Interview: Peter Florence, Director of the Hay Festival

If you really want to know about Peter Florence, the director and co-founder of Hay Festival, you don’t need to read Wales Arts Review’s exclusive interview. You only need to consider the facts of its circumstances.

Dylan Moore met Florence over breakfast at the self-styled ‘most beautiful café in the world’, formerly the New York Palace, now the Boscolo Hotel, Budapest. Fittingly, in the early years of the twentieth century this majestic building was the centre of literary and intellectual life in the Hungarian capital. According to legend, on its opening day the writer Ferenc Molnar threw the keys to the café into the Danube to ensure 24-hour opening. It seems the perfect base for Hay’s first foray into Eastern Europe.

Still recuperating from a bout of pneumonia, Florence began this rare interview with a prolonged coughing fit but recovered sufficiently to talk almost non-stop for an hour and a half about the origins of Hay Festival, his deep Welsh roots, religion, politics and freedom of speech, his vulgarian tastes and why he’d like to run a festival in Tehran.

Interview over, espresso gone cold at his elbow, he insisted Dylan took his taxi to the opening event of his own festival while he waited for another. ‘You’re working,’ he said…

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‘Hay is twinned with a lot of places, but we have more in common with Macondo and Llareggub, Ambridge or Elysium.’

Peter Florence has obviously been thinking about this. Unsurprising perhaps for the man who runs the Woodstock of the MindÔ. And the implication is clear: Hay is more than just a place – Y Gelli Gandryll or Hay-on-Wye – on the Welsh-English border; it is a state of mind.

‘In Spanish, they find it bemusing and hilarious,’ says Florence, reminding me that ‘Hay Festival’ is rendered ‘There is a festival’. Hay’s first foray into festivals abroad was in Mallorca – ‘which didn’t really work’ – and the Hispanic world is prominent in the year-round programme of international events today. Florence and his team now run fourteen festivals worldwide in addition to Merthyr Rock and the main festival back home in Wales. They include festivals at Segovia in Spain, Xalapa in Mexico and Bogota, Riohacha and Cartagena, all in Colombia. The Colombian connection is the one which resonates with Florence’s comparison of Hay to Macondo, the fictional town in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ magical realist masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude, based on his hometown Aracataca in the Caribbean north of the country.

‘We went to Cartagena originally because of Marquez. We were told that he wouldn’t come to us, so we just thought, we’ll go to him.’ This kind of ‘cultural adventure’ is the number one reason why Florence will ‘pick a place’ for a new Hay Festival (he receives a new invitation ‘every week’ to take the writers’ roadshow to yet another corner of the globe). Talking criteria, he says ‘there must be a literature to explore’, but there are other strictures too.

For a start, Hay’s adventures abroad happen in collaboration with the British Council, ‘who are in the business of exercising soft power.’ Florence does not pretend to be divorced from the potential pitfalls such a relationship brings. ‘I take a Geldofian line on this,’ he says, referring to one of the headline guests in Budapest – and one of the inspirations for the institution of Hay Festival in the first place. ‘His principle is to work within the existing structures. It’s that interface between dreams and reality that’s the most exciting place to be.’

There is tacit encouragement, obviously, from the British Council perspective, to hold Hay’s travelling circus of cultural adventures in emerging markets and places where such a relationship might be to the UK’s politico-economic and strategic interests as well as where there’s something exciting happening in (English) literacy. But as Florence explains, it was political engagement that got the festival started in the first place – and here he cites Geldof again: ‘What Bob showed a bunch of us was that we could be politically engaged as activists by doing our own thing, not necessarily by joining a movement. Hay is a few things. It’s a party, and it’s an exploration of writing, but it’s also very much a non party-political engagement with radical, contrarian politics.’ Given this stance, it seems that the risks the British Council run by involving themselves with the freewheeling free-thinkers of Hay are greater than those run by the festival; equal parts charm, wit, warmth, generosity, intelligence, steely determination and non-sufferance of fools, Florence wields a soft power of his own.

Born in 1964, Florence prides himself as being part of the House of Commons’ lost generation; David Miliband is the only front-rank politician born in the same mid-fifties to mid-sixties decade. The great and the good of so-called Generation Jones (the latter half of the baby boom) may well have ‘done other things’ with their talent but there is a different kind of political nous at work, certainly with Peter Florence. He explains that part of why we are in Budapest is that ‘we’d like to get into Russia.’ The festival’s presence in an ex-Soviet satellite state may be a backdoor into attracting Russian dissident writers or at least the beginning of an interesting conversation about the limited extent of freedom under Putin. Interestingly, there was no outright condemnation of the Hungarian Government’s recent crackdown on freedom of speech from the stage in Budapest – but there was a lot of talk about the lack of freedom of speech in other places. Jung Chang talked about China and Hanif Kureishi about the Islamic world. And Hay had given them a stage. On the whole, writers are cleverer than politicians; sometimes the message can be subtle.

‘I would love to do a festival in Tehran,’ says Florence in a way that betrays an underlying ambition. Simply put, he wants to take the conversation where it matters most. Again, he already has a foothold in the Arab world; at the moment, he can’t take Hay to Iran, but he can take it to Beirut, where the festival also runs the B39 project, providing an important platform for young Arab writers at a time of tumult across the region. ‘When we started [in the 1980s] there were all those great Czech writers. That was where things were happening. Now it would be interesting to see what the Greek writers are making of the situation in Europe, or the Spanish or Italians. Or the BRIC countries.’ Once you start thinking like this, the list is limitless. And Florence certainly thinks and dreams like this; the difference being that he is so obviously a dreamer with the realistic edge that makes things happen. ‘I’d like to do a festival in Lagos. Nigeria has four or five globally superb writers.’

The attraction of these places is clear. Great writers and big issues to discuss. But Florence does draw the line at China; Hay is a festival that prides itself on freedom of speech. ‘In China they have no concept of freedom of speech,’ says Florence, a point underscored by the festival’s relationship with Jung Chang, who is to appear again in Hay-on-Wye to promote her biography of Mao. Chairman Mao was architect of the Cultural Revolution which killed 70 million Chinese and set the superpower on its current path to a situation where a fifth of the world’s population live behind a heavily-policed internet firewall, a situation which has led to another perhaps unlikely partnership between Hay Festival and Google, the world’s favourite portal into the digital world.

This year’s Hay will not be as intimate as it used to be. In 1988, there were 22 events; this year, the 25th anniversary, there will be just under a thousand. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Hay’s exploding, exponential growth – both at home and abroad – is that Florence is able to describe it, without any trace of deliberate understatement, as ‘a bunch of local people who do something together.’

Florence credits Lyndy Cooke, his Managing Director, as one of the main reasons why the festival has continued to flourish and grow in the years since his father’s death in 1996. Norman Florence was the man who had dreamed up the idea of a festival in Hay. In his 25th anniversary programme notes, Peter Florence begins with the image of his father ‘talking about poetry and ideas and music’ around the family’s kitchen table; his mother insisting ‘it’s got to be a party.’ He describes the intervening years as ‘a ridiculously lucky, happy journey.’ But there were dark days. After his father’s death, Florence understandably questioned the future. ‘The festival was what we did together, me and dad,’ he says. ‘But Lyndy has provided stability. We have complementary skills. She can do the things I can’t.’ Needless to say, Lyndy is local.

One of the reasons Florence says he’s reluctant to do interviews is because the festival ‘is not run as a kingdom’ – a reference to erstwhile bookshop owner Richard Booth, self-styled King of Hay. ‘It’s a happy family… that’s the Hay deal,’ Florence explains. ‘We’re not a London-based organisation that franchises things out. Our core team have 75% of the knowledge of how to put the festival together.’ Tellingly, there is more pride in Florence’s voice when he tells me that his technical director, Paul Elkington, has been on board since the beginning, than there is when he states – equally factually – that ‘the only person in British festivals who’s been doing this longer than me is Michael Eavis.’

Like at Glastonbury, ‘a field is a great leveller’. And Florence’s imaginary twinning of Hay with Ambridge is a thoughtful one. The village setting for Radio 4’s long-running soap opera The Archers is where a certain generation of middle class urbanites get their fix of country life, in the same way that for many so-calle ‘metropolitan types’ Hay Festival represents the one weekend of the year spent in the British countryside. The festival is about the exchange of ideas, and as far as Florence is concerned few are as important as the rare interaction between the urban and rural ways of life.

The Hay director is keen to emphasise work done with local schools, and the chance that kids in Hay – which might otherwise be considered as a backwater community – get to interact with novelists at the forefront of a golden age of children’s literature: Philip Pullman, Jacqueline Wilson, and Florence’s current favourite, Cressida Cowell. ‘We can give the rural kids the same aspirations as kids in the cities, the same feeling that they are part of the world,’ says the father-of-four.

He is also keen to dispel the myth popular in the metropolitan media that the festival’s audience is simply imported en masse from Islington in trendy northwest London. ‘That’s just because there’s a lot of journalists here, and they see each other, and assume that because there’s a lot of people they know, everybody must be from London. In fact, less than 10% of our audiences come from the south-east.’

Another popular piece of journalistic shorthand about Hay – thanks to the now-legendary ‘Woodstock of the Mind’ phrase – is that Bill Clinton’s appearance in 2001 was a turning point for the festival. ‘It was a turning point, but not for the reasons everybody thinks,’ claims Florence. Again, his explanation is rooted in ideas of countryside and community. ‘That year, we almost cancelled the festival due to the foot-and-mouth outbreak. We contacted the National Farmers Union and sought advice. We were expecting them to advise cancellation because of the risk of the spread of infection, with 35,000 people coming in from different areas.

‘What was extraordinary was that they not only insisted the festival went ahead, because of the negative impact cancellation would have had on the already beleaguered service industry in the town, but they mobilised the local community to set up decontamination units. So, suddenly, it wasn’t just that we’d already made the kickback on the £150,000 it cost to get Clinton and were already in profit before he arrived. That year, there was a shift from the art crowd to a genuine engagement with the local community. So it wasn’t about Clinton; it was about what happened around him’.

Hay Festival has become, in Florence’s words, an ‘intensely local mixture of tribalism and globalism’, rooted very firmly in Wales. In particular, the festival owes a debt to a very particular strain of Welsh intellectual life ‘that has always looked beyond London – to New York, or to Europe.’ One of the myriad spin-off schemes now run by or in partnership with the festival is the Hay Fellowships – currently held by Jon Gower and Tiffany Murray – designed to ‘internationalise Welsh writers, and Welsh-language writers.’

Florence’s attitude to Welsh language culture is complicated. ‘The Eisteddfod was the biggest thing in my family,’ explains Florence. ‘I hated the pompous adjudications and competitive natures of Eisteddfodau, but I was caught by the wonder that was my cousin Emyr getting crowned as bard.’  Being able to trace his mother’s side of the family back through 700 years on a farm near Llangollen is conversely perhaps what gives Florence – ever the contrarian – his contempt for the archaisms of ‘classical Welsh’. His voice ratchets up through several degrees of disdain before settling on its real target: nationalism. ‘All nationalism is obscene,’ he says, ‘but cultural nationalism is the most obscene.’

Given that a particularly antiquated brand of cultural nationalism has often underpinned the Eisteddfod and Welsh culture in general, this is incendiary stuff. But just as I begin to think Florence is displaying a form of extremism at the other end of the spectrum, he turns the whole argument on its head in the manner of one who lives for such debate. Referencing the work of Jon Gower, he explains the Hay Fellowships, designed to celebrate how the Welsh language doesn’t have to be stuck in the past, that it can be as ‘hybrid and dynamic’ as any other. Wales, and Welsh, does have a relationship with modernity. And one of Hay’s ‘political’ projects therefore is to put it on a platform that doesn’t involve the Archdruid.

In fact, during the entire course of our conversation, the only thing that gets Florence more exercised than Archdruids are Archbishops, or at least the religion they represent. Florence is an avowed atheist and Hay is a staunchly secular celebration. In much the same way as he draws the line at taking Hay to China, Florence is very clear about the extent to which the festival ‘actively engages with people we disagree with.’ Making a comparison with American Republicans – who he disagrees with, but invites ‘in the hope of changing their minds’ – he says ‘there is a huge place for people like the Archbishop of Canterbury in our engagement with morals and ethics.’

But again his generally very softly spoken tone takes on a hard edge when he denounces the ‘medieval voodoo’ of Christian Voice, the ‘homophobic, misogynist and wilfully stupid’ pressure group fronted by Stephen Green. While not extending such a description to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Florence does take a certain satisfaction from having put the South African spiritual leader on the spot. Television editors were forced to cut the majority of a 45-second pause while Tutu thought of an – ultimately unsatisfactory – answer to Florence’s question: ‘Where is your God for the people of Zimbabwe?’

By contrast, Florence talks fondly of his late friend Christopher Hitchens, who, along with his father, has received a dedication in the programme for this year’s 25th festival. ‘It’s no secret that Hitch was our man,’ says Florence. ‘Hitch was a humanist and we want to celebrate secular, rationalist writing.’ Challenged on some of the anti-religious excesses of Hitchens’ work, Florence concedes that perhaps Alain de Botton’s new book, Religion for Atheists – which has the premise that we should learn as much as we can from religious philosophy without actually having to profess belief in God – offers a middle way. ‘But we needed Hitch. And Dawkins. They were our fundamentalists.’

The fact we have spent so long discussing politics and religion, two subjects it is so often claimed should be avoided in conversation, is a measure of Florence. Here is a man who wants to get to the heart of the matter. As an interviewer, and a human being, he has a great bullshit detector. And as the man who runs the world’s biggest festival of literature, he is not afraid to decry the very word itself. ‘Literature has been debased as a word; it is snotty, elitist, superior. What we celebrate is writing, in all its forms.’

Describing his own tastes as ‘vulgarian’ – M*A*S*H, Eric Thompson and Christopher Logue’s Homer – Florence actually failed his English ‘O’ Level. Ironically, the fact that this disallowed him from continuing to study the subject for ‘A’ Level (he later studied an MA in Modern and Medieval Literatures) led to his study of Languages, first at Cambridge, later in Paris. It was during a ‘lost weekend’ with his friend, the artist Marc Quinn, that Florence discovered the Martin Amis novel Money, setting him on a more literary path at the relatively late age of 22.

The eclectic mix of different types of writers appearing at Hay makes for a perpetual ‘envy cycle’, where each group find themselves in awe at the talents of the others. ‘Screenwriters write for money, novelists for freedom, songwriters write 55 words which last two-and-a-half minutes, poets write for glory, journalists and comedians are all part of the same currency of language. There’s no hierarchy; it’s great writing, in all forms.’ After that, it’s only a matter of taste. Florence thinks that ‘Paul Simon is a more significant poet than Derek Walcott’ and that ‘Abi Morgan is better than David Hare’ but, he stresses, these are only his opinions.

He refers to the fact that more people have had their lives changed by Bob Dylan than T.S. Eliot as evidence that arbitrary ideas about greatness matter less than the ability of writing to affect human beings. ‘It frees, inspires, liberates, connects. You need Eliot and Dylan; greatness is everywhere you look.’

Such passion for writing leads to an inevitable question. When can we expect Peter Florence’s own novel? Or, with 25 years worth of priceless anecdotes from Hay, a book about the festival itself; a memoir?

Florence smiles resignedly, in the manner of one who has been asked the same question a thousand times but never quite tires of hearing it. ‘I’m just happy doing what I do,’ he says enigmatically. ‘I greatly admire people who write. I just need to get on with doing my festival.’ But then he adds, intriguingly, ‘it’s a bit like that cartoon with two guys in the Groucho Club or somewhere. One of them says, I’m writing a novel. The other replies, Neither am I.’

And it is clear from the way he has previously enthused about what he now prosaically describes as what he does that he is already involved in the creation of a wonderful fiction: an improbable story with a cast in the tens of thousands, where presidents and rock stars mingle with poets and farmers, where the film deal for War Horse was struck, where marriages of people who met there stand at 34 and counting, each of whom write their own stories across the tapestry of fields alongside the river Wye.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis