Hay Festival 2014

Hay Festival 2014: Washing Away the Mud

The Hay Festival is big, make no mistake about that, and with bigness often comes much tonnage, perhaps too much tonnage to prospect through here (or anywhere). But as Tolstoy said, gold, like truth, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold. For someone like me who has been attending the annual arts and ideas hoopla on the Welsh border for the last seventeen years (apart from the odd regrettable absenteeism), its size, bloated beyond recognition of its humble origins, has done nothing to diminish those small sparkling moments, the ones that can make you rich.

The truth is the Hay Festival may have lost much of its charm in the time since I first started attending (some days it can be as charming as a wet rush hour in Victoria tube station), washed away in a flume of corporatism and ‘right-on’ bravado, but it is still undeniably capable of moments that really stick. After all, this is the place where I have had the honour of sitting in the same room as Gore Vidal, John Updike, Norman Mailer, Nadine Gordimer, Wole Soyinka, Vargas Llosa and others too numerous to mention. Whatever the Hay Festival is, whatever it becomes, it will always be a marvellous platform for brilliant minds.

Today the festival can be quite overwhelming, such is the array of topics on offer to be found in the dimmer corners of the festival site’s discombobulating arterial boardwalks. Apart from Nobel Prize Laureates, great scientists and Statesmen, it is clear that in fact Hay is most in love with the middle brow. AC Grayling’s lecture on Friendship was packed out, for instance, but it was more entertaining than intellectual no matter how many times he used Achilles and Patroclus as his paradigm. For the record, there is absolutely nothing whatsoever wrong with that. But it is clear that the secret password for the Hay Festival is Promotion. It has become an event in thrall to the publishing industry and the sword swishing power of unit-shifting possibilities. Everyone has a book out, and the size of the festival has a great deal to do with who has a book out. Hay’s slogan is now ‘Imagine the World’, and it may be worth remembering huddled in those dark little tents, that they seem to have abandoned Bill Clinton’s quote of Hay being a ‘Woodstock of the Mind’ for something even more resembling the language of Big Business empty speak.

The festival organisers harbour an aphonic pride in the way the gods mill about with the little people for the ten days. On first arrival I was taken aback by Brian May’s hair coming toward me with a Brian May gauntly lumbering beneath it. It proved to me that it really is impossible to mention Queen’s guitarist without mentioning his hair (previously I had found it impossible not to mention Queen playing Sun City in 1984, but now I will only ever mention May’s hair, suspecting it to be little more than an excellent diversionary tactic in regards to how famously testy the members of Queen have been about this disreputable moment of their history). May was just one of a slew of famous faces I passed during the festival. It came to a climax when shuffling out in a throng from one event, my girlfriend turned to me to vent her tired frustration over the suffocating congestion, only to find Benedict Cumberbatch had moved between the two of us, and it was into his face that she released her mock ire, half-terrifying Smaug the Destroyer.

Cumberbatch himself is getting a bit of a reputation for being somewhat mercurial, a little bit excitable on red carpets and possessing a rather attractive if puerile irreverence for ceremony. And it is very difficult not like him a great deal (no matter how dreadful a programme Sherlock is). In many ways he made himself the star of this year’s festival, one that will be remembered for his attendance and impromptu Shakespearean duologue with Judi Dench on the closing night, as much as it will be for Toni Morrison’s tribute to Maya Angelou whose death was announced just moments before Morrison took to the stage for a sell-out interview. 2014 was one of the most memorable Hay Festivals of them all for these reasons, as well as its attention to anniversaries, most notably that of the Great War and the birth of Swansea’s omnipresent poet Dylan Thomas.

Of course, it rained; you can’t have it all. The organisers neither look likely any time soon to move the festival from the May Bank Holiday weekend, even though it’s as wet as a Cherrapunji water park every single year, or really provide car parking facilities that can cope with rain and cars at the same time. Mud is what you get with Hay, regardless of the festival site being adorned with banners and posters of festival goers of previous years lazing around in deck chairs in sun hats and shades.

One thing that does seem to have suited the festival is the partnership with The Telegraph newspaper. Hay is a painstakingly (primarily upper-) middle-class affair, retina-burningly white in its demographic, and hearing a regional accent is akin to what Livingston must have felt when Stanley finally stepped out from the undergrowth. But this is Hay. It is indicative, not causation. But why is that? Well, Hay is not an industry of its own, rather it has been subsumed by the media class of climes a little more, shall we say, sou’easterly. The Telegraph proudly stands for this white middle-aged middle class demographic. The previous print partner, The Guardian, although catering to the youthful wet liberalism of The Telegraph readers of tomorrow, has always been much less proud of its narrow somewhat cool-dad persona. The Telegraph and Hay are soulmates.

Hay, of course, perhaps still feeling the effects of its disintegrated marriage to The Guardian, is mawkishly hip. It is barrel-chested in its dedication to clean energy, to the point where it begins to sound like a guy boring you in the pub, and admirably ‘cool’ about its support of local business. Don’t get me wrong, this is extremely worthy, if slightly preachy. Sometimes you do wonder if being at the Hay Festival is what it must be like to be at a George Monbiot BBQ, only with some people having turned up. (How do you make Mexican street food white middle class? Venison chilli, anyone? It was delicious, and I hated it even more for being so. And then there was the eavesdropping as I queued for the gents: a pale boy of late teens made up with all the fragility of a baby deer, uttered these words to the woman next to him: ‘I was thinking perhaps we should holiday in Monte Carlo this year, mother; get some use out of the yacht.’)

But all of this, everything I have mentioned up until now, is really just the mud to be washed away from the nuggets at the centre. All that matters are the events themselves, the debates and the lectures and the shows and the diatribes and the inspirational speeches. No place in the world has such a concentration of bright people talking about interesting subjects. You may have to dig between quiz show hosts promoting their memoirs, and chefs talking about how confit de canard pulled them from the slums of their childhood, but Hay is pocked with gems. David Pountney talking to Mona Siddiqui about the WNO’s production of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron was a fascinating insight into the moral and emotional journey of one of the twentieth century’s most important artistic figures. Moses und Aron opened in Cardiff the following night, a somewhat divisive production as it turned out, with an Adorno-heavy second act that served as a suitably provocative satire not only on the nature of the form, but on the audience in attendance. Pountney pointed out that he had come to the conclusion that Schoenberg, rather like his rival Stravinsky, was very much a fascist. The natural order of his fascism was in his musical structures, the very art of the human soul coming out as a political whole.

The Hay Festival is much romanticised for the themes that develop organically across tents, across debates, connecting untethered ideas, and it has to be said, as a veteran of the festival, it is remarkable how such things happen year in year out. Fascism was one of the themes that bubbled. Thomas Weber introduced his new and somewhat controversial book about Hitler’s service in the First World War, and apart from it being a book about a time and place and an experience it is unavoidably always moving toward the question of Hitler’s radicalisation. Harvard man Weber, well-turned out and with very crisp English German, could pinpoint the time but not the event; there was no smoking gun. Schoenberg becoming a radical Jew who endorsed violent protest could be dated to his expulsion from Mattsee. For Hitler it is less clear. He was an outsider, but seemingly well-liked in his regiment, and by the end of the war was in the extremely peculiar position of having been overlooked for promotion the entire war. He began and ended a private. His superiors had seen in him not one iota of leadership material.

Hay has a long solid history of throwing up things like this. Toby Wilkinson took his audience on a vivid, if all-too-brief, guided tour up the concourse and centuries of civilisation attached to the Nile, from the breathtaking palaces of ancient Thebes to the precariously-placed treasures of the national museum in post-Arab Spring Cairo. The past is always so delicate. Kate Adie highlighted this too in her talk about the forgotten female combatants of World War One, particularly with her anecdote of one Flora Sands. Adie found herself in a fox hole under mortar fire during the war in Yugoslavia, where her Serbian guide invoked the spirit of Sands to inveigle the BBC journalist of courage. Adie was not familiar with the name, and she suddenly found herself being given a history lesson amid the chaos. Sands was a St John’s Ambulance driver who, during the carnage of conflict, was officially drafted into the front lines of the Serbian army, and fought with great distinction. In Serbia, she is taught about in school history lessons. Adie has now got around to writing a book about Sands and women like her, lost to the fumbling of time and its preoccupied documentarians.

There were many other fascinating debates and lectures. Sir Richard Evans delivered a lecture based on group research into conspiracy theories. The eminent modern historian (and David Irving slayer) was perhaps a little frustrating in his refusal to speculate on matters when the session was opened up to audience questions (a format that Hay seems contractually obliged to stick to, as if old men in red trousers will demand their money back if they are not allowed to chip in). But Evans is an academic, and anyone familiar with his work will value it for this aversion to flourishes of fancy. Perhaps it is a little far to suggest such stringent methods are not quite the currency of the typical festival goer nowadays, but Evans’ refusal to speculate or act as a TV talking head, was decidedly un-entertaining.

And this year’s real gem? It was Lorrie Moore. I am, of course, essentially a book man. And Lorrie Moore is one of the finest writers of prose around, not to mention perhaps one of the finest creators of characters in modern literature. Interviewed alongside the excellent Joshua Ferris, by a Ted Hogkinson who seemed so pleased to be sat with Moore he was often in danger of not giving the chance to answer his breathless questioning, Moore was laconic, sexy, extremely generous and funny. The reading from her new collection of short stories, ‘Foes’, was a masterclass in public address. Her book, Bark, is filled with marvellous snapshots into American life, and it establishes her as the most likely successor to Alice Munro in North America’s highly competitive literary ‘A’ League. Moore is a name now added to the list I noted at the beginning of this article.

So Hay delivers for another year. It prods and frustrates, and you can’t help wondering if much of it is really all that necessary, but it has long since outgrown the concerns, needs or wants of a simple thirty-something attendee such as myself. Hay Festival is part of the landscape, so long as it doesn’t end up becoming the landscape.

Illustration by Dean Lewis