Hay Festival 21

A couple of days after we’d arrived at Hay-on-Wye for the book festival, something in my brain clicked and the whole event made sense for me. The Hay Festival – 11 days of talks by authors from around the world – is a glimpse of the future, a future run by old people. I don’t say this to be facetious, or as if it were a completely negative thing, but it certainly felt like it.

Judging from their handsome website and the excited coverage it generates in the Guardian (their main sponsor), I had the impression that the festival would have quite a spread of ages; a lot of middle-aged and older people, sure, but also plenty of younger under-30s. And while my friends and I didn’t do a formal survey, we all agreed that the average age at the festival was – at least – in the mid to late 40s. Again, nothing wrong with that. But it meant that we felt very out of place at the festival, all being in our mid 20s.

For me, Hay Festival is what the world will be like when it’s mostly old people – civilized, intelligent, informed, slow, fixed in its ways, and going to bed at 11pm. More on that later, though.

Before I get started, full disclosure: I’d wanted to go to Hay Festival for a while, and this year I went with a group of friends from Friday 23rd to Sunday 25th May. In total, I went to 12 events, of which I paid for nine and got free tickets for the remaining three. Those free tickets came from the Festival organisers because Penguin told them that I was an ‘influential blogger’, and therefore qualified as Press. Indeed, when I picked up the tickets on Friday, I also received a Press badge that said ‘Adrian Hon, Blogger’. Somewhat disappointingly, only one person asked me about this, and he was the guy selling Vietnamese iced coffees.

Friday: The Trip, Weather, New Fiction From China, Jamie Oliver

Despite several weeks of wrangling, we weren’t able to hire a car to drive up to Hay-on-Wye. Instead, we took a three hour train from Paddington to Hereford, and another hour-long bus ride to the town itself. The reason I mention this is to point out that not only is Hay-on-Wye is nowhere near London (quite a good thing, really), but that it is not near anything or anywhere in particular, other than some nice scenery.

On the one hand, this is good. It means there are no distractions from the very serious business of listening about, reading, and buying, books (Hay-on-Wye is more or less composed of bookstores). On the other hand, it is essentially impossible to rent a hotel or B&B room anywhere near the festival, since the few that exist are all booked up months or years in advance; not brilliant for newcomers. There’s plenty of camping space though, which is what we used. Camping in Wales, we thought as we put up our tent, surely couldn’t involve any problems.

And then it started raining. I’m going to spend a bit of time talking about the weather here, just to get it out of the way, but it’s important because you really need to know this in case you ever want to visit the Hay Festival.

When talking about weather, most people say, ‘Oh, it’s going to rain tomorrow’, since rain is perceived to be an aberration from the normal state of affairs. I submit that Hay-on-Wye inverts this state, and that rain is the default, with dry spells – let alone sunshine – being an event of such rarity that it deserves extensive remark.

This is all short for saying that it basically rained for the entire three days we were there. This wasn’t gentle rain either – this was rain with a grudge. It soaked your boots, drenched your trousers, sucked the warmth out of the air, and then soaked your boots again just for good measure. Saturday afternoon and evening were genuinely very nice and even sunny, but then Sunday saw non-stop rain for around twelve hours beginning from dawn. Bring wellies – you won’t be sorry.

My first event was New Fiction from China. I didn’t know any of the three Chinese authors, who were Ha Jin (A Free Life), Zhu Wen (I Love Dollars: And Other Stories of China) and Yan Lianke (Serve the People), but I’m told they are very talented and famous. Unfortunately the host of the panel, whose name I don’t know, was rather unprepared. Not only did he mix up their names, but he asked a number of exceedingly general questions. Having said that, the event managed to pick itself up towards the end, when two of the authors gave readings.

Next was Jamie Oliver in discussion with Rosie Boycott. I haven’t read any of Jamie’s books, watched any of his TV shows, or eaten at any of his restaurants. Still, it seemed like he’d had some interesting stories to tell, plus my girlfriend was going. As it happened, this was one of the surprises of the festival – the talk was filled with intriguing and funny anecdotes, but more importantly, I had the feeling that Jamie was speaking truthfully. That’s not to say that he was the deepest thinker of the festival, but merely that he genuinely tried to answer the questions as they were posed. I can only conclude that he hasn’t spent that much time talking to smart audiences and thus hasn’t developed the guarded cynicism that most speakers have.

That was all for Friday, so we went into town for dinner. The festival site is about 800 metres from the centre of town – perhaps a ten minute walk. Despite this, there was a high frequency shuttle bus service. Like I said, it’s a vision of the future.

Dinner finished, we went off to try and find pubs containing other young festivalgoers. While we eventually did find one, it was a bit disappointing and it seems that most people vacate the town after dark, dispersing to their respective hotels and presumably the bars within them. This is a shame – one of the real highlights of the conferences and gatherings I go to are the pubs or bars were everyone convenes afterwards. I’m not talking about private parties, of which I’m sure there were many at the festival, I mean a generally-agreed on place where you can get a drink and chat about the day’s events. Not much fun for us young’uns, I must say.

Saturday: Radio 4, Evolution, Cherie Booth, Joseph Stiglitz, Alternative Medicine, Iraq, the American Election, Charity Gala

Yes, I signed up for over eight hours of talks.

I got off to a good start by missing the first twenty minutes of A History of Radio 4 since the queue for the campsite showers was 40 minutes long (the water was cold, too). Still, it was a decent talk and it gave me a real understanding of how Radio 4 has changed over the years and how it responds to the public.

Is Evolution Over by Steve Jones came next. I’ve seen Steve Jones speak a couple of times at Cambridge, and I thought he was moderately good. Evidently something has changed in the last few years, since he was much improved at Hay, with a more engaging, clear and funny talk; or perhaps it’s because he was talking to a lay audience. In any case, evolution is a difficult topic to cover without either being too detailed or too simplistic, and Steve managed to walk the fine line and give a neuroscientist and a doctor (myself and a friend, also both trained as biologists) some new facts.

Cherie Booth was one of the most high-profile speakers I saw at the festival. Potentially it could have been very dull and politically correct, and certainly the first half was. See, nowadays Cherie is all about the very important and admirable cause of ensuring women’s equality in the UK and around the world. Unfortunately, she gave an utterly dull and superficial talk on the subject, and things only improved when her interviewer began slinging some good political questions at her. Her responses were uneven, but interesting, and ultimately I enjoyed hearing directly from her.

I probably shouldn’t have gone to The $3 Trillion War by Joseph Stiglitz. I’d already read about it extensively online and a friend had warned me about Joseph’s boring speaking manner. He was right – we both fell asleep, as did several of the people around us. To make matters worse, the interviewer was rather rude, attempting to railroad discussion and regularly cutting the speakers off.

The problem with this talk, I think, is that the speakers didn’t want to talk about how they arrived at the number of $3 trillion, nor did they want to talk about what that sum could have been spent on otherwise, which left… exactly what? I’m not sure. My friend asked me to name one fact I recalled from the hour, and the best I could come up with was the fact that it costs a lot to take care of injured veterans.

Trick or Treatment by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst was a good antidote to this dullness. They’ve just launched a book that aims to evaluate alternative medicine; because they are real scientists, they tested the various practices and found that most didn’t work. Given the huge interest and controversy surrounding alternative medicine, Simon and Edzard have clearly given a number of talks to largely hostile audiences, and it showed through their highly polished and comprehensive presentation (these guys, along with Steve Jones, were some of the few people who used slides – scientists, eh?).

Alas, it was mostly for naught, since every single question came from alternative medicine supporters who had clearly not listened to a word they had said. I wasn’t bothered by this because I quite enjoyed seeing how Simon and Edzard responded – in a consistently respectful, yet very forthright manner.

Two points from this talk have stuck with me. The first is that an alternative medicine might have no actual medical effect, yet due to a multitide of other factors (placebo effect, regression to mean, good patient/doctor interaction, etc) it may still do plenty of good; enough good, perhaps, to outweigh any negative effects that the medicine might have.

The second was a BBC documentary on acupuncture that Simon played; it showed a young women undergoing open heart surgery while still awake. Apparently, the power of acupuncture was such that she needed no general anaesthetic. This was clearly remarkable – too remarkable, as it emerged, since she had instead been given three powerful sedatives and plenty of local anaesthetics. For shame, BBC!

We often hear that the Internet allows people to only talk to those who share their exact views. The Hay Festival is the physical equivalent, since everyone there reads the Guardian and hates the Daily Mail. In fact, there were so many jokes making fun of Daily Mail readers that I got really quite angry – I hate the Daily Mail too, but these were cheap shots, and the festivalgoers were a bit too smug for my tastes. The next talk, Defeat: Why They Lost Iraq with Jonathan Steele, Shashi Tharoor and George Monbiot, highlighted this problem. The talk had three very well-informed commentators on the Iraq war discuss the various failings of the US and UK strategy.

Now, you won’t find me defending the war – but you won’t find me suggesting it was a total conspiracy, that we should perform a citizen’s arrest on UK government, and that we should transition the world to a universal democracy, either. The sad fact is that the speakers made some very good points, such as the puzzling lack of criticism on the Labour Party for the war (unlike in the US, where the Republicans certainly haven’t gotten away scot-free) and the utter failure of the UK government, Foreign Office and Civil Service in general to predict what would follow after the invasion. This is all good stuff and deserves more scrutiny. However, when it comes lumped with the extreme views mentioned above, it’s all too easy to dismiss.

What frightened me during this talk was how the audience completely agreed with the speakers. They loved it, just as the Republicans and Creationists they are so fond of deriding, uncritically lap up the words of their own speakers. Two elderly women to my right repeatedly clapped and exclaimed, ‘Yes, yes, exactly!’ throughout it. It’s true that all groups tend to feel proud of themselves at their own gatherings, but you do expect a certain amount of self-deprecation thrown in with the preening; that’s what I usually see at tech or gaming conferences. But maybe not here – maybe when you’re old enough, you just don’t give a shit about that. Ask me what I think about this in 30 years time…

I wouldn’t suggest that the organisers should have had the event as a debate instead; that clearly wasn’t the point of it. And I wouldn’t suggest that every issue has two equally good sides to it. But there is a real danger to having just one side shown.

I was beginning to flag by The American Election, hosted by Jonathan Freedland, but this was pretty good. Sure, it’s an exciting topic that’s hard to make boring, but Freedland kept a tight ship and was probably the best host of the festival (I’m still annoyed that he never replied to my email about early literature and videogames though). Not much to say here other than I felt a little sorry for Matthew D’Ancona, the sole McCain supporter amidst a sea of wannabe-Democrats.

Finally, we had the Charity Gala. I hadn’t planned to go to this, but I was persuaded to by a friend, who kept on referring to the very respectable lineup, which included Christopher Hitchens, Simon Singh and Jasper Fforde. It was the wrong decision, for the following reasons:

  1. Throughout the day, the festival organisers had been plugging the gala as much as they could, perhaps because they hadn’t sold enough tickets. Why weren’t people buying them? Because the damn thing began at 9:45pm and was scheduled to finish at 11:15pm. This is a ridiculous time given that most people would have to drive to a hotel afterwards, and as I’ve been saying, I didn’t get the impression that the audience were up for a wild party afterwards. In the end, the event wasn’t over until 11:45pm, by which point the festival bar had closed. Not impressed at all.
  2. Too much poetry. To my philistine mind, any poetry is too much, but there was really no need to have three different speakers recite poetry, most of which wasn’t original or particularly good. It was especially bad given the lateness and purpose of the event. It’s a charity gala, for god’s sake, not a wake!
  3. Cynical scheduling. Let’s face it – most of the people went along to see Christopher Hitchens. Of course, they put him on at the end for about five minutes.
  4. Too many Daily Mail jokes. Enough already!

I did enjoy some of the speakers – Simon Singh, Marcus Bridgstocke, Hitchens, Sandi Toksvig – but most of the others were frankly pretty average. I can’t blame them – how are you supposed to do a standup routine for a bunch of middle-aged to elderly Guardian readers?

Incidentally, most of the high profile talks at the festival, including the Charity Gala, were simulcast on TV screens around the site. Given that most of the talks were £5 to £10 and that it’s free to walk into the festival, you wonder whether something isn’t quite right…

Sunday: Hitchens and Salman Rushdie

I missed The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein because I just couldn’t face confronting the torrential rain, and instead wandered the festival, buying sweets and feeling sorry for myself. I felt even sorrier after we packed up our tents – still in the rain.

The reason we didn’t both leaving immediately was God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. It will be no surprise to hear that Christopher was an excellent and painfully forthright speaker, gleefully arguing with any defenders of religion and challenging one questioner to call him a racist or shut up. I’m not going to try to summarise his talk because I’ve already been writing for two hours and because you might as well just read one of his many articles or buy his book, but I will say that his talk generated the most discussion between my friends by far, and kept us going for the entire three hours on the train ride back.

We had to leave before the end of The Composite Artist by Salman Rushdie in order to catch the train, and to be honest, I wasn’t really concentrating. I was more or less soaked, weighed down with camping bags, and just wanting to get home by this point. Still, it was a very good and well-researched talk that wouldn’t have been out of place in an Oxford art history lecture (at least, according to a friend who studied art history). The only odd thing here was Salman spending a minute reciting lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Then, train home, collapse on bed, eat dinner, sleep…


I actually quite enjoyed the Hay Festival, and I would go again. I’m not sure my friends would, although I think that was mostly down to the weather and the camping.

I can’t help but think that there’s an awful lot the festival could do to improve itself. A friend described it as ‘something that sounds good in theory but disappoints in practice’ and I would have to agree. There was a general lack of organisation permeating the event, from spotty tech support of presentations to clueless volunteers. The quality of panel hosts and interviewers – incredibly important people – was highly uneven and sometimes very damaging.

Strikingly, the Hay Festival did not cater to young people at all. Clearly that’s their choice and the festival does very well with the audience it has, but let’s face it – they’re not getting any younger. The festival does give away a large number of free tickest to students, which is very admirable and deserves recognition. But it’s not enough. Young people want two things – events that are relevant to them, and the opportunity to meet other young people. The Hay Festival had neither. If I hadn’t gone along with four friends, I’d have found it a rather boring experience.

I would suggest getting more younger writers in – perhaps even just a few fantasy or SF authors (there were exactly zero during the three days I was there), and organising some drinks evenings. Even designating an after-festival pub would help. A step up might be having a special campsite for young people, where you wouldn’t have to be worried about waking everyone up at midnight as you go around drinking. Come to think of it, a two day book-themed BarCamp would be marvellous, but that might be pushing it.

Still, it was a refreshing experience to be at a festival of books, and I can hardly blame them for the weather…

7 Replies to “Hay Festival 21”

  1. Have you been to the Edinburgh International Book Festival?
    Although the average age is probably at least that of Hay (!) it has the same very high quality line-up of speakers – if not better (often more international names) – and, being on at the same time as the main Edinburgh festival and Edinburgh fringe, there is no shortage of after hours places to go.

  2. Thanks for your honest comments on the Hay Fest. I really hope the organisers take your comments on board for next year – you certainly laid out some simple ideas they could start with.
    Out of interest, what was your question to Jonathan Freedland about early literature and videogames?

  3. cjcjc: I haven’t been to the Edinburgh book festival, but it does sound interesting. The only thing that worries me about it is that it could be too busy!

    Alex: I’ve read that back in 2007, in his Radio 4 programme ‘The Long View’, Freedland compared the effect of ‘Pamela’ (one of the first true novels) in the 18th century with that of videogames in the 20th century; i.e. condemnation and misunderstandings by the establishment, in the face of a rapid uptake by the rest of the population. I asked him how I might be able to get a copy of the programme, with the hope of later asking him some questions on it. No dice, unfortunately.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s