Graveyard Book, Coraline and Neverwhere, did off-the-cuff illustrations to what was being said on stage, which were thrown up onto a huge screen at the back of the stage.

It did make me think about one thing, though. Very many of my friends in the science fiction fan community make a big thing about saying how they read widely across a range of writing, genre and non-genre alike (in contravention of the usual stereotype of a ‘science fiction fan’). I don’t make a big thing about this, though when my sister once accused me of reading ‘nothing but science fiction’, I trawled my library and found well over two hundred works of fiction that were not genre; and I’m far from atypical.

But we’ve been going to Hay for some ten years or more, and even when there’s been genre writers on the programme (most particularly, Terry Pratchett or Iain M. Banks), we’ve never bumped into anyone we know, even remotely or just by sight, from the UK science fiction fan community.  And we’ve been around that community for a very large number of years (I’m not allowed to say how many, especially if you combine our individual involvements!) and can claim pretty much to know a fair number of those involved. (I’m talking about proper science fiction fans here, the fans primarily of the written genre, which can trace its existence as a discrete genre and a fandom back to the 1920s.) Perhaps it might help the world of “literary fiction” if science fiction fans of the sort I mention were more in evidence at more literary events.

(I talked about ‘bumping into’ people at Hay. Cathy did once bump into the Archbishop of Canterbury there. Well, when I say ‘bumped into’, I mean more ‘shoulder charged’. One or the other of them wasn’t really looking where they were going, and I don’t think it was Rowan Williams.)

There is one big difference between science fiction conventions – of which I have written before – and something like Hay. A science fiction convention has all the out-of-pocket costs levied up front; you pay something like £50-60 for an “attending membership” of the annual Easter convention, which entitles you to attend all the events and to access the open areas of the convention (art show, dealers’ room etc.); the World Convention can cost something in the region of £75-150 to attend (all prices depend on how early you register). (Obviously, travel, accommodation and meals are on top of those prices.)

Hay, on the other hand, has a different pricing model. You can access the site free of charge; but then you have to pay up front for each event you want to attend; this can be between £5 and £35 depending on the likely popularity of the event or status of the author or performer. So you do have to review the programme and work out what events you want to see, how many you can afford to go to, and how you work out your travel and/or accommodation needs; and then you have to order your tickets reasonably early as some of the more high-profile events get sold out almost before the programme is fully announced.

One of the events I very much wanted to see this year was Chris Tarrant talking about his television series Extreme Railway Journeys. I had become quite taken with this for Tarrant’s down-to-earth approach, talking to railway workers and local citizens as equals rather than certain other celebrity tv railway travellers whose approach is a bit more patrician. The programme-makers’ choice of subjects was rather more eclectic: the Congo, Bolivia, Australia and other fairly far-flung destinations that require rather more effort to get to see than just booking a Eurostar ticket. And Tarrant was an excellent and personable speaker with a number of tales about the hazards of filming in some of the remoter corners of the world. When it came to Q&A at the end of the session, mine was about the only hand to go up in a fairly packed tent. Firstly, I said that my father had always said “Everything on the railway’s heavy except the pay packet”, and Tarrant was able to draw on that and talk about railway workers in particular whose dedication to the railway was a remarkable thing in this corporate day and age; these places had not forgotten what ‘service to the public’ actually meant. And then (seeing as no-one else was clamouring to ask questions), I added about the aforementioned other celebrity traveller, a well-known former MP. “Ah yes,” said Chris. “I bumped into him occasionally, though we were doing very different trips. He always looked as though he’d just left a five-star hotel where he’d dined well on cordon bleu cuisine and fine vintage wines” and added that the Other Celebrity Traveller seemed to have a rather condescending air to him on these occasions. “But don’t you sometimes wish you were “him”?” I asked. The answer was a very emphatic “NO”. Chris Tarrant very much enjoyed seeing the reality of railway journeys around the world, rather than an idealised journey with all the actual difficulties that any everyday traveller would encounter edited out or glossed over.

A little while afterwards, we were in the Festival bookshop, and saw that Tarrant didn’t have anyone queueing up to have a book signed; so I took the opportunity to do that very thing. “Ah, it’s you again!” was his cheerful greeting. We had a pleasant five minutes’ chat about the themes we’d discussed in the interview. “You don’t like the Other Celebrity Traveller much, do you?” he observed, perceptively.

Hay lost its own railway station in 1962, part of the wholesale closures of the “Beeching axe”. This isn’t the place to talk about the mass closures of the major part of the UK’s secondary railway network, perhaps the greatest act of corruption in British political history, for which Richard Beeching has taken all the blame. But I was able to get a bit of steam railway action during the week at Hay. Due to an excess of zeal on my part, I hadn’t taken into account that my other half had meetings in Birmingham that week that she couldn’t get out of. So on two days, I took her to the nearest railway station (Worcester one day, Hereford another) so she could travel back to Birmingham; then I picked her up again in the evening. Rather than traipse all the way back to Hay and then back out to Worcester in the evening, I took myself off one day to the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway, which runs from Toddington, to the south of Broadway (which is in Worcestershire, but never mind) to Cheltenham Racecourse. This was part of a longer route from Stratford-on-Avon to Cheltenham, connecting the Great Western Railway’s lines in the Midlands directly back to their Bristol heartland. When it opened in 1899, duplication of routes because of competition was acceptable because the absence of any meaningful alternative means of long-distance travel meant that intermediate stops that weren’t previously served by rail suddenly had access to the outside world; and if they actually happened to already have a railway from another company, then the interconnections added to the usefulness of the network as well as offering competition for more distant destinations.

The line opened in 1899 – quite late for the bulk of the British railway network – and local services lasted until 1960, when the intermediate stations were closed. The last timetabled trains ran in 1968, but the line stayed in place for diversionary services and occasional specials to Cheltenham Racecourse until 1976. Most of the station buildings and other infrastructure had been demolished during the 1970s; starting in 1979, even the track was lifted. Local pressure to retain the railway had started in 1976, but with the total closure the aim of a local society became to restore the railway and services. The group acquired part of Toddington station yard in 1981 and were able to purchase 15 miles of trackbed, land and surviving buildings in 1984. Since then they have progressively opened more of the line until now they operate the twelve miles between Toddington and Cheltenham Racecourse, and are working towards re-opening the line to Broadway in the next two years. In the meantime, station buildings and infrastructure have been recreated from scratch; the casual visitor would never realise that the whole line has been rebuilt from almost nothing.

The overall ambience of the railway is almost pure Great Western. Now, British railway enthusiasts are almost as tribal as football fans; and perhaps one of the biggest divides is between “Swindon men” (and the rivalry is mainly a male thing), enthusiasts for the Great Western, and people like me who consider themselves “Derby men”. Derby was the headquarters of the Midland Railway company from 1840 to 1923; then, when the railways had consolidation forced on them by Government after World War I, Derby and its locomotive and carriage works became a key part of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway. (Of course, rivalries also existed between ‘Derby men’ and ‘Crewe men’, who cleave to the Midland’s great rival, the London and North Western Railway, which also ceased to exist in 1923. I never said any of this was rational.)

Having been brought up in Derbyshire, with a father who was a railwayman for twenty years, my allegiance to Derby would hardly come as a surprise; perhaps the wonder is that my interests range far and wide, not only in railways but in other things too.

Be that as it may: I had a pleasant day on the Gloucestershire Warwickshire line and it was an ideal counter to all the bookish high thoughts going on at Hay.

Written by robertday154

October 10, 2017 at 12:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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