VIDYA SHAH made it to Hay when the sun wasn’t shining and finds out why the literature festival, into its 25th year now, is still the place to be for the literati.
I board the train at London-Paddington and unexpectedly find myself standing on this two-hour journey into the countryside, a happy DTC-bus feeling. As we arrive into Hereford station, north-west of London close to the Welsh border, Adam picks up a group of us, entertains us all the way to Hay with funny stories, including one about the “mad” pub owner in Hay, who, according to him, goes swimming in the River Wye naked every morning. Philip is a consultant to farmers in Hay, gives them advice on how to get better subsidies for farming, and Arthur is a commercial pilot who wants to stop flying and take to landscape planning, because he believes he is good at it. But the three have one thing in common. Every year for many years now, they have keenly awaited the Hay Literary festival where they slip into being volunteers, driving speakers and performers in the hired SUVs to our desired destinations with complete earnestness and excitement. Started to feel a bit like the Truman show.
Located in the staggering beauty of the Welsh countryside, Hay-on-Wye (Y Gelli in Welsh) is unique in its location on the border between England and Wales, lying on the Welsh side of the Welsh/English Border. “The Hay”, derives from the Norman Hay or Haie, meaning a fenced or hedged enclosure and “Y-Gelli” means “Grove”. The famous River Wye marks the county boundary. The town has always held an important place in the region, once the most important town for miles around. Because of this it has a history of inns and pubs, and the tradition of offering food and lodging to travellers continues with accommodation and cuisine being among the best on offer in Britain.
But most importantly, it is a simple little book town. With a population of only 1,500, it has 30 book shops. Famous the world over for its second-hand and antiquarian bookshops, some specialise whilst others carry general stock. So, for instance, you have a “Mostly Maps.com” that sells some incredible maps from England and other parts of the world, “Murder and Mayhem” that specialises in detective fiction, true crime and horror while “Rose’s Books” stocks rare and out-of-print children’s and illustrated books. Perhaps the most famous and well known is Richard Booth’s “Bookshop”, and not without a reason. It was Richard Booth who made the town famous 50 years ago when he set it up as a “the capital of second hand books trade”. In fact, in 1977 he declared Hay-on-Wye to be an independent kingdom, and nominated himself its monarch. Since then, Hay has developed a healthy tourism industry based on literary interests.
For a town of its size, Hay overwhelms you with a series of festivals. People come from all over only to attend these festivals. Hotels are completely booked, homes are rented out, and it’s a time when local people look forward to for the revenue that it generates. Some of these hotels are regal, old and rather grand, such as the Baskerville Hall Hotel where I stayed, built in 1839 by a Thomas Baskerville and set in 130 acres of Welsh countryside.
In the summers, Hay also celebrates a wonderful Fringe fest, “How the Light Gets in”, a philosophy and music festival, which brings together exciting new music (including interesting blends of folk, blues and electronica), theatre, puppetry, “powerful” talks and “penetrative’ debates.
But it is the Hay Literary Festival, perhaps the mother of the barrage of literary festivals around the world that is the pièce de résistance. In its 25th year this year, the Hay Festival has brought together writers from around the world to debate and share stories. Peter Florence (his father Norman Florence started the festival), the suave festival director, says he estimates they have sold around 2,50,000 tickets this year. All events are ticketed, he says he cannot do events without some element of surety, given the eternal threat of rain in this part of the world.
While the Lit Fest this year too had authors and celebrities including Hilary Mantel and Harry Belafonte, also delightful was the careful and robust programming through readings and workshops for children. This seemed like one fun family outing. India had its presence too through events supported by the British Council, including the concert version of the book The Last Mughal and a more glamorous session with (as the program booklet stated) “an unprecedented super starry Bollywood cast”, looking at perceptions and cultural visions in 21st Century India (I shall refrain here from lamenting on how Bollywood has taken over all cultural programming!).
Ask Florence if literary fests really increase readership, he flips it around and says the one thing that Hay has done is given authors a visibility and brought them closer to their audiences, this including people like Arundhati Roy, Ian McEwan and Yann Martel. It’s big, very funded, though he says that they spend as much as £3.5 million in setting up the venues alone, and just about break even with the monies they raise.
People plan way in advance to make it to the sessions, booking tickets online. Not surprising then that our session at 10 p.m. on a cold and rainy day went to a full house. The festival has spread far and wide to other countries, including India. Hay now runs 15 festivals across five continents that “foster the exchange of understanding, mutual respect and ideas”.
There is a complex dynamic that is emerging between the bookshops and the festival. One could assume that the two are complementary to each other, but apparently not quite. While the Literary Fest, according to Florence, gets as many as 65,000 visitors, the book shop owners complain of a steady decline in book sales, arguing that “it sucks up the thousands of tourists who used to browse their shops”. The big question in Hay now is, how it will go down in history — as the town of books or the place where the big literary festival happens? Bit of an irony there!
Vidya Shah is a musician who performed the “The Last Mughal” at the Hay Festival with William Dalrymple.