The clock in the middle of Hay chimes every quarter of an hour. The first night I was here I listened to it until dawn, and I became steadily more hysterical. By the time I got to the Festival site I was a nervous wreck and there was no more time to hide behind. I did my event, sat on the stage with Lynn Truss, another shaking first-
timer, and my publisher and the marketing director. The event was called The First Novel, and I thought these people had come to hear us read from our books. In fact they had come to find out how to get a literary agent, so I needn't have worried. Afterwards we went to the hospitality tent and began to drink. People milled around. Michael Ignatieff, who had been performing in another tent and was wearing a fetching red polo- neck and wellingtons, was at a nearby table. Pam Houston sat with us and we calmed down. There was nothing to fear now; we could have fun. Every now and then there was a flurry of excitement and someone important like Michael Foot or Naomi Wolf came in, surrounded by courtiers.
In the evening we drank more at The Swan. The afternoon had been a huge success; not so much the event, although it was popular, but the discovery of the junk shops, my finest purchase a fleecy coat which may have done time on a sheep's back. I had brought no coat with me, confusing Hay-on-Wye with San Tropez when packing. The sheep cost pounds 6 and would have been rejected by most people on the grounds of disgustingness. It saved me from pneumonia. It lay in the corner of the bar giving off its unique odour and being sniffed by occasional dogs while we made merry. Soon there were lots of us making merry and it was one o'clock in the morning. We tried to take alcohol up to someone's room but the proprietor was not encouraging: 'You can all go up to the room, but I think you should know that once you do that you will have to stay there until 7.30 tomorrow morning. If you try to get out, the police will arrive.' We looked at the half bottle of whisky: it wasn't enough; we gave up.
On Sunday everyone I had come with returned to London, but I was left behind because I had a week of intensive intellectual training coming up. Barry Unsworth was conducting the Booker Masterclass, a very grand name for a writing course. I had elected to do this course in the hope that Barry might write my second novel for me.
There were four of us, it turned out, hoping to get Barry to write books for us, but as he sat down for our inaugural dinner he was distracted. He had arrived at Hay in the middle of the night with his wife and, unable to find the key to the cottage where they were to stay, had spent an hour crawling around in the rain looking for the key, looking for light, looking for shelter from the rain. They were exhausted by that and by Barry's festival event, which he had just finished. When we met for our first session, Barry wisely suggested a drink before he went off to read a heap of our manuscripts. This left time for shopping. Shopping meant chairs.
Later in the day we each had an individual session with him. He had managed to read enough in his lunch hour to be able to help. Our classroom was in The Swan, but it might as well have been in an ashtray. John, the male member of the group, feebly waved his inhaler when packets of cigarettes popped up on the table in front of the rest of us, but was ignored.
We met at 10.30 each morning. There was John, who had a beard and looked sinisterly youthful for someone who said he was in his forties; there was Amanda, who had a cold and had gone deaf in one ear; and there was Deborah, who may become godmother to my chairs. And there was Barry, whose charm, intelligence and sensitivity I am saving up to make into a florid acknowledgement at the front of my second book.
In the first group meeting each of us (including Barry, whom we invited join in) had three pieces of paper. We wrote the name of a person on one, a place on the second and a time and weather condition on the third. Then we put them in three piles in the middle of the table and drew out one from each pile. I think I had the wrong idea from the start. I wanted to know who had written which of the little sentences Barry read out. I didn't realise we were meant to be choosing one of the combinations to write about, so I didn't choose one. I have still not done my homework.
Barry didn't mind because he had to work out a way of explaining that he didn't have time to write my book for me. Instead he asked me some deceptively simple questions about it, like why I was doing it, and suddenly my stuckness stopped. I was very impressed.
At our next group meeting we did reading and talking about the things read. And we all got a lot of smoking done. And some work, although the lack of technology in our hotel rooms was a hindrance. No one knew how to write on paper except Barry, and he didn't have to do any writing.
There were some wacky people in Hay. Peter Florence, Festival organiser, adopted the persona of an air hostess when he got on stage before Nigel Kennedy and said: 'In case of any emergency . . . ' It was the way he gestured at the exits, forefingers extended, voice gentle and soothing.
There was also a poet. We knew he was a poet because he said so, loudly. He declaimed a little rondel while waiting for a pot of tea in The Swan. When the tea arrived he let his pearls fall upon the waiter's ears. The waiter nodded and wandered off; the poet called him back: 'Let me write it down for you, bring me paper.' The waiter did, and the poet, scrawling magnificently as poets do, gave him his own copy. At the next sighting, the poet must have been wearing his aura. He was approached by Deborah, who said: 'Are you a poet?' Delighted, he agreed that he was and took her down to the river where he recited his favourite poem, which was by him. Then he wrote it down for her, and for himself, and put his copy next to his heart. Deborah's joy knew no bounds.
Now it is the last day of the Masterclass and we are having a coffee morning. We have had a last supper. There have been no tantrums or tears so far, but I may have to weep at someone about my chairs. There is a chance that they could get a lift with Barry, his wife and Fascinating Aida, but I think the leg-room would be tight. Maybe I'll just have to come back for them next year.
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