Good humour saves festival from elements

THE ENGLISH, drawled Jeremy Paxman at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival yesterday, are defined by their ability to put up with almost anything with great good humour.

That certainly goes for the warmly coated crowds at Hay. They have packed the tents over the festival's first weekend in spite of drizzle and downpours on the Welsh border town that ruined Paxman's hopes of fishing in the River Wye.

Yesterday the Newsnight and University Challenge presenter had to show a fair bit of English tolerance himself. An audience that had clearly learnt its cheek from Paxo himself, gleefully scolded him for his middle class, Home Counties bias. When Paxman claimed that union membership figures were still falling, a deep Ulster growl responded with a firm "No" from the floor. "It's awful having John Cole in the audience," Paxman moaned.

Although Paxman said he had not seen a stiff upper lip for years, the Hay Festival has so far called for more than a touch of the Dunkirk spirit. Shivering queues waited patiently on flimsy duckboards stretched over a quagmire under the eye of a policeman. Even the local constabulary was showing tolerance. No event so far has drawn louder cheers than the Messianic return of Howard Marks, local Welsh boy made bad and the best-known retired drug dealer in Europe. He told a worshipful throng cannabis should be sold to children and legal high-quality cocaine should on sale in every high street. Marks, now a successful author, recounted tales of his exploits to admiring fans like some moustachioed explorer of a century ago.

Marks smuggled 15 tons of Colombian hashish into Scotland in 1979 but was acquitted at the Old Bailey. He later spent seven years in jail in the United States but claimed on release: "I was rehabilitated immediately. And what did it was the pounds 100,000 cheque from my publishers to write a book."

He recently applied for the post of Britain's first "drugs tsar". After all, he points out, the job description did specify "credibility in the drugs field".

The early gigs at Hay have brought an above-average level of controversy. John Mortimer has washed his hands of New Labour, and Harold Pinter again damned the Government for its conduct in Kosovo.

The Nobel laureate David Trimble and the Irish Catholic historian Ruth Dudley Edwards drummed up sympathy for a group that often attracts more hatred than drug peddlers: the Orange Order.

The order, said Dudley Edwards was made up of "decent people being traduced and demonised by the best propagandists in the universe". Trimble called for Roman Catholics to join and stand as candidates for his own faction- ridden Ulster Unionist Party.

Rain or shine, the Hay Festival will stay cheerfully off- message for another week.

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