Making Hay while the sun shines: Watch out] Writers] Michael Glover weaves his way through the last weekend of the Hay Festival, dodging confused authors and angry poets, in search of literary answers

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The Independent Culture
It was a mixture of set-piece occasions and small vignettes, the second weekend of the Hay Festival, and all blessed, unlike the first, by sunlight. In the VIP tent, the Northern Irish poet Ciaran Carson, winner of the first T S Eliot Prize in 1993, was talking with shining eyes about the experience of meeting Valerie Eliot at the Chelsea Arts Club.

'My God, she was some woman,' he said, gripping the second or third glass of the day a little more fiercely. 'She said: 'You're Irish, aren't you?' I had no answer to that one. 'You must have known Louis then. He was Irish, you know.' I thought to myself: 'Was he now? Was he?' ' Then he went back to talking about the 'typical anal English B & B' he was staying at. A moment or two later he pulled out his flute and treated us to a snatch of Irish folk music.

Outside, Vikram Seth was sitting at a table in the sun signing books with the anxious look of a man who is about to suffer from repetitive strain injury. With a queue that seemed to stretch from nowhere to nowhere, he was rather wishing that his reputation had been valued a little less highly. He had just been reading from Beastly Tales, his animal fables, in the Festival Theatre where he proved himself to be the most companionable of readers. He is also small enough to be packed away into a suitcase.

Less companionable was Carlos Fuentes, who delivered this year's PEN lecture on 'The New Geography of the Novel'. Fiction, that voice of the other, forecaster of the absent and imager of the invisible, is the great mediator among cultures, argued Fuentes, challenging our prejudices, inviting us to remember all that we have forgotten. A blizzard of great names, of the living and the dead, rained down upon us, partially blinding our eyes. His most resounding turn of phrase was: 'History is far from concluded.'

Indeed. We could see that in the telling. Fuentes has all the surface dazzle, the overarching global vision, of the practised cultural diplomat. But he is not a man who readily touches the heart - unlike Edmund White, who almost charmed us into admiring him for presenting a chapter from The Burning Library, his new collection of essays (a none too rigorous account of the liberation of his own gay imagination), as this year's annual TLS lecture.

Elsewhere, in the Pavilion, Paul Muldoon, another Northern Irish poet, was delivering the inaugural Waterstone's lecture. Carson and Muldoon are old friends. Carson purports to know Muldoon's mind like the back of his hand - which was more than could be said for the majority of the audience at the end of that bizarre, obtuse presentation of the spasmodic inner workings of a poet's mind. Muldoon was reading from his forthcoming book, and especially from its long title poem: 'Yarrow. I shall try to find an . . . ' - he took a step back from the lectern and stared down at his foot - ' . . . appropriate angle of entry into its atmosphere. The movement is that of a fugue . . . ' - he glanced down at his watch - ' . . . of the kind that was played by Pink Floyd at Pompeii.'

Commentary merged into poem - it was difficult to guess where one ended and the other began. Muldoon had the startled look of a man who turns a corner and happens upon a mirror-image of himself. Then came a bizarre interlude. Through the open tent flaps could be seen the figure of John Mortimer weaving about in the field nearby: 'Where's the hospitality tent?' he shouted. Only Muldoon continued regardless.

Another author who seemed to be suffering from mild confusion was the poet Simon Armitage, chairman of this year's Poetry Squantum. What exactly is a poetry squantum? 'I've no idea,' he said. 'I've looked it up a few times myself.'

According to the programme note, however, it's a native American word for a kind of pleasure party. Nine poets meet on four separate occasions in front of an audience to discuss the poem that they will have to write within the space of 24 hours on a theme sprung upon them at the festival. This year's theme was 'Freedom and / or democracy'. 'It's a biggie,' said Armitage at the beginning of the first session. 'I'm hoping to be able to make something of it,' said another poet, talking himself into mood of optimism. 'I intend to take liberties with this theme,' said a third with mock bravura. 'Being a good Catholic, I'm interested in Free Will.'

As it turned out, John Mortimer was being led into the hospitality tent at the very moment when Arnold Wesker, a local boy who had come down from the hills for the afternoon (he has a second home in Crouch End), arrived to talk about himself in the company of Margaret Drabble, and read a one-woman play or two. We quickly got round to the subjects of money troubles and dry rot. 'Well, I was telephoned, quite out of the blue, by Sydney Bernstein,' said Wesker, 'who told me: 'My father's left you pounds 1,000 in his will.' It's so nice to know that one's reputation is valued.' 'Why only pounds 1,000?' I asked. 'Oh, it would have been so embarrassing to be given any more,' said Drabble.

Wesker had distributed the money among his children and grandchildren - pounds 1,000 goes nowhere with dry rot. Carson's T S Eliot Prize money had bought him a new kitchen.

One of the biggest of the set-piece occasions - a great debate on the subject of 'What Are Writers For?' found many members of the audience playing fast and loose with the theme. The debate itself, which was kicked off by Malcolm Bradbury, was at its most challenging during an intervention by the Swedish poet Stig Larsson.

'English fiction disgusts me,' he said, looking as if he might be sick on the floor. 'It's too timid. Romanticism killed it. When I read, I want my head to be raped by what I read. I am never raped by English fiction.'

The counter-attack was of a peculiarly English kind: a wall of silence fell on his head. Then Paul Binding spoke up for Jonathan Coe. It wasn't until the very end of the debate that Peter Florence, the festival's director, offered a more general response, and this too was characteristically decorous and measured. By this time, Larsson had left the hall to vent his frustrations on a sheep, no doubt.

'I don't want my head to be raped by a book,' said Florence in a mild, Cantabrian sort of way. 'I'm having enough trouble with my heart. All of us have to deal with the common medium of language every day of our lives, and those who excel in the use of it can help us personally, emotionally.'

But a writer does not merely exist for the sake of consolation and emotional solace - he is also a challenger, a dangerous witness to unpalatable truths. And this message, delivered during the presentation of the Independent's annual Foreign Fiction Award, was the resonant coda to this challenging and entertaining festival.

This year's prize was given to the Vietnamese novelist Bao Ninh for his remarkable account of the psychological tortures suffered by the winning side in the Vietnam War. The title of the novel in its English translation, The Sorrows of War, was Bao Ninh's own first choice, but he was not allowed to use that title when the novel was published in Vietnam. According to the authorities, the words 'sorrow' and 'war' were officially incompatible. It became known as Destiny of Love.

Such is the threat that fiction can pose.

(Photograph omitted)

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