Judging a book by its jacket

In the last of his reports from the Hay-on-Wye festival of literature, Michael Glover considers the lure of the celebrity writer

Sponsorship being well down this year, Peter Florence, the festival's artistic director, had asked Simon Schama to travel Virgin mid-class. No, said Schama. Travelling Virgin meant flying overnight and Schamacouldn't sleep on planes, and there'd be a consequent loss to the festival of a certain amount of general brilliant talkativeness. So the festival agreed to shell out an extra pounds 1,500 for a BA Club Class ticket. Then Schama told them that he needed an aisle seat because his brains extended down into his legs.

Three years ago the festival had flown Mario Vargas Llosa in from Heathrow by helicopter. "When I ran for the presidency of Peru, I got a car. When I come to Hay, I get a helicopter," he'd quipped at the time.

Why, you might ask, should a festival pander to the whims of an individual who makes demands that it can ill afford to satisfy? And why should a sponsor subsidise a festival to do so? The answer is quite simple really: everyone feels a little more eminent in the presence of an eminence, grise or otherwise.

Never mind - David Lodge and Jill Paton Walsh were here, talking about their latest novels - and they got on to the subject of maps fairly quickly. "I do a lot of preparation work when I write a novel," said Lodge. "But I like to leave quite a lot of space on the map." Paton Walsh agreed. "I need a destination," she said, "but not a road map. I need to know I'm going to Hay-on-Wye before I set out."

But 20 minutes before he was due to talk on Louis MacNeice, Jon Stallworthy had still not arrived. Had he lost the map? Mrs Lodge had been heard to warn someone that the talk might not be very good anyway, because she had already heard it in Birmingham, and Mrs Lodge was right. Stallworthy's lecture, which laboured over MacNeice's mythic terrain in heavy gumboots, demonstrating how the facts and topology of childhood can shape a poet's imagination, had a kind of unearthly lit-crit dreariness about it. Even Stallworthy seemed a little bored to be back in Birmingham again. These were the kinds of phrases that came and went as we drifted in and out of sleep: "This poem is one of the jewels in the crown of the collected poems; like other crowns, it is circular..." Things only came alive when question time came around, and Stallworthy got to talking about MacNeice's string of pearly mistresses. Not one of them showed him the door. Not one of them clawed out his eyes. And no one had sued him - at least not yet - for letting the whole reading world have a taste of the beans that they'd all spilled into his waiting lap.

But none of these questions was quite as good as the one that Margaret Atwood told me she had been asked in Ontario. "This woman got up and said: 'Is your hair really like that - or did you get it done?' " How writers look, the way they speak and behave -these things are just as fascinating and as important as what they write about, and this is one of the purposes of a literary festival: to bring the written word to ground by giving physical proof that these artefacts called books are fashioned by the likes of you and me.

Consider Enoch Powell, for example, who appeared at the festival towards the end of this week. No one could have prepared themselves for the terrible fixed stare in his eyes as he gave his talk on the evolution of the gospels in a quavering, weirdly high-pitched voice. It was like the stare in the eyes of a man who can't get rid of some pernicious vision of a river flowing with blood until eternity.

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
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.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before