Festival Takeaways

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Two years ago in ‘Parkus Interruptus’ I wrote about how I had lost all pleasure in reading. Since then, several friends have described how grief has affected them in a similar way. I’ve had many suggestions for what might help me regain my enjoyment but perhaps the most helpful has been to focus on non-fiction. I manage to read quite a lot by doing this, but where I once had a hearty appetite and a mixed diet, I’m picky these days and only occasionally snack on fiction.

This week, though, I’ve been immersed in the world of books at the Hay Festival. This tiny Welsh town with its population of 1,600 and thirty bookshops, has just hosted its thirtieth annual literary festival and its global reputation means that it can attract the biggest names in literature, the arts, politics, broadcasting, and science. Over the course of ten days there were more than six hundred events. I was there for a week and went to twenty-three of them. Mostly they were entertaining, informative and thought-provoking. I’m left with a random collection of snapshot memories, odd facts and the beginnings of a better understanding of topics ranging from Islamic fundamentalism to medical sniffer dogs, time, the early days of London Zoo, and carpe diem. And now that I’m home, I can reflect on what I’ve taken away.

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As with so many things in life, some turn out to be different from what you expect. Last Saturday afternoon I sat packed into a tent along with hundreds of other people, all waiting to hear the actress Charlotte Rampling talking about her life—and it must have been a jolly interesting life. But she was quite determined not to share any of it with us, and so instead the event turned into an uncomfortable but fascinating tussle. The interviewer was charming and asked reasonable questions but his interviewee’s answers were unhelpful. She either arched her elegant eyebrows or said, “It’s in the book,” without elaborating. The interviewer persevered but was clearly relieved when after forty minutes he was able to invite questions from the audience. “We’ve got about fifteen minutes—let’s see if you lot can do any better” he said, with feeling.

By contrast, Harriet Harman was generous with her anecdotes, and talked poignantly about her mother who had studied law at Oxford—one of only three women in her year. She qualified as a barrister but then gave up her career to bring up four daughters. Her hard-won horsehair wig and black robes were consigned to the girls’ dressing up box.  Harriet and her three sisters all became solicitors and when she entered Parliament in 1982, there were more MPs named John, than women MPs.

Alan Johnson was another engaging raconteur. “So…” said the interviewer, “…you’ve been Minister for Health; Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer; Minister for Education; Home Secretary, and Minister for Trade and Industry. And all of this with you protesting in your book that you had no ambition. Can you imagine how far you’d have gone if you had been ambitious?” The interviewer was Sarfraz Manzoor, the same one who had tried so hard with Charlotte Rampling. He looked much happier this time as his interviewee showered us with political anecdotes, comments on the election campaign, and readings from his latest memoir.

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There was a surprise at the talk given by the gardening writer, Alys Fowler. I’d expected to hear about the wildlife that she discovered whilst canoeing around the canals of Birmingham. But instead of ducks and dandelions she talked about something more personal. The solitude of being alone on the water, pushed her into the realisation that after fourteen years of marriage she had fallen in love with a woman. On the one hand it was a moving story and on the other, her joy at paddling around the canals was infectious. What I took away from that one, was a wish to do some canoeing myself. It’s going on my list.

One of my favourite events was Artemis Cooper talking about her latest biography. She opened by saying “We all contain within ourselves some level of inconsistency. And none more than the novelist, Elizabeth Jane Howard.” By the end, we the audience, had heard of her relationships with a multitude of well-known twentieth century men including Cecil Day-Lewis, Kingsley Amis, Kenneth Tynan, Arthur Koestler, Laurie Lee, and the naturalist Peter Scott. “The puzzle,” said her biographer, “is how she had such a turbulent personal life, but wrote so insightfully about relationships.” Hilary Mantel recently called Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novels “exquisite and underrated”. She tells everyone to read them.

Jonathan Safran Foer talked about his new novel but began by saying what a thrill it was to be at Hay. “It’s like a story I would tell my kids,” he said. “Once upon a time there was a little town. And in the town there were lots of shops. And all the shops were bookshops…” I’ve come home from that little town with a big reading list. You might notice there’s nothing on it by Charlotte Rampling but it does include Harriet Harman’s ‘A Woman’s Work’, Alan Johnson’s ‘The Long and Winding Road’, Alys Fowler’s ‘Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery’, Isobel Charman’s ‘The Zoo’, and Artemis Cooper’s ‘Elizabeth Jane Howard: A Dangerous Innocence’. Then there are a few fictional dishes to tempt my finicky appetite—all of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novels. I enjoyed them many years ago and now I plan to reread them. And all of that should sustain me quite well until the next Hay Festival.

Remains of the Hay

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Last week I went shopping with my daughter, Emma, and as always she gave me something new to think about. She works in business development and has recently been exploring wearable technology. One particular growth area is lifelogging when people capture every aspect of their life by continuous video recording using a camera in their clothing, on their glasses or round their neck. One of the issues with lifelogging, though, must surely be in identifying what’s noteworthy in amongst the daily round of cleaning the loo, munching toast and snoring.

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As it happens this week has had less loo cleaning than normal as I’ve been at the Hay Festival. It was my first visit and turned out to be a real treat. Hay-on-Wye is an astonishing small town just inside Wales with thirty second-hand bookshops and a population of about 1,500. The Festival of Literature & Arts was devised around a kitchen table in 1988 and was said to have been funded from the winnings of a game of poker. Today, it’s a world-class festival of ideas, with international offshoots; you can if you want go to Hay Festivals in Mexico, Spain, Peru, Ireland and Colombia. Bill Clinton spoke at the 2008 Festival and called it ‘Woodstock for the Mind.’

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I often feel frustrated that most of life leaves such faint traces in my memory. It’s back to that old idea that if you don’t have reminders then there’s no proof that you were there. And this week there was much that I would like to have held onto. As usual, though, I was distracted by random thoughts that jostled in sideways, and so in the absence of lifelogging technology I shall have to rely on a disparate collection of the bits that did stick. With hundreds of events taking place over ten days, everyone there will come away with a different set of impressions. Here are some of mine.

I could have listened to Bridget Kendall, the BBC’s Diplomatic correspondent for hours. She was fascinating on the subject of Russia and described the occasions when she’s met Vladimir Putin. In 2001 he’d been president for just a year and she talked of meeting two Mr Putins. There was the public one, and the personal one who was less certain of himself. When asked who wore the trousers in his household he laughed and said it was his wife. Five years later, the Russian economy had grown and he was stronger and different. Now there was just one Mr Putin. The one with steely-blue eyes who tried to score points off the foreign journalists.

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Then there was the philosopher AC Grayling, who spoke softly and intimately as if he was telling us a bedtime story. His account of the changes in thinking brought about by the Thirty Years War was illuminating but it was a small nugget about Newton that stuck with me. Everyone knows about gravity, the apple, and calculus, but I’d not known that he spent a great deal of time looking for hidden messages in the Bible. He believed that if he could only crack its numerological code then he would discover a blueprint for the universe.

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AC Grayling: photo by Ian Scott

Joan Bakewell talked about what it’s like to grow old and it was very hard to believe that she is now 83. There was lots there of substance, politically and personally, but I liked what she said about her pastimes. All her life she has collected postcards from galleries around the world. She keeps them in shoeboxes and often these days she thinks to herself, ‘I’ll have an afternoon with my postcards.” She takes them out and looks at them closely. Each time she sees something new. She’s also patron of the National Piers Society and enthused about the contrast between the upperside which is all jollity and the underside which is sinister and eerie with its barnacles and detritus.

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On Monday afternoon, Danny Dorling, an Oxford professor of social geography talked about analysing the three most recent censuses up to 2011. There was a huge amount of data there but I was struck by an unexpected trend. Everyone thinks that life expectancy in the UK is increasing but when you look closely then it’s not so straightforward. Immigrant populations are living longer overall and boosting the figures but there’s been a big increase in people dying in their late 70s or early 80s and these are mostly middle-class women. The life expectancy of this group seems to be falling, and Professor Dorling speculated about the role of austerity in this. Meals on Wheels have been abolished, and there have been significant cuts to rural bus timetables and healthcare services.

The comedian Susan Calman talked about her ‘crab of hate’ depression and managed to make it both moving and humorous. Earlier, I’d listened and watched as Benedict Cumberbatch, Maxine Peake, Olivia Colman and friends read out a diverse collection of letters and I’d also passed Germaine Greer in the street and recognised her indomitable voice before I saw her face. On Monday evening, the award-winning documentary maker, Norma Percy chatted about the making of her recent series, Inside Obama’s White House. She described Obama as ‘the coolest guy in the world’, and was granted an interview with him. Unfortunately she missed it as she got mown down by a bicycle whilst walking towards the taxi that was due to take her to Heathrow. In the ambulance the paramedics said conversationally to this unassuming grey-haired older lady, ‘And what were you planning to do today, love?’ Her reply that she was going to the White House to interview Obama only served to increase their concern about her level of brain injury.

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Norma Percy: photo by Peabody Awards

But the highlight for me was a session on punctuation by the linguist and broadcaster, David Crystal. It might not sound the most gripping of subjects but in the hands of a master speaker it became fascinating, and the audience of 1,700 was rapt. He set out to write a book about the usage and history of punctuation marks in the English language and expected it to be about 150 pages. The rules are so complex and inconsistent, though, that it ended up at more than double that length. And no punctuation mark attracts more inconsistency than the apostrophe. You have only to look at London underground stations to get a taste of this. There’s King’s Cross, then Earls Court with Baron’s Court right next to it. Harrods and Claridges should by rights be Harrod’s and Claridge’s, and Waterstone’s recently transmogrified into Waterstones causing massive annoyance to pedants.

Later, I went to another excellent talk by David Crystal. This time it was about eloquence. He analysed some of the great speeches including Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’ victory address. And I learned that the concentration of listeners wanes briefly every five minutes or so. Perhaps my random jostling thoughts are quite normal after all. Wise speakers anticipate this pattern and give their audience regular breaks; they might pause for a sip of water, or just stay silent for a moment.

I was at the Festival from Sunday to Wednesday and it was a wrench to leave. Had I stayed till the end I might have seen Michael Palin, Simon Callow, Fay Weldon, KT Tunstall, Jeanette Winterson and any number of other less famous people with interesting things to say. What I have done, though, is to book accommodation for next year. Who knows—if I keep going then I might one day see Obama there. Like Norma Percy, I too think he’s the coolest guy in the world.

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