Hayfever: A Hay Festival Retrospective, Part II


On Thursday, four days in, another sharp gear change – a panel discussion titled Compassion in Politics (which one of the panellists pointed out was an oxymoron.) I was attracted to it by the presence of AC Grayling, the writer and philosopher whose book The Meaning of Things I found concisely enlarging and whose coiffured locks, in person, are a thing of wonder. This was a Guardian-reader affair whose conclusions made grim reading – the Tory party are now considered one of the most right-wing mainstream parties in Europe whilst Britain has one of the highest rates of child poverty and mortality and general inequality on the Continent too. Nevertheless, they were all doing their bit and were optimistic of change; panellist and former leader of Plaid Cymru Adam Price is even pushing through a bill to criminalise lying in Welsh politics. This got a cheer.

Throughout the week it was the interstices between events that provided some of the most subtle joys – bombing down to the festival from our campsite on my old racing red 1980s Raleigh road bike, winding along a back lane that looped through pasture and small villages echoing to the bleating of spring lambs, breakfasting outside our camper with spreading views of the Wye Valley, wolfing down fish and chips with the kids on the steps up to the castle in the evening sunlight.

But best of all were the daily swims in the Wye at the bucolic Warren. The water was still a chill twelve or thirteen degrees and after about half an hour I would emerge shaking and blue finger tipped and would revive myself by bolting round the meadows three times and scoffing fresh sandwiches on the shingle of the little beach.

Richard Booth memorial, Hay-on-Wye

So, Hay, why all the books? In two words. Richard Booth. An Oxbridge eccentric and bibliophile, Booth was the first to open a second-hand book shop in the town. The last private owner of the castle (Norman ruins surmounted by a Jacobean mansion which boasts the oldest wooden defensive gate in the country) in which he hosted many famously outrageous parties and the burning of effigies of people he didn’t like, Booth declared Hay an independent kingdom in 1977, had himself crowned king and his horse made prime minister.

His colourful antics drew other booksellers and the moniker Town of Books paved the way for the foundation of the festival in 1988 (which, oddly, Booth was a long term opponent of). In my tour of the castle, bestowed by Booth to the Hay Castle Trust in 2011, one of the ladies serving coffee spoke fondly of her time working for Booth (who died in 2019). She recounted that a cry would go up from his staff when he was spotted on the high street and all cash would be removed from the tills to prevent him stuffing it into his pockets for personal use.

On my last night when the sun was setting and bats were beginning to flutter, I went to see Garth Marenghi’s Incarcerat Live. I had missed Mathew Holness’s cocksure horror writer’s TV incarnation, Dark Place, when it was first aired nearly twenty years ago so it was a treat to catch him on stage. With tinctures of The League of Gentlemen, Marenghi read from his current opus with an opening quote from the Plymouth Flyer, describing him not as Lon Chaney’s Man of a Thousand Faces but as a Man of a Thousand Faeces. Holding a finger aloft Marenghi stilled the titters, “A compliment because I can scare you shitless a thousand different ways!”

What followed was a trip down his febrile and exotic mind, including passages from The Randy Man, a flasher apparition in gaberdine raincoat who would be summoned if his name was spoken aloud seventeen times (horror aficionados would get the reference to the 1990 cult classic The Candy Man). Marenghi’s timing was a wonder but what was probably even more entertaining was his audience Q & A where every ad lib was delivered with scripted perfection. A connoisseur’s delight.

My twelve-year old, Daisy, an avid reader, went to see talks by children’s authors Katharine Rundell, Holly Jackson and the Children’s Poet Laureate of Wales, Casi Wyn. I took William to see artist and children’s author Oliver Jeffers who grew up amidst The Troubles in Northern Ireland and whose books, meticulously hand drawn and painted, are a retaliation to that conditioning, asking the question, “Can we work together as a species?” and concluding, that for our own survival, we must.

The last event, appropriately, was a family one, although on the face of it, possibly not. I grew up marvelling at how close comic Julian Clary could steer to offence (as did others, especially when he delivered that notorious one liner on Norman Lamont which nearly ended his career). He was the master of the double entendre, the natural heir to Frankie Howerd, as marinated in the Alternative Comedy scene of the 1980s. What I didn’t know was that he has also become a successful and rather prolific author, including of a series of kids’ books called The Bolds, centring on a family of hyenas that have emigrated from Africa to suburban England. The coup here was to have his illustrator up on stage with him, ex-milliner David Roberts, who would be scribbling away at a drawing of the scene as he read it out. Roberts too was engaging and funny and they formed a nice double act – Robert’s breezy good cop to Clary’s withering bad. On awarding a finished illustration to a boy in the audience, he exclaimed, “I don’t like touching the general public!”

It was good to see that his tendency towards the risqué remained undimmed, despite the average age of the audience.

And with that we said goodbye to the festival and, after a final dip at The Warren and picnic on the beach, goodbye to Hay. I am glad to report that on the return journey the van did not resume its role as vomitorium, but we did have a blow out on the M40 near Oxford which added interest. It was close to midnight when we limped into our street, laden with books and memories of a dreamy, perfect sort of week.

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