An extremely odd romp in damp Hay

John Walsh ON MONDAY

TOM WOLFE, the white-suited, spat-shod, mosquito-precise grand- daddy of style journalism, flew in from Manhattan yesterday and, like a man landing on a far-distant planet, landed in Hay on Wye.

Hay is, of course, the bosky dell on the hilly border of Wales and Herefordshire, where the annual literary festival run by the Florence family pulls in 45,000 people over ten days to admire the creative and physical attributes of the writing classes. This year, Wolfe was the big star. Tom Wolfe! In his Southern-gentleman, noli-me-tangere white suit!! Walking down the High Street and popping into the Blue Boar for a pint!!! Whooooooeeeeeooh! as his own prose style might express it.

He's astonishingly stylish for a chap of 68. His pocket handkerchief was white lined with black, like a funeral invitation. He pulled out a pair of ludicrous white Joe 90 spectacles to read the rain-drenched opening of Bleak House, in commemoration of the festival downpour and lectured the audience on the hierarchy of things shot at by southern planters: quail, wild turkey, dove, deer, with squirrels and rabbits at the bottom.

But what would the great social commentator have made of the festival? For the Hay beano historically displays the British at their most grumblingly, stoically odd. It's something to do with tents and rain, I think. Since Hay is a sylvan retreat, rather than a real town, the festival takes place in three substantial marquees, and the restaurant and bar, the bookshop and ice-cream parlour and ladies' loo are likewise all under canvas. Beneath the rain that has poured relentlessly down all week, as from some celestial tap, the accompaniment to everything one does, or says, or thinks is a near-constant soft thrumming, an elemental, amniotic white noise that settles on the brain like a soothing blanket and turns away wrath. Nothing else could explain the stoicism that has greeted the string of cancellations and no-shows in mid-week (including Norman Mailer, Julian Cope and Ruth Rendell), and made people laugh off the Arctic chill from the hillsides, and the sodden matting in the main marquee, walking on which makes you feel you'd be sucked to your death any minute, like Carver Doone.

You look at the queues that still snake all the way round the duckboards and stretch a mile back to the car park, and wonder why on earth so many people should stand in the rain for the thrill of hearing the quicksilver wit of Jimmy Hill, the easy charm of Roger Scruton and the warm fellow- feeling of Robin Day. Weird.

Festival organisers, when asked to explain the literary point of such guests, tend to bring up the Books pages of the national Press and the galloping eclecticism to be found in their columns. And the Press and its iniquities became a constant theme in the last few days.

Tom Wolfe explained how simple it all was ("The world is so bizarre now, it's easy to be a reporter. It's not a thrill. It's an attitude"). Gitta Sereny, the distinguished author of Into That Darkness and Cries Unheard, talked proudly about the fine tradition of investigative journalism to which she has contributed, and how debased it had become at the hands of the tabloids. She even said that working for the tabloids was "dehumanising".

Her own investigations, into Albert Speer, Mary Bell and the camp commandant at Treblinka, were, she said, the result of building a relationship of adult trust and allowing each subject to become the person they couldn't allow themselves to be... Suddenly spotting a tiny correspondence between the high-minded Sereny and the News of the World's relationship with Dallaglio, someone in the audience asked: "What do you think of sting journalism, in which someone poses as - "I think it's absolutely disgusting and I'm not going to talk about it," said Sereny, firm as a steel trap.

Sir Robin Day, flogging a collection of speeches, explained that he had turned to journalism as a third option, "because I lacked the ice-cold brain of a lawyer and the votes of a politician". Asked his opinion of Jeremy Paxman and John Humphreys, he ticked them off for being rude to their interlocutors. "Paxman is a very able man, but I wish he wouldn't posture so much. He's always saying, `Come off it', or `That's a lot of humbug'. You don't cross-examine people by being rude to them; you do it by asking them questions which they find difficult to answer'. Sir Robin himself, the famous byword for restraint and patience, called himself "the last survivor of the Age of Deference" - but his deference failed when asked what he thought of Question Time. "They have people on the panel now," he grated, "who ought to be in the audience. Or preferably not in the building at all."

Journalism and war got a curious new perspective. Niall Ferguson discussed the First World War, got ticked off by one of the audience for his abject failure to be actually around at the time of the Second, and offered the rather original suggestion that journalists and media people are what keep wars going. Next day, James Fenton discussed his dashing times as a war correspondent, and said he'd grown used to seeing the same faces turning up at each one, like socialites doing the London season. But "warcos", he explained, are a discriminating gang. They only go for wars in countries where the food is interesting. They simply would not be seen dead in a war where you couldn't eat well in the evenings. Good theory. Combat zone + haute cuisine = media-led war. The inference to draw for today's small country is: keep those national dishes boring.

EVERY FESTIVAL has its You-should-have-been-there moments. One I was sorry to miss this year was the David Guterson event, though not for the fascination of seeing the author of Snow Falling on Cedars. No, it was what happened to the lady who interviewed him, the effervescent Mary Loudon, author and seasoned inquisitor of nuns and clerics. After interviewing Guterson, she asked him to read from his new novel, East of the Mountains.

Nahh, said Guterson, I've been reading too much lately. Fed up with it. In that case, said Ms Loudon, I shall read a passage to give the audience a flavour. She turned to a tragic section, in which the narrator's mother dies of pancreatic cancer, read it beautifully - then stopped, mid-sentence. An awkward silence fell. "I'm sorry", said Ms L, "but I find this terribly moving and I don't think I can continue...'. In his chair, Mr Guterson looked unconcernedly at his weeping fan, as if this sort of thing happened under this nose all the time. The audience, unprepared for a burst of honest emotion in this fictional sea, remembered they were British and laughed nervously. As for the Thank-God-I-was-there moments, it's a toss- up between watching Maya Angelou doing her celebrated impression of God the Mother and holding a thousand-head audience in her grip like a woman tickling a huge trout; and the look on the face of my three-year-old daughter as she watched a 26-foot wicker man floating down the Wye on two rafts at 10 o'clock at night with his head on fire. They're getting very eclectic, literary festivals.

THE HOUSE I rented in Hay-on-Wye was a little eccentric. Inside the front door of this modest terrace, I was greeted by a huge two-handled Moorish claymore sunk into the carpet. In the bathroom, you could not fail to notice the large truck battery on the floor, connected in curly red wiry spirals to the metal bath. On the far wall, a vast Japanese mask glared at down at anyone sitting on the loo. In the kitchen the lampshade that dangles over the supper table is a Russian tank commander's peaked cap, through which a light bulb obtrudes. Overhead, a mysterious collection of dead leaves, and a single tea-bag, hung down from a length of string. Two plastic mannequin hands, each bearing a crystal, seemed to emerge from a radiator on either side of a fencing foil which had been thoughtfully scabbarded in the heating device. Up in the master bedroom, you were spoilt for choice: the parachute on the floor, the leopard-trophy rug, the pigeon's wings nailed to the wall, the headless rocking horse, the magistrate's wig, the bits of bird and animal skulls and skeletons... What charnel house, I thought, have I come to?

"Oh, you're in the clown's house," say the locals when you tell them about the place. Goffee the clown, shaman and "international fire theatre wizard" conceals the identity of David Eveleigh, a visionary cove who designed the wicker man that floated down the Wye. The house so delighted, then finally spooked, me (the children's reaction was the other way round) that I thought it deserved a memorial of some kind; but the poet Tobias Hill got there first. He stayed at the house a year ago, and his reaction can be found in "A Night in the Room of the Clown" in his collection Zoo.

Weirdly we had exactly the same midnight experience: "If I click on the light, skins and bones/grin at the captive audience/ of themselves. I sit alone,/laughing until it hurts/ at the joke of growing thin,/ the tick of the clock and the tapping of rain."

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