I had been informed by Tony Benn that, for those who have been there, the Hay international festival is an unforgettable occasion. I have spent the past three days at Hay-on-Wye, and return to London all the richer, with a few deep belly laughs stored in my stomach, and a new-found energy for festival attending.
Having spent a number of my younger years with trade-union parents attending NUT annual conferences, I feel comfortable with an agenda in my hand and a procedural format for debate. That, aligned with great swathes of literary magic and wisdom, all in democratically assembled, highly functional tent rooms, theatres and concert venues, and Hay reaches the zenith of all that a festival can be.
In April I was e-mailed by the theatre director Josie Rourke about joining a workshop she is planning as an "in development" piece for Hay. Josie and I worked on a 24-hour play together last year at the Old Vic. I am intrigued by her mention of the poet Owen Sheers adapting Le Silence de la Mer, a French Resistance novella by Vercors, into a play, with me and Hugh Dancy as the cast. Very early stages. It seems timely, in that a man and his niece have their home subsumed by a military presence, and a fervent young officer comes to reside. There are nightly encounters with the soldier, in which only he speaks, and the girl declines even to meet his gaze. The book takes place in a suffocating world of fundamentalism, occupation and resistance. We four, Josie, Owen, Hugh and I, meet in London to begin to explore the territory. I have not worked with Hugh in person, but he was the voice of Lancelot in a Jeanette Winterson play I did at the National Theatre, and Hugh had not realised that the play subsequently went to Paris and Rome - that, in fact, he'd toured without physically being there.
I arrive at a house we're living in for the few festival days. I am full of anticipation about the town of books, and wonder why I did not make it here sooner in life. We four gather with Le Silence de la Mer. Owen has written some suggested, detailed, unspoken life for the niece to inhabit; a language of the body, that wraps itself around the text of the visiting officer.
The FilmFour tent. We present our work-in-progress. Peter Florence, Hay's artistic director, chairs our session, corralling some sense of what the manifestation of the completed piece will be. He suggests a date at which we will reconvene, development fully realised, and I find the challenge a good one. Owen has his ear tuned to the voice of Vercors, and I look forward to moving further with this. My character is a challenge as she is invariably without words, but holds quietly articulate anger, and she passively resists the occupation. Dancy's character has the great, if naive, energy of an optimistic imperialist, and she finds herself, of course, becoming affected by him.
The FilmFour tent is well erected, with very little flapping in the wind; our full-house audience are silent, and hopefully engaged. I was nervous about performing after a family wedding in Manchester the previous night, but the Hay attenders have made my inaugural session a thing of pleasure.
I head to Jeanette Winterson speaking on myths in the Review tent. She has a rapt, packed crowd listening as I arrive from my chilly French landscape, and slip in to the back. A kind friend slides a garden chair towards me. Seeing Jeanette speak, I am reminded of her brilliant ability to capture an audience; her ease, humour and warmth with a crowd, leftovers from childhood missionary days, and of her ability to rouse the desire in all of us to be the writers of our own narrative, and to invent our futures. She speaks of heroes, and how they have a part to play, always, in their own downfall. She has re-shaped the story of Atlas and Heracles - Atlas, holding up the world, and of the need, sometimes, to let go of the weight. Weight, indeed is the title of her book. She is full of conviction, and I leave her tent full of something akin to passionate intensity: she defies Yeats's "Second Coming" statement. A very good beginning to Hay.
The Poetry Gala: Margaret Atwood, Tishani Doshi, James Fenton, John Fuller, Seamus Heaney, Don Paterson, Owen Sheers, Hugo Williams. Eight poets, eight minutes each. Atwood begins the session. This venue is the Eos marquee, a vast stadium-like tent, where the Silence de la Mer crew realise it's a "sonnet-off", "bard-off" - and we think we should, perhaps, have lighters to raise in the air.
Atwood is taut and diamond-eyed ... and punctual. The full-to-capacity crowd view this goddess figure who carries such minimal movement of limb, and all the body of her work hangs in her midst. Each poet seems fragile under the spotlight of a curiously vulnerable-making situation. It's kind of like stand-up, at the Hackney Empire where they may be "gonged" at any minute. They are individual and excellent and the speficity of each tongue is something to relish. Hay was worth the journey, if this was all I was to see.
Margaret Atwood. Chaired by Rosie Boycott, back in Eos again, another packed house. Atwood reads from her new short story collection. She is the Jeremy Hardy of Toronto, I discover: dry, revelatory, you want her to go on for some time. When asked about the proliferation of fine Canadian writers, she responds: "Nature abhors a vacuum."
One story in particular, a short short story, is written vertically, and entitled Bring Back Mom: an Invocation. Beginning with Forties female housewifely iconography, it descends into a portrait far darker and more intimate, and I am drawn in. Enough. I look to have my book signed, and find a queue that circles the bookshop tent, and beyond. We will speak of circles, again, in relation to Seamus Heaney.
For now, I depart for the Nick Broomfield film Ghosts, and I am intercepted by a festival organiser to read a short extract at the children's fiction award. Having explored a little of the humour of Frank Cotterell-Boyce with a younger audience than the Vercors session yesterday, I move speedily towards the FilmFour tent, once again - Hay, it seems, is all about geography and knowledge of lay-out, as events are tightly scheduled. I have been very much anticipating the viewing of Broomfield's film on the Morecambe Bay tragedy. It transpires that he has made a feature-length drama, and will screen the first 30 minutes for us. I feel privileged to see this early on, as it is a subject that was sorely under-investigated when the deaths occurred in February 2004. The film is made with a cast from Fujian province in China, and shot so sparely, and with agonisingly aesthetic dexterity. I am awed by the accomplishment.
My uncle John, who is himself a fine documentarian of human struggle, is in the audience. Again, in the tent, there is an atmosphere of mutual experience and shift in thought, as Broomfield and his cast shine a torch in corners of our world that some members of the establishment would rather leave in darkness.
Seamus Heaney reading from District and Circle, and in conversation with the Welsh Poet Laureate Gwyneth Lewis. Heaney is complete. He is full of fun and enjoyment of his own contradictions. We all bow down to him.
Al Gore, And Now The Weather. Post-Florida 2000, Gore, minus a presidency, has renewed energy for his great passion. This is the state of the world, our very own consumption of it, the devouring of our natural resources, and the urgent 10-year limit we have within which to act, if we have any chance of survival.
I have seen the Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth, just released in the States, and admired the acutely revolutionary delivery of the slide-show assisted talk he has now been giving for some 16 years. He is here, in person, at Hay, which seems quite incredible given the mud, the rain, and the blueness of his shirt.
Peter Florence invites him to digress a little after his formal presentation. The man before us, iconised on the large screen behind his real-life smaller body, has a direct gaze and a simplicity of pure thought. I feel he is visionary on this subject, despite the shortcomings of his own Democratic Party in responding to the climate crisis.
He states: "I use logic and passion as my tools, because passion... is appropriate."
Vanity Fair dinner with Al Gore et al. The Cafédirect tent is transformed into a candlelit evening thing. Under the gowns I spot a few wellies. I leave Hay tomorrow, challenged, with a sure thought to return next year.
Saffron Burrows performed an English adaptation of the French novella 'Le Silence de la Mer', commissioned by Krug, at the Hay Festival