Hay Festival: Very in tents: books on Wye: The Hay Festival has begun: John Walsh remembers previous delights

WHAT WERE the key moments of the Hay-on- Wye festivals in the past? The time when Antonia Byatt, while raptly discoursing on the symbolic magic of the sacred river in Coleridge's Kubla Khan, found herself under attack from a platoon of baby spiders abseiling from the roof of a candy-striped tent? The occasion when Vikram Seth - lionised beyond endurance - kept a sweltering tent-load of yet more critics and admirers waiting while he took a refreshing, pre-interview dip in the River Wye? Or when Howard Jacobson popped out to buy a newspaper and returned to the Swan hotel 90 minutes later, having given an impromptu lecture on Great Expectations to an audience of 600 when the scheduled speaker had failed to show up?

The annual literary thrash on the Welsh borders, sponsored this year by the Independent and re- christened the Hay Festival, has always managed to link the mundane with the sublime. In its earliest days, it was the small, provincial dream of the Florence family, Norman and Peter, pere et fils, and promised little more than a sighting of some second-division novelists with a liking for Welsh holidays. Once the Sunday Times began to bankroll it in 1989, the dreams of Florence Jnr had gone international: he wanted Nobel prizewinners, transatlantic visionaries, Hollywood stars. He wrote to everyone on the literary map and charmed most of them into coming to Hay.

Once there were only a couple of hotels in which events could be mounted and visiting writers could disport themselves. Heady days: one would sit all afternoon in the Kilvert garden in an ever- widening circle of chairs, drinking pints of beer and cider through boiling summer afternoons and greeting the arriving metropolitan types with languid salutations punctuated by sudden rushes of excitement ('Hi, Der . . . Good afternoon, Mr Walcott') while the hotel cat snoozed on the wall and the children played in the flowerbeds and the pond.

Later things got more professional. The centre of operations became a huge tent with steeply raked seating. Suddenly, guests needed to be miked up. For all its classiness, the tent was not impervious to weather: one year, Joseph Heller's conversation with Melvyn Bragg was drowned by hailstones rattling off the canvas like an air-raid from Catch 22. In the same tent Martin Amis chatted to Salman Rushdie one hothouse afternoon, both modishly kitted out in identical ecru lightweight suits while Rushdie's bodyguards stood, inconspicuous as scorpions on a flannel, in their sensible tweed jackets in the 90- degree heat . . .

These days there's a small village of marquees, bars and exhibition areas. But it is not all canvas and chat. My most agreeable memories are of unexpected meetings in Hay's narrow streets and rustic environs. Discovering, say, the head of Arthur Miller bobbing disembodiedly along on the other side of the hedgerow offers an unmistakeable frisson. Finding oneself talking at lunchtime in a pub with Tony Benn and Benjamin Zephaniah - both about to perform their rather dissimilar schtick to rival audiences - is something of a quality experience. Watching the late William Golding give his last-ever lecture, on storytelling, was one thing. Discovering the shaggy-bearded knight in one's bed, as befell Jeremy Young, a Sunday Times photographer staying in the same hotel (Sir William was in his later years a noted somnambulist) was quite another. 'Private faces in public places' wrote Auden, 'Are wiser and nicer / Than public faces in private places.' Maybe, but public faces can be rendered suddenly private by the accident of briefly inhabiting the same small town as their fans, and rarely suffer in the transformation.

Mario Vargas Llosa, for instance, flying in importantly by helicopter to discuss Madame Bovary with Julian Barnes, passed over the Hay cricket field and watched as someone ran up to bowl. Impressed by the blistering cover drive that followed, he told the pilot to keep them hovering there until the end of the over.

The question remains, of course: why do people come to hear writers read and talk about their work? What do they expect to hear? Wisdom? Career tips? I have a theory that it's a kind of sacramental phenomenon. You know those pictures, those Renaissance cliches, of the Virgin and Child and Attendant Saints, that carry the title Sacra Conversazione, in which you can't of course hear the divine chatter, but you know that, if you could, it would be wonderfully pure and profound? I think that that's what the audience at Hay - at any literary festival - expects to hear: something familiar but sublime.

Mostly they don't get it, of course; writers are generally more at home discussing money or sex or travel arrangements. But where creativity still holds, in British culture, a small essence of magic, of divine afflatus, you'll always have adherents at its shrine.

Sometimes this benign zealotry takes on ludicrous proportions. Last year saw the spectacle of Joanna Trollope, a cool and sophisticated inventor of middlebrow scandals, being confronted by a claque of matrons who demanded to know, at a packed meeting like a kangaroo court, why she had had to kill off the inconvenient titular cleric in The Rector's Wife. For a moment she was on trial, not from critics, agents or reviewers, but from readers to whom her characters had a life quite distinct from their creator's.

Perhaps that is the real point of literary festivals - to humanise the work as well as the sainted workers; simultaneously to celebrate and demythologise the business of writing. It's for that that I'll be going to Hay for the sixth year in succession, fondly recalling the time my daughter, aged four, and her friends laid a posy of flowers on the doorstep of the woman in the next-door cottage, just because they liked her kind face and glittering eyes - and how pleased Margaret Atwood was to find it there, when she took in the milk in the morning.

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