In the never-never land of literary party people

Comedians and chefs, poets and politicians: they are all part of the fellowship of the book
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The Independent Culture
THE SAMARITANS are at the gates of the Hay Festival. Now and then, one of those hurrying towards their cultural fix pauses to buy a sticker from the two men standing with collection boxes on each side of the gate, but somehow the reminder they bring of the pain and loneliness of the outside world strikes a duff note in this little paradise of literary contentment, comradeship and success.

During Hay week, writing's less savoury aspects are suspended. Anxiety, paranoia and grinding envy are forgotten as those due to appear on the different stages gather in the school staffroom, now renamed "The Green Room", or sip wine in the VIP section of the refreshments marquee, cordoned off discreetly like the Royal Enclosure at Ascot. Comedians and chefs, poets and politicians, first novelists and battered veterans: they are all part of the great fellowship of the book. Last year, I found myself between gigs in a tight, tense semicircle with Harold Pinter, Armando Iannucci, Ian McEwan and Antonia Fraser. This week I bonded with FW de Klerk. Because the usual authorial questions (What are you working on? Are you happy with your agent? Where are the decent editors these days?) seemed inappropriate, it was a brief conversation, but there was a writerly connection there, all right, I felt it; I'm sure FW did, too.

Any decent literary festival exists to celebrate success, so it is something of a false paradise for writers and readers alike. A few authors, like Lucy Ellmann at Hay this week, dwell upon the harshness of the writing life, but then the very brilliance of the published work from which she had just read (a stingingly funny extract from Man or Mango? on the subject of male hopelessness, a persistent theme at the festival) undermined her argument. Most of those on stage, with an eye on sales in the bookshop later, go easy on the tales of block, panic, work abandoned and the telephone that never rings.

The audiences play their part. Here everyone is a reader. Many, one suspects, are would-be authors too, hoping to acquire the key to the mystery from an hour with Tom Wolfe, or that being in the same marquee as Vikram Seth will bestow talent upon them by a magical process of literary osmosis.

There are moments of satisfying predictability. The raised administrative voice in the bookshop, announcing that "Sir Harold Pinter will not be signing books". The performance of Christopher Hitchens, that senior officer in the awkward squad, who, invited to deliver the keynote Raymond Williams lecture, devoted his hour to trashing the politics, prose and reputation of Raymond Williams, closing his highly effective demolition job with a slightly hammy "Oh dear".

But then, at Hay there are always surprises. Paul Auster, in a compellingly geeky performance, admitted that he had never read a word of Saul Bellow's and - possibly a first in the history festivals - failed to mention even once his newly published novel, a tale narrated by a dog. Ian McEwan, daringly reading from the novel he has just begun to write - a child-centred country-house story set in 1935 - revealed that he knew it would be about light and character and childhood but had not yet quite worked out why or how.

My own surprise was to be found in the brochure, where I discovered that an additional duty was required of me after I had interviewed Roger Deakin, author of a wonderful account of a swimming odyssey through Britain, Waterlog. On the day when you read this, I shall be stripping off to join Roger and his readers for a swim in the river Wye. I can't wait.

Writers, one soon realises, are not pack animals. To put them together for too long is as fundamentally against nature as is the creepy profusion of bookshops in the town of Hay, where it is easier to find a GK Chesterton first edition, slightly foxed, than it is to buy a pint of milk. For a while, the authors at the festival put up with the chat and banter and earnest deconstructions of their work, but soon a certain absence of spirit becomes evident, as if they are already dreaming of the quiet and safety of the study.

To remind us that writing is not essentially a performance art, the festival imports music and comedy. 1999 has been the year of the knackered yet charismatic superstar, notably Van Morrison and Ian Dury. At the end of Dury's spectacular moving set, a marquee of literary folk were standing, arms aloft, chanting again and again, as if their lives depended on it" "Sex. And drugs. And rock'n'roll."

Suddenly books and writing and words on the page seemed a little tame.

Miles Kington is on holiday