Hay, it's a happy hippy place

IT COULD only happen in the last week of May, in Wales. Disembarking from the train at Newport, I bumped into Beryl Bainbridge, the celebrated author, who wondered whether I would like a lift to Hay-on-Wye. And, although it is not my usual practice to accept lifts from strangers, this is the week celebrities become human, as the literati descend to the valley of the River Wye for the Hay Festival.

Cigarettes were passed round as we drove towards the Black Mountains on the English-Welsh border. Our driver was delighted, having just palmed off a manuscript of travel writing into the hallowed hands of Fergal Keane. He added that, in his rear-view mirror, he could see PD James also winding her way to the festival.

Hay, like Glastonbury in June, is transformed for these 10 days into a cosmopolitan oasis in the countryside. "I love those wild flowers," said Beryl. "I always pick them off the verges to replant in Camden, but they always seem to die on me. Perhaps they need the exhaust fumes." Beryl is here to talk to teachers about writing and contemporary fiction. "I do just wish there was still proper grammar," she looked at me pointedly. "You youngsters still need that framework."

"Hay-on-Wye is the last unreconstructed hippy bastion," Peter Florence, the festival organiser for the eleventh year, tells me. "Last year, I went to the fifth wedding of people who met at the festival. There's a lot of sex here. It's like dateline: it's a great place to meet interesting, sexy people."

The majority of events take place in the grounds of Hay County Grammar School where the loos are only knee high. "It's bullshit free," says Florence. "It's kind of hard to be pompous in a school. You can't come here to swank around, it's not the Groucho Club on leave. Its inaccessibility is Hay's greatest asset." Almost 1,000 vehicles are crammed into the car- park outside the school, so it's that inaccessible.

Eric Hobsbawm, Roy Strong and John Birt are local house owners, and on Friday it was easy to spot Deborah Harry and her Jazz Passengers swanning through the town, which normally has 1,300 residents. I caught up with her in one of the 36 bookshops, leafing through an old leather-bound volume. She looked like a cross between Marianne Faithful and Julie Christie, and the most remarkable thing was that her presence didn't seem incongruous.

The festival claimed 39,000 visitors last week. Today, the last day of the festival, there will probably be as many again. Three branches have banked pounds 4m in 10 days, more than during most of the rest of the year. The 200 rooms in country houses and B&Bs have been booked for more than a year. There have been 10 camera crews, local and national and international (one from Finland).

"It's like an old clan gathering," says Peter Florence. With Deborah Harry as the high priestess? "Well, she was so integral to the adolescence of people our age. I love the fact that we introduce Terry Pratchett to Stephen Hawking and that when JimCallaghan met Doris Lessing he told her he had been reading her books for the past 50 years."

Locals are unfazed. "I sold as many books today as I did for the whole of April," one bookseller told me as I purchased a mint first-edition of PG Wodehouse. "But the trouble with writers is that you know their books not their faces. All these famous people just melt into the town."

SINCE no more than 1,000 people could squeeze into Deborah Harry's gig, I half-expected to see touts hanging around Hay. Instead, there was an orderly queue of blue-rinses and thirtysomething trendies snaking around the school under the row of tall flag poles (we learnt that the EU and BBC Wales were on hand).

Rex was delighted to be introduced in the queue to Robert S Bennett, Bill Clinton's personal lawyer, who had flown in from Washington DC. "Hey, I just love Wales," he said from behind his shades. He was due to debate with Stephen Fry on the resolution "The private lives of public figures should remain private".

"This is what Bill would want me to argue for," said Bennett, a big, all-American kinda guy. I'll say. Bennett didn't look like a man to argue with, but then he's up against Gitta Sereny, who is no mean combatant herself.

Not one to make a song and dance

DEBORAH Harry and PD James are unlikely bedfellows, but they met in the festival Green Room (it's actually another classroom) shortly before the two went to their different stages.

There were uncertain glances in each other's direction, until Debbie stood up, book under arm, and approached the great crime writer. "Excuse me," the former Blondie front woman said in a husky voice, "would you mind signing this for me? I love your books."

"Certainly, what name shall I put?" asked PD James.

"Just Deborah," said our heroine modestly.

On stage, the meandering solos of Debbie and her Jazz Passengers had Hay whipped up into a genteel frenzy. It was going very well until one of them leant into the microphone and shouted: "Hello Hay, how many shepherds in the audience tonight?"

NOT everyone's happy with all the roadies rolling into the valley. "It's quango mischief making," said Richard Booth, "emperor" of the town and founder of its book culture. "We take an extra pounds 10,000 during this week - Jools Holland has just spend a hundred quid in here - but basically it is a geriatric boom. I've licked my wounds from the festival for the past decade, but next year I hope I will be a part of it: I will open the National Museum of Brochures, here in my castle. It's brochures that have enabled all these decentralised tourist attractions to take off." Maybe, but Rex may give that a miss.

Their shipwreck, his treasure

KEITH Jessop makes most rags-to-riches stories seem pretty ordinary. Born poor in Yorkshire in the Depression, Jessop has become known as "Goldfinger". His knack is finding and salvaging shipwrecks. After much Cold War wrangling, in 1982 he recovered pounds 45m of "Stalin's Gold" from a sunken warship, the Edinburgh, 803ft deep in Russian waters. Since then he's found plenty more loot, including 2,000t of silver bars from an American ship, the SS John Barry, off the coast of Oman.

"I've had a very interesting life," he said when he spoke to me to plug his autobiography, Goldfinder. "It was quite a problem learning to live with the money [he made about pounds 1.85m from the Edinburgh]. It was like being a Lottery winner." People come to him looking for money. "Guys come up with an X on the map, hoping I'll help out. Fortunately, I'm long enough in the tooth to separate the wheat from the chaff. I have still got all the records from a number of very, very rich cargoes. I've already got another diving project lined up..." I asked whether he would share the information with us. "Not likely," replied Jessop.

I HEAR that Eastbourne Borough Council has organised its own "Affinity Card", complete with a picture of Carpet Gardens and a hotel. Launched in a grand parade yesterday, the card will raise 25p for every pounds 100 spent; each household will then be able to vote on which causes should divide the jackpot. "It's a great example," Rachel Norman from the council tells me, "of people-power pegged to capitalism." Tony Blair would be proud.

The definition of a full life

THE craze for biographies of unknown people is unstoppable. Next month, Viking publishes Simon Winchester's The Surgeon of Crowthorne. Its subject is WC Minor, who, for 20 years late in the 19th century, was the most important contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Winchester's story is that when the dictionary's editor, Dr James Murray, wanted to meet Minor in 1886, after years of correspondence, he had to travel to Crowthorne in Berkshire. Asking to see Minor, Murray was told that his leading lexicographer - himself a millionaire and American Civil War surgeon - was serving time for murder. The actual address was Broadmoor.

JERRY Seinfeld, probably the world's most popular comedian, has chosen an inauspicious date for his one visit to Britain. He will be appearing at the London Palladium at 6pm and 9pm on 12 July. Slap-bang in the middle of those times, at 8pm in fact, there is an event you might have heard about already: the final of the 1998 Coupe du Monde. When I phoned the Palladium to inquire if there were any tickets left, they said they had all price ranges still available. Not exactly hot cakes, then.

Tobias Jones

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