Britons rush to meet the brains behinds the books

WHERE CAN you find Val Doonican on the same programme as Harold Pinter? A gig by Van Morrison in the same venue as a discussion with Tom Wolfe? The Booker-winning novelist Ian McEwan with an appearance from proto-punk Ian Dury and his Blockheads? Not to mention the chance to beard Jimmy Hill ...

This year's Hay-on-Wye festival opens today and runs until 6 June in the picturesque little town on the Welsh border, west of Hereford. It first acquired a literary reputation a generation ago when Richard Booth, self-styled King of Hay, began to fill his fiefdom with second-hand bookshops.

The festival began a decade ago as the brainchild of Peter Florence, now the director. This year he launched The Word festival of literature in locations around greater London.

Literary festivals have boomed in the Nineties. A search for more inventive ways to spend leisure time has co- incided with a rising curiosity about what a favourite author might look and sound like behind a mike in a hot marquee. For example, if you want to hear a reading by the new Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, he can be found on 10 July at the Ledbury Poetry Festival, just up the road from Hay.

Other Hay highlights this year include the poets Les Murray and Tony Harrison (both tipped at some stage for the laureateship, and both self- excluded), the thriller writers Robert Harris and Patricia Cornwell, novelists Anita Desai, Paul Auster and Vikram Seth, as well as all-weather celebs as varied as Peter Ustinov and Jeremy Paxman. Radio 4's Start the Week will be broadcast from the festival on Monday.

In its tiny compass Hay can embrace both the woman whose poetry launched Bill Clinton into his second term - Maya Angelou - and the erring President's most ferocious critic, Christopher Hitchens.

This year's Hay festival has among its sponsors the new Internet book business bol.com. As electronic commerce dissolves the distance between reader and book, the urge to encounter authors in the actual, not the virtual, flesh seems only to grow.

The Word may have to learn from the Hay festival. In busy, blase London, some of The Word's events blended more or less unnoticed into the capital's already overcrowded cultural diary. Next year the event may focus, like Hay, on a smaller number of more intimate sites.

Books, Review, pages 11-13

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