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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why