Wales Arts Review writers reflect on this year’s Hay Festival. With Emma Schofield, Gary Raymond, Amanda Potts, Amelia Baugh, Adam Somerset and Jodie Bond.
A New and Dangerous World – Adam Somerset
“A US Academic is on the case… he can see an order within it all, a centralising presence, the finger pointing to Moscow.”
Since the first season of Wales Arts Review I have reported each year from Hay. An archbishop and a star actor, a physicist and a tech billionaire, a Nobel laureate in economics and one in literature have all featured. They were all liked by their audiences. Carole Cadwalladr is a mid-career journalist and gets rock star applause. That is not at the end, where the applause is repeated, but when she makes her entry.
But she may be getting used to it. Awards have cascaded her way in the last year, not least her nomination as Wales Arts Review‘s first-ever Person of the Year. Before that she was recipient of the Orwell Prize for political journalism, the Reporters without Borders “L’esprit de RSF” and the joint-winner, with Amelia Gentleman, of the Political Studies Association Journalist of the Year.
The citation for the last stated the importance of her work: “The impact of big data on the EU Referendum and the 2016 US presidential election”. It is a story already told in the public domain but Cadwalladr gives it immediacy and tells her tale with fluency but also with some humility. Another venturing journalist Oliver Bullough is the host, and he puts the questions with spark. There is a clear and mutual respect between the two.
The hour leaves several impressions. One is the fact of old-fashioned journalistic grunt-work. Even with all the research resources of the Internet, the story is driven by the smell that there is something out there. There are dots waiting to be joined up. The second is human vulnerability, a boozy encounter, a participant who just needs to brag how clever they have been. A name pops out of the dark: Cambridge Analytica.
The third is the importance of the university connection. A US academic is on the case and Cadwalladr has been on the phone at length with him. He can see something in the torrents of tweets, the deceptions and the fakery. He can see an order within it all, a centralising presence, the finger pointing to Moscow.
And the story has far to go. Millions were made on sterling being hedged between 10:00 PM on 23rdJune and the collapse in the currency on the first announcement of the result. Neutral institutions are being sucked into the vortex of political implosion. The BBC’s reputation was built at the time of the General Strike when it offered a perspective greater than that of the press barons. Its very concept of “balance” is rejected by many. A BBC long-timer in the Hay press tent says the climate has never been more gruelling. So too with the police. The Electoral Commission spent a year investigating the law-breaking of the Leave forces. The Met did not even look at the file for five months and anything has still to result from the alleged illegal behaviour.
Cadwalladr picks out for praise the work and commitment of the Information Commissioner. She has done some searches on data held about herself. The tentacles of interconnectedness are alarming. Every online enquiry made about insurance is shared in common across the industry and Arron Banks has view of it all. Her journalism, she says, caused a one hundred and fifty billion hit to the social media giant’s capitalisation, now recovered. This gets a cheer of acclaim from the audience.
Within five minutes of her departing the stage, summaries are being circulated that warn of the dark forces of billionaires and tech unaccountability. I read one that is well-expressed, concise and indignant. The writer has chosen her medium for sharing: Facebook.
The Modern Historian – Amelia Baugh
“Worsley can make you feel like this is an extremely intimate exchange.”
The Baillie Gifford Stage holds approximately 1700 people, and on a warm Wednesday afternoon it is full for two names that are hugely popular in the British consciousness right now – Queen Victoria and Lucy Worsley. Worsley is introduced as one of the “great communicators of our age” and if that seems slightly hyperbolic at first, in the end it’s difficult to disagree. For an hour she holds the 1700 in the palm of her hand.
Okay, so I must admit to a pang of disappointment that she didn’t emerge onto the stage dressed in a 19th century frock – her TV m.o. is very much tied to the fact she is always dressing up in period clothes – but even so she still manages to bring a trademark materiality to history. At one point she doesn’t simply explain to the enraptured audience that Queen Victoria was small, but she flips to a slide showing Worsley standing next to one of the Queen’s minuscule frocks. There is a gasp from the audience that relaying the numeric facts would not have elicited.
Worsley the communicator can tell stories in a way that is appealing for all ages, and at the end most questions came from children. She is funny, and delivers the jokes with the stagecraft of a stand up, but she also has the familiarity of a carefully prepared brand. This is her television personality, complete with sharp blonde bob and single barrette clip, stepped through the screen. It is easy to understand why the event sold out.
But this is not retreading – Worsley’s presentational skills and her professional brand serve the rigour of her work, and are not just there to distract from superficiality. She has a fresh take on the character of Prince Albert, and she is keen to bring together the three main eras of Victoria’s life in a way perhaps nobody has done before in such an accessible way. Worsley can make you feel like this is an extremely intimate exchange. She cleverly connects Victoria’s teenage melancholy to her own by displaying two sketches, one by Worsley, one by the princess as she was then, both at the age of fourteen, and both remarkably, delightfully similar and stroppy. Are all teenagers the same, be them modern schoolgirls or 19th century princesses? Or was Worsley as precocious as Victoria? Nobody can be quite sure.
But Worsley also is not shy in reminding the audience of her authority in these matters. If she is known for television, it is worth being reminded she has written ten books, and her day job is Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces. Lucy Worsley, quite simply, is a force to be reckoned with.
Wales, Brexit, and Emyr Humphreys – Emma Schofield
“Rarely have I heard such hostility levelled between audience members in a talk at Hay”
I will admit that I approached the Hay Festival this year with some trepidation. I visited the festival on a rainy bank holiday Monday, with an umbrella in hand and my head still spinning from a night of watching the European Election results unfold. At a time when so much of daily life seems to be in total chaos, attending this stalwart literary festival, which pulls me back every year, felt both reassuring and ever-so-slightly frivolous at the same time.
Of course, the challenge for the Hay Festival, now in its 32nd iteration, is to keep things fresh and to keep on drawing the audiences who make the pilgrimage to the picturesque Welsh town each May. The big names naturally draw plenty of attention, but this year I wanted to get a feel for how the Festival was connecting with Wales at this crucial moment in our history and so I picked a selection of events with a distinctly Welsh theme.
An easy addition to my list was a panel organised to mark the 100th birthday of the prolific Welsh writer, Emyr Humphreys. The panel, expertly chaired by Professor M. Wynn Thomas, holder of the Emyr Humphreys Chair at the Centre for Research into the English Literature and Language of Wales at Swansea University, was made up of Professor Daniel G. Williams and one of Wales’ best-known poetic voices, Menna Elfyn. Conducted in Welsh, with simultaneous translation for those of us whose Welsh is not quite up to that kind of challenge,the discussion adopted a reflective tone as the panellists discussed the contribution made by Humphreys. Listening to the analysis of the many texts, in both Welsh and English, produced by Humphreys throughout a career which has spanned decades, it is easy to see why there has been so much discussion about why this towering figure of Welsh writing has not received more international recognition in his centenary year. Reviewing the contribution made by Humphreys, M. Wynn Thomas described him as a ‘giant’ of the Welsh writing canon, painting a portrait of a man who has written with passion and humility. Daniel Williams built on this by highlighting the strong sense of cultural identity evident from Humphreys’ early work, such as Y Tris Llais (1958), through his seminal Land of the Living sequence and even within his most recent poetry collection, Shards of Light (2018).
Yet here, as seemingly everywhere at the moment, the topic of Europe and the location of Wales on an international platform was never far away. The panel took the opportunity to discuss Humphreys’ status as a ‘European Welshman’, determining that his realist approach to fiction and his acute awareness of the centrality of national identity and, in particular, of Welsh identity within the wider world, mark Humphreys as a truly exceptional figure in his field. To reinforce the scale of Humphreys’ achievements, Menna Elfyn read a selection of Humphreys’ poetry, demonstrating a poetic voice which has so richly drawn together a life lived between two languages and two cultures. It was a fascinating panel and one which ended with a broader discussion prompted by thoughtful audience questions.
The tone could not have changed more dramatically for me at my next stop, which was in the packed Wales Stage where Professor Vernon Bogdanor was talking to Matthew d’Ancona about his latest book, Beyond Brexit: Towards a British Constitution. As ever when Brexit is the topic on the table, tensions were running quite high. Bogdanor offered a fascinating insight into the problems the UK might face post-Brexit due to its lack of a constitution, drawing attention to the UK’s position as a nation which lacks any definite constitution – something of a rarity in modern times. The discussion was thought-provoking and certainly tapped into a side of Brexit which, as yet, has perhaps not been explored as much as it should. Yet as the conversation broadened to include questions from the audience anyone still labouring under the delusion that Brexit has not divided a nation would have been in for a shock. Rarely have I heard such hostility levelled between audience members in a talk at Hay; visible anger, heckling, squabbles breaking out across the venue and a palpable atmosphere of discontent on both sides of the debate characterised what became a slightly uncomfortable demonstration of exactly why it is so difficult to find a path forward from this political quagmire. d’Ancona did well to hold the event together, but it would have been nice to hear a more specific exploration from Bogdanor of where Wales sits within this challenging environment.
For me, there was a return to something lighter as the evening wore on and a healthy dose of nostalgia became available in the form of a panel, supported by the Institute of Welsh Affairs, looking back at the origins and influence of the Cool Cymru movement in 1990s Wales. Lively, honest and filled with personal anecdotes from author Rachel Trezise, Radio DJ Bethan Elfyn, writer Rhian E. Jones and politician David Melding. Chaired by Dylan Moore, the eclectic panel reflected on the music, political and cultural context surrounding the Cool Cymru movement and providing a backdrop to the official opening of the National Assembly for Wales in 1999. Questions and memories from the audience joined with those offered up by the panel, the debate winding its way through the complexity of Welsh and English-language culture on a whistle stop tour through decades which saw an almost unprecedented level of change both socially and politically in Wales. It’s in these moments, where the personal, political and cultural collide in frank, but good-natured, debate that the heart of the Hay Festival truly beats. The panel could not have been more different in their backgrounds, their view of where Wales has been and where it might go in the future, but the dialogue flowed freely, even when it strayed into potentially stormy waters such as the prospect of Welsh independence. Refusing to shy away from the controversy surrounding the Welsh independence movement, most of the panel described themselves as ‘indy curious’, open to the possibility that big changes may inevitably lie ahead for Wales. I left the event wanting to hear more and reminded of just how vital these kind of conversations are in helping us understand our own identity. Informed, inquisitive and inclusive; the environment in which the Hay Festival really excels and the path I hope it continues to tread for the next thirty two years.
The Political Stage – Gary Raymond
“…as many have found out in the last thirty years years of this festival, Hay will find you out…”
Hay has an illustrious tradition of platforming Statespeople of all persuasions, and even in more apathetic times could draw huge crowds for single person events. Politicians have often found Hay to be a place to offer something a little more personal, a little more relaxed, and maybe even a chance to speak about their interests outside of politics. Inevitably, however, no matter how personal, there is always the public to correct the alignment and drag them back to whatever the pressing matters of the day may be. I remember years ago former prime minister John Major giving an engrossing talk about the social history of cricket; when the questions went out to the audience the first was about his hand in the Maastricht Treaty.
Like many public professions, most Members of Parliament have their day in the sun, and some of them rise and remain on the front line. Labour MP David Lammy is currently a champion of the liberally-concerned, the disenfranchised and the activistic soft-left. He has become a spokesperson for the kind of Labour supporter who is not a Corbynite, but, as yet, still remains loyal to the Party. He swats away bigots and Brexiteers on social media with a swashbuckling verve, and has made some of the most widely appreciated speeches on subjects such as Grenfell Tower of any politician in recent years. Here he packs out the 1700-seater Baillie Gifford theatre, and employs all of the pomp and passion of a good orator. But, as many have found out in the last thirty years of this festival, Hay will find you out, and Lammy in the end comes across as just another politician well-trained in the art of what he thinks people want to hear.
Notable too, was that Lammy appeared singularly unable to relate any point without talking about himself. He had no or little evidential grist to support the arguments he put forward, there was no rigour to his position, just his own experience, and in one section when he offered some policy positions it felt distinctly like he was under the impression this was the Labour Party Conference.
Lammy’s talk was billed as a dissection of the tribal nature of modern British discourse, but all Lammy had to offer was his own story and nothing further, nothing deeper. By the end, the suspicion we were watching some kind of narcissist on stage grew keener as he answered an audience question about his party’s response to antisemitism by giving an anecdote of the time some Jews he worked for clubbed together to pay for his Harvard Law School tuition fees, as if his gratitude would be the saving of Corbyn’s appeasement on this issue. Similarly, Lammy’s main insight to the tragedy of Grenfell seemed to hinge on the fact his wife mentored one of the people who died there. I was reminded of how Paul Dacre got his Daily Mail to spearhead a campaign to bring to justice the killers of Stephen Lawrence because Stephen Lawrence’s father had once decorated Dacre’s house.
For the entire hour, Lammy’s passion does as much to emphasise just how much he has come to think of himself as a great reformer as it highlighted how superficial his thinking is on important matters. He mentioned globalisation twice, in positive terms, and not once did he mention the gradual rotten decline of Capitalism. Lammy, on this showing, is a man ready-made for the age of centre ground conservatism, someone unable and perhaps unwilling to question the system that he is so often seemingly railing against. But to really be a reformer, you have to understand things that go on outside of yourself.
Much less disappointing was the Brexit and Wales debate between Baroness Eluned Morgan (Labour), Adam Price (leader of Plaid Cymru) and political scientist from Cambridge University Mike Kenny. Chaired by Guto Harri, journalist and ex-Boris Johnson press officer, it was a frank and relaxed conversation that seemed free of the tensions of a political rally, although the audience was distinctly Plaid-leaning if measured only by the energetic applause for even some of Adam Price’s more opaque platitudes. Morgan is a seasoned, impressive, principled politician and speaker, and would have made an alluring leader of Welsh Labour for many, but she cut the figure of a serious person temporarily resigned to the fug of her party at present. Price was the more fiery, forward in his seat, histrionic, orating and not just answering. Policy-wise, the feeling both parties have some paper-thin stances when it comes to important issues was difficult to ignore, but maybe both Welsh Labour and Plaid can be forgiven for thinking maybe there’s not much point in filling in too much detail while so much remains uncertain in the immediate – never mind far – future. Professor Kenny gave some enlightening insight based on the research that’s out there, including one flicker of passion when he corrected an audience member who referred to English nationalism as crypto-fascist. The data just does not bare that out, Kenny said. A serious, measured voice in the middle of a blustery topic. If people on stage can be found out at Hay, so too can audience members.
From Climate Change to Wellbeing – Jodie Bond
“MacFarlane uncovered the hidden world beneath our feet, exploring ancient glaciers, catacombs and the whisperings of tree roots.”
Hay is one of the highlights of my year: a chance to water the mind and feed the soul. Over the bank holiday I found myself well sated by over a dozen events spanning science, politics, nature, music and literature.
Saturday’s tone was enlightening, yet sombre. Discussions on the topic of climate change with Cambridge Fellow Emily Shuckburgh, uncovered more worrying questions than positive solutions. Author and journalist Nicci Gerrard shared poignant reflections on dementia following her father’s death from the condition. Fatima Bhutto spoke of her time growing up as a member of Pakistan’s political dynasty, where at the age of 14 she saw her father assassinated. Her latest novel, The Runaway, follows three characters who meet at a Jihadi training camp near Mosul, and paints a vivid picture of how the restlessness of youth can easily be exploited.
Sunday held a brighter start with writer Horatio Clare leading a compelling and eclectic talk about his travels following the footsteps of J S Bach’s 250 mile journey to Lubeck. Pat Barker and Stephen Fry both held events celebrating bestselling books that retell stories from Greek mythology. Fry’s talk was injected with humour as children’s illustrator, Chris Riddell, produced playful live drawings to accompany his affable storytelling. Robert MacFarlane captivated the Baillie Gifford stage with tales of his explorations beneath the earth’s surface for his astounding book, Underland. MacFarlane uncovered the hidden world beneath our feet, exploring ancient glaciers, catacombs and the whisperings of tree roots.
Monday brought enlightenment with two fascinating science talks. Linda Geddes discussed findings from her latest book, Chasing the Sun, where she explores how light plays a key role in our general wellbeing; a lack of exposure to it can lead to severe health problems such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Hannah Critchlow’s talk brought science together with philosophy as she boldly tackled the question of whether our fate can be predetermined by our biology. She spoke of how our brains can be predisposed to learn particular skills and of how our politics might be inclined to lean left or right depending on our capacity for fear.
The Art of Criticism – Adam Somerset
“…he is an art critic of greatness…”
Simon Schama‘s subject at the Hay Festival for 2019 is “Rembrandt’s Eyes.” Schama is an academic and media phenomenon for a reason; he is an art critic of greatness. Great critics move across four levels. They home in on the detail. They know their aesthetics intimately, confident in their judgements on form, content, meaning, expression. They have facts at their finger-tips: the life, love, money, or the lack of both, the context of history, the critical climate. And they yoke the first three to personal response. Jejune critical writing, that is swamped with the words “I” and “me”, makes a categorical error, that the subjective takes first place.
Thus Schama shows a Rembrandt drawing of a cottage in a snowy landscape. The paper is overwhelmingly white. He knows the precise type of paper that Rembrandt was buying and its expense. He describes the nature of the quill and the way it holds the ink to make the strokes. In the depiction of a face, Schama sees the minute dot of colour that animates an eyelid. In the “Night Watch” he points to the shadow of an arm that makes an innovative composition work.
Schama has the customary Hay allotment of an hour. When the warning comes up that his time is approaching its end he says “We could go on for hours” and it is quite true. He is a fountain of words, a torrent of sentences, that are both complex and replete but never lack sharpness. He is a presence on a stage akin to the novels of Saul Bellow at his peak. He speaks without notes and thus has no need to cling to the protection of a podium. He paces the stage, pivots to re-assess a picture. His physical presence is as animated as the life of the language. Thus he relates that Rembrandt had a familiarity with Pliny’s assessment of Apelles. The artist is not the popular view of a “knobbly-nosed, pugilistic everyman.” He looks at the dashes of paint on fabric that would not be repeated until Manet. He refers to Rembrandt’s assault on the concept of finito as “a porridge of pigment.” He shows the extraordinary image of the artist and the easel, the artist “obsessed with the integument nature of inanimate things.”
But art does not exist for analysis. It is there for emotion. The Hay timer is clocking that he has 60 seconds to go. He keeps “The Jewish Bride” for the very end. His response is one of intense emotionality. He focuses on the two hands that meet. The location is carnal in reference, the delicacy of expression in the fingers its counterpoint in tenderness. There is no greater expression of love in the canon of art. And the critic-historian is awed in emotional response. That is the mark of true critics. They offer wisdom without self-aggrandisement in the knowledge that they are art’s servant, its interpreter, but not its equal.
Misogyny and Jack the Ripper – Amanda Potts
“131 years later, we are still not ready to conceive of a world where women hold more than one identity… and that there is more to a crime than exultation of the perpetrator.”
Event chair and historical thriller writer S.J. Parris opens the discussion by asking author Hallie Rubenhold about the origin story of her new book, The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper. With so many Ripper titles on shelves, what inspired her to revisit the events of 1888? Rubenhold tells us that a single theme runs straight from her conceptualisation of the book through to its reception, and that is misogyny.
Rubenhold has previously published historical accounts of sex work in the 18th century (The Covent Garden Ladies; Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies), and had set about collecting archival materials for a follow-up work based in the 19th century. In order to narrow the focus of this new manuscript, she decided to focus on the most well-known sex workers of that period: the victims of Jack the Ripper.
The great number of works already available on Jack the Ripper reflects a consistent (and one-dimensional) fascination with a particularly barbarous killer of women. Until the 1920s or so, Rubenhold reminds us, there was a very clear and real impetus to study the case and identify the killer: a legitimate fear that he could reappear and kill again. Long after he could safely be presumed dead, the detective work continues but under a much more egotistical guise. Imagine the glory of cracking one of the most famous cold cases in British history?
Not contained within these many accounts were many (if any) details of the lives of the female victims—Mary Jane Kelly, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Ann Nichols, Elizabeth Stride, and Annie Chapman. Indeed, Rubenhold says that she was unable to find any evidence that three out of the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper were actually sex workers at all. We’re told that definitions of ‘sex work’ are so wildly different in the modern era as to be unrecognisable. Any sex outside of marriage (including, yes, prostitution, but also affairs and sexual assaults including incest) would result in a woman being branded a ‘whore’.
At the time of the murders, Jack the Ripper was considered a ‘killer of prostitutes’, doing the distasteful but not entirely unwelcome work of clearing out some of the lowest social classes. While that statement jars to hear and to repeat, the sentiment is borne out to this day: five women killed by a man are remembered (erroneously) as prostitutes, and that is in the rare event that any detail about them is remembered at all. In the 19th century and in the 21st, we would prefer that victims somehow had it coming.
Rubenhold’s book throws the identities of these women into relief. They were daughters, sisters, mothers, workers, complex people born into tough circumstances, sometimes turning to drugs and alcohol to cope inside their deep chasms of social deprivation. In response, Rubenhold has been subject to daily harassment and trolling. She has been called ‘whore-phobic’. Her (thoroughly footnoted) work has been called under-researched and erroneous. These 131 years later, we are still not ready to conceive of a world where women hold more than one identity, that a victim hasn’t asked for it, and that there is more to a crime than exultation of the perpetrator. But this work does bring us a bit closer.
Compassion and the Cosmos – Gary Raymond
“If [the Turkish government] is after you, you must be doing something right.”
Hay is time and time again a platform of immediate relevance. Over the years it has found itself host to issues that are unfolding in real time outside the cloistered world of the marquee tents in the idyllic Welsh countryside. It is how the festival retains a sense of vitality over any feeling of indulgence. On the Friday, Turkish novelist Elif Shafak delivers her Wellcome Prize lecture, but by the Saturday morning when she is being interviwed by the industrious Rosie Goldsmith, it has been widely reported that Turkish authorities have put Shafak under investigation with an eye to prosecute. Shafak’s alleged crime? Writing about issues the increasingly far-right leaning authorities in her homeland would prefer remain in the shadows.
Her latest novel, launched at Hay, is 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in This Strange World, and tells the story of Leila, a sex worker who is murdered at the outset. Shafak, surely one of the greatest living novelists, has a twenty-five year career, and this investigation focusses on her body of work, not just this latest book. Her work is always tough, and she has an instinct for the story of the outsider. Terrible as the persecution is of her and many fellow Turkish writers, it is something of a badge of honour to be singled out by such a regime. If they’re after you, you must be doing something right.
Shafak’s humanity comes out in everything she says. She reels out some shocking statistics, not least that one third of all Turkish marriages are now to underage brides. She is the product of a country that recently passed a law where rapists can bargain for a reduced sentence if they agree to marry their victims. Yet she says it is important to differentiate between a government and its people. She talks about one character, a bigoted shop owner who on the night of an earthquake is seen sharing his cigarettes in the street with a transvestite. The next morning, Shafak says, the shop owner is back to ignoring the trans people of the community, but for a moment in a night of despair he was “freed from his prejudice”. That word freed. Shafak’s use of it left a lump in the throat.
Over the years I have been privileged to see some of the greatest writers of our age sit on a stage at Hay – Nadine Gordimer, Wole Soyinka, Derek Walcott, to name just a few – and Shafak sits with them very comfortably, not just for her craft, but for her compassion.
At the bar at lunch time, the bar tender asks how long I have been coming to the Hay Festival. I said my first was 1995, to which she says, “My God, I didn’t take you for being that old.” As I tried to unpack that, I decided it was a comment on the complexities of time as a concept, and went off to a session on the cosmos.
Princeton professor of astrophysics Jo Dunkley is impressively energetic in a stupefyingly warm arena for her beginners guide to the universe. Popular science, like popular history, is both experiencing something of a golden age on UK television at present, but it is also well catered at the Hay Festival. There are big stories to be told, and brilliant storytellers are lining up to tell them. Fewer stories are bigger than that of our universe, and Dunkley does a remarkable job of communicating some basic tenets, from the Big Bang to the relativity of time to an audience just as widely spaced out demographically. Many questions come from children (perhaps with a nudge from a parent), but a few come from adults. So we have questions like “What’s your favourite planet?” mixed with “Can you explain why the universe has no end?” Dunkley explains the reason why it’s so difficult to imagine the infinity of the universe is because we have 3-dimensional minds trying to understand a 4-dimensional structure. In many ways I come to a similar problem when trying to take in everything the Hay Festival has to offer.
Many thanks to the Hay Festival for the use of images, and for support for the blog.