BOOKS: A right royal pain

As the Hay festival gets into full swing, Cole Moreton meets the self-styled King of Hay and finds out why he's calling a truce at last
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE WAR is over. The castle is in ruins, the King in poor health. An army is preparing to invade his tiny kingdom, and it will meet no resistance. Hay-on-Wye, a charming town on the border between England and Wales, declared its independence from the rest of Britain 21 years ago, an announcement that was half publicity stunt and half serious protest at the state of local government. The man crowned king was Richard Booth, a local shop- keeper who had a vision to transform Hay from a struggling rural community into the books capital of Britain. It worked. There are only 1,300 people living in this town at the foot of the Black Mountains, but they can choose from 36 different bookshops, selling everything from antiquarian journals to kids' books.

The invasion force is the 35,000 people who visit Hay for the annual literary festival, which began yesterday, and which attracts writers and readers from around the world. This year's big names include Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, Stephen Hawking and Hanif Kureishi (see events p31). The 103 bed & breakfast establishments will all be full and the bookshops busy, so you might expect the festival to be welcomed by the King of Hay, Richard Booth - but no. Over the years he has maintained a steady attack on this "gathering of literary groupies", refusing to take part in the events and stressing that the reinvention of the town must be sustainable all year round.

From behind the walls of the castle that dominates Hay, and which he bought in 1961, the arch-publicist Mr Booth has used his feud with the festival organisers to remind the media that local people will not be dazzled or bullied by the glamour and wealth that visits them for 10 days a year.

Now, it seems, there is to be peace in the valley. "I believe the time has come not to oppose the festival," says the King, magnanimously. "I'm sure 200 intellectuals talking about themselves is very interesting. We would welcome participation in it, but we feel that the book-town industry needs promotion. Ours is a long-term development."

He prefers to call himself the Emperor these days, the founding father of a book-town movement. Hay has become the model for 20 communities in mainland Europe, Scandinavia, Australia and America. All of them have discovered that once a small town is crammed with book shops it begins to attract visitors and its economy grows.

Booth now owns only a couple of shops. Most of his stock comes from the States, where a vast number of books are produced in the English language. "America is such a big country that they can publish a history of the Rottweiler, or a history of the Alsatian. We haven't got the money. But all the time I have been addressing what people are doing to survive in a rural economy. The big thing in America at the moment is a Munchkin, by the way: a cat with very short legs like a dachshund, so it won't jump on your baby's bed. People survive on breeding Munchkins in rural areas, because a good Munchkin is worth $800. So ours is not to criticise."

It's easy to laugh at Richard Booth. Most people did when he declared Hay an independent state in 1977, but he can hardly have been surprised. It was April Fools' Day, and the King was wearing a crown made out of tinfoil. The orb and sceptre were made from the contents of a toilet cistern. The Hay Air Force - a bi-plane - made a flypast, a rowing boat was launched as the Hay Navy, and the sovereign retired to the pub to name his government. National newspapers and television crews were all given interviews. So what was it all about?

"It was certainly a publicity thing," recalls the monarch. "At the time I had tried to communicate the anti-quango priorities of a rural area by writing a pamphlet, but it didn't work. I am a publicity freak. I'm not wearing a big red nose, but more or less."

The son of a local man, Booth had opened his first bookshop in Hay in 1961 at the Old Fire Station (an event now commemorated by a blue plaque on the wall above the door). He told anyone who would listen about his ideas to use the growing trade in second-hand books to kick-start the Hay economy. With inherited money he bought premises around the town, and filled them with thousands of books that nobody else wanted. "The Mayor said, 'Booth won't last six months in Hay, nobody reads books.' To some extent there is a non-commercial consideration. When I came here I did so because I wanted to live in a rural area, not because I wanted to make money."

Nevertheless Hay was able to attract book-buying students from universities in Bristol, Birmingham, Oxford and Aberystwyth. By the start of the 1970s he was a successful businessman in his mid-30s, with a Rolls Royce parked outside his castle.

"When I fought for independence I was still very much under the influence of my father, who had only died four years earlier. He desperately wanted me to live in a rural area, but he didn't realise how impractical it was." Looking back now he describes having been frustrated that national government was ignoring the plight of decaying market towns like Hay, and thinking that the future lay in local produce and traditional skills. Those ideas - which were way ahead of their time - needed promotion, and when the chance came, he seized it.

"Thirty years ago I was a close friend of Marianne Faithful and there were 20 journalists in Hay looking for her. She did a disappearing trick, as she did quite often, and instead they found me. I said, 'Hay is going independent of the British Isles.' Suddenly everybody took me quite seriously. So I told German journalists that we were between England and Wales, and things like this. By the time I declared myself a king there were six television stations there."

The Home Rule for Hay campaign was daft but it had a serious point: "All small rural towns were based on a food economy, but they got rid of that and gave us a tourist economy. Eighty per cent of it went to big business: to theme parks, package tours, to chain motels, what have you." They were his enemy, along with the Wales Tourist Board and the Development Board for Rural Wales. "In the international world we can only be competitive in the traditional: for example, if we've got home-cured bacon or local cider. We will not compete with an international supermarket."

It does not take much prompting for the King to launch into a formless monologue. He is a tragic figure, leaning on a stick with half his face frozen by an operation to remove a brain tumour two years ago. With big rectangular glasses falling down his nose, Booth in this state of decay has been described as "Eric Morecambe by Francis Bacon". He no longer lives in the castle, which was partially destroyed by a fire in 1978 and has never been fully restored. In 1982 he was forced to sell the bookshop he had created in the town's disused cinema to Leon Morelli, an entrepreneur who was attracted to Hay by Booth's pioneering work but who became the King's rival. Their squabbles still fill the letters page of the local paper from time to time.

Despite it all, he still manages to produce forceful and lucid arguments in favour of genuine local democracy and an end to the quangos that have plagued Welsh rural life. The anniversary celebrations this year were another opportunity to argue for a manual and traditional economy and against chemical agriculture, factory farming, supermarket food and big business. "I would agree with you that being a king is an unpleasant publicity thing, right, but against that what one's trying to do is to struggle in an area where obviously the media outlets and the newspapers are poor," he says. "The local newspapers will almost entirely be reorganised press releases from the Development Board for Rural Wales. You've got to have a strong media position if you live in a rural area. There's no alternative. What makes change is a big consistent media programme - good ideas don't." 8