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Ten days of Hay fever

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Ready for bibliophiles: A bookshop employee rearranges her window during the Guardian Hay Festival in 2004. Photo: Justin Williams
Ready for bibliophiles: A bookshop employee rearranges her window during the Guardian Hay Festival in 2004. Photo: Justin Williams

TISHANI DOSHI

Why do people come back year after year to Hay-on-Wye in Wales?

EVERY summer, the book town of Hay-on-Wye on the border of England and Wales explodes. For 10 days, this normally sleepy town of 1500 inhabitants is inundated by bibliophiles, as it plays host to the U.K.'s most kicking literary event - the Guardian Hay Festival . The festival had rather humble beginnings in 1988 with a few authors reading in makeshift tents in the middle of the countryside, battling unpredictable weather conditions. But by the time Bill Clinton visited in 2001, it had mushroomed into an event of significant stature. Clinton enjoyed himself so much that he likened his Hay experience to "a Woodstock of the mind." The analogy stuck.

Bigger and better

Last year about 80,000 people descended on Hay during festival time to walk its cobbled streets, visit its second-hand bookstores (at last count there were 41), and to hear their favourite authors wax eloquent. They brought in a whopping three million pounds to the local economy. This year promises to be bigger, brighter, better. Al Gore will discuss the dangers of global warming, Alain de Botton will tell us about the architecture of happiness, and I'm going to read poems on the same stage as Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney. Seriously.When I first came to Hay two years ago, I was writing my first novel and trying to peddle a collection of poems that no one seemed to want to buy. It still ranks as one of the best experiences of my literary life (admittedly short that it is), because the segregation between the published and the waiting-desperately-in-the-wings-to-be-published didn't seem to matter as much as it did elsewhere. Sure - as one of the "unpublished," you did look with a certain degree of green on those authors sitting up on the podiums, answering questions super-intelligently and signing copies in the book tent with flourish while the tills went ka-chink ka-chink ka-chink. But the divide didn't seem to matter as much because there were enough social events and impromptu gatherings on the lawn where everyone seemed unified in at least one aspect: their love for all things book-like. This is the particular wonder of Hay, that despite its swelling reputation and glamour, it retains its sense of intimacy and accessibility, and it's still committed to serious stuff. It's the only place I can think of where you can engage with a blacklisted Zimbabwean journalist, a satirical cartoonist, an Egyptologist, an urban planner, and a master chef, all in one afternoon. And if Salman Rushdie happens to be your literary flavour of the month, then you can almost certainly catch him in a tent and question him senseless; and if you're lucky, he may even be at the same party as you are later that night. The real strength of the festival is that it tackles poetry and politics on equal footing, and that it's willing to make space for everyone. Credit for this must be given to festival director, Peter Florence, who when I first met him, said Hay was something like Thanksgiving for him: "A pretext for gathering people together". The following year, we collided on festival site again as I was slipping into Darwin's great-great granddaughter's talk on tigers. He came over with a beaming bear hug and said, "Look! Everyone's here again!" Simple as that. So this year, when I won the All-India poetry prize and finally managed to get my first volume of poems published in Delhi, I informed Peter, who replied in his customary one-line fashion: "Great news. Will you read at our poetry gala?" "Absolutely," I gushed back. A few weeks later, I got an e-mail from the artist's coordinator informing me that I'd be reading on the first weekend in the big tent with Don Paterson, John Fuller, Hugo Williams, James Fenton, Owen Sheers, Margaret Atwood and Seamus Heaney. Hot damn! Roll me over in the clover.When I told a fellow-graduate from Johns Hopkins that my first propah poetry reading in the U.K. as a published author was going to be with Seamus Heaney, he giggled himself silly and said, "Doshi, you know if they make you read before Seamus, you should say something like, 'All you folks in the back might want to stick around for this Heaney guy. I hear he's rather good'." Seriously though, it means a week of sleepless nights in the lead-up to the festival. It means having to practise lines in London's parks aloud so I don't fumble up my eight minutes of airtime. It means praying and praying that I will indeed read before Seamus Heaney, not because I'd even consider trying to be humorous in front of a few hundred people, but because I've heard that Heaney reads with a lyrical profundity that dazzles. My fear is that if I don't go before him, I might be too paralysed with fear to actually pay attention to any of that dazzle.

Room for all

We all know though, that we have to make hay while the sun shines. And this Sunday, after my moment in the sun jamming with Seamus and others is over, I'm convinced I'll be equally happy for eight tension-free days to enjoy the festival and embrace its madness. There's something so laissez-faire about Hay that there can be no loss of ego when one has to descend the ranks from author to reader, performer to listener. I'm fairly certain that I won't take it to heart either, if my queue in the book-signing tent consists of a close cluster of friends who later defect to Heaney's queue, which will no doubt be snaking languorously around the tent. It will help to put things in perspective.Ultimately, the single best thing about Hay is that it has room to accommodate the big and little fish alike; the luminaries and the obscure, the wannabes and the up-theres. Peter Florence's particular penchant for creating platforms where the established can be celebrated and the new can be discovered is probably the reason that makes Hay rather addictive; a pilgrimage festival par excellence; why people come back year after year to submit themselves to 10 days of Hay Fever. Not just so they can mix with debs, dons and divas on equal footing, but because in that magical Welsh-English countryside, where authors read in make-shift tents and the weather remains fickle, anything can happen. Tishani Doshi is a freelance writer and a dancer based in Chennai. E-mail: t_doshi@hotmail.com For more information visit www.hayfestival.com


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