'I won't have that woman near me'

The ninth Hay-on-Wye festival meanders on its pleasant course, with just the occasional white-water rapid

Three hundred people are sitting fairly uncomfortably in a wind- buffeted marquee listening to Ben Okri wrestling with the most difficultquestion that has ever been tossed a novelist's way at 10.30 on a drizzly morning in Hay-on-Wye.

"Could you please explain something to me?" asks the elderly lady, somewhat falteringly. Okri, fresh out of his pyjamas, indicates with a sleepy nod that he'll try. "Throughout your novels there are repeated references to pepper soup. Could you please tell me exactly what kind of pepper that is to which you are referring? Not green, I assume..."

"No, red," replies Okri with unusual authority. "The very hot kind. It is believed to have punitive possibilities - against malaria, impotence, et cetera..."

The degree of respect that a writer shows for an audience can be a way of measuring his or her common humanity. Take Graham Swift and Kazuo Ishiguro, for example, two of this week's most persuasive and engaging speakers. Neither of these men is in the least concerned to appear bookish - their remarks are not peppered with studiedly casual references to Freud, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, for example. Nor, when they speak, do they try to suggest, by an inclination of the head or the quick gift of an unusually engaging smile, that they regard themselves as truly exceptional human beings whom we are fortunate to have in our midst for the duration.

Swift is the most palpably ordinary person that anyone might wish to meet. The only thing that makes him at all different from the rest of us is the fact that he has a quite extraordinary gift as a storyteller.

His background, as he explained to the audience this week, was quite disappointingly unexceptional - born in south London to lower middle-class parents (his father was a civil servant, for God's sake). His childhood was lacking in dramatic ructions. He was too young to be bombed and too decent to be beaten. It was, by and large, all boring contentment.

"Yes, I'm afraid," he said, looking a little embarrassed, "there was nothing especially painful in my background of the kind that is supposed to generate the future writer." But his characters, for all that, are quite un-Swiftian - they suffer a lot of pain and inward torment. "What was his explanation for this?" asked a member of the audience.

"Well, I do have a theory about that," Swift replied. But there was nothing dazzlingly - or opaquely - theoretical about this theory of his when it came. In fact, it had the stamp of something engagingly home-spun about it. "I think that some writers are drawn to the opposite of their experiences. The imagination can get you to the truth of things you've never experienced yourself. That is why I am always surprised when people ask me how it is possible for a man to write in the character of a woman. To me, the real challenge is entering the world of another human mind at all."

And then he said something that helps to explain why he is such a popular novelist. "I think that writing is about trying to touch that common core of human experience that we all share because we are all, at root, the same." He stretched himself back in his chair until he began to look a little like a thinking man's plank.

What might be the opposite of a Graham Swift? Try Peter Mandelson in his discussion with Anthony Howard about New Labour, for example. Swift looked well turned out; Mandelson had a self-conscious gloss about him. Only one other person at the festival has looked quite so sleekly coiffed as he - Julian Barnes.

Swift had come to share and explain in a spirit of humility tempered by anxiety at the possibility of failure; it was Mandelson's role to ensure that every attack on him, every probing question, was parried, repulsed, pulverised. He had to be seen to be the winner every time. Evidence of doubt or even human weakness was simply not on the agenda. Why, though? Because there were scribblers everywhere, and all ready to mock him, misrepresent him or, generally, do him down. What a sadly self-important state of affairs! The audience was left, for all Mandelson's brilliance in debate, with a disappointing sense that it had been witnessing a marvellously oiled machine in action and not something made of flesh and blood at all.

Loudest to cheer Mandelson when he came on to the stage had been John Birt, who waved his fist in the air rather schoolboyishly, and Birt's remark to Mandelson as he leant down from the stage at the discussion's triumphalist close spoke worlds to those scribblers with the will to misinterpret: "I've left the back door open," Birt said.

The week's best display of rough-housing, though, came from Germaine Greer, this year's Raymond Williams lecturer. The lecture itself, a dull re-hashing of the themes of her last book, Slipshod Sibylls, with a few vituperative remarks tossed in the direction of the literary grandes dames who had bad-mouthed the Orange Prize, was not especially memorable.

It was when a member of the audience asked her whether she'd been approached by Christine Wallace, her latest unofficial biographer, that Greer caught fire. "I won't have that woman near me. But more important than that, I won't have her near my mother," she hectored with great gusto. "I suffered the usual abuse suffered by children in those days - sarcasm, humiliation, the occasional physical violence. But I can just imagine how my mother would start free-associating if that wretched, flesh-eating bacterium got at her: 'Germaine says I beat her? I hope it was with chains!' So I have one thing to say to Christine Wallace: if you go near my mother, you'll have your knee-caps broken!"

Greer enthused to the sound of her own raging voice for nearly two hours - which, as Roy Jenkins reminded us in a high-spirited, if not downright jovial, resume of the principal themes of his recent biography of Gladstone, was a good half-hour less than that saviour of the ladies of the Soho night often allowed himself in the House of Commons.

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