Hillary protests at photos of Mallory

AT THE Hay-on-Wye literary festival yesterday, one of this century's most enduring heroes spoke of his "absolute disgust" at media exploitation of the long dead man who might rob him of his status.

Sir Edmund Hillary, who with Tenzing Norgay first climbed Everest and returned alive, said the recent discovery of George Mallory's body near the summit had failed to prove that the earlier climber had reached the peak in 1923.

Hillary attacked the use of photographs of the frozen corpse. "He was a heroic figure. To see Mallory's body lying on the rock with his legs broken was appalling."

Hillary has never ceased to be a hero but for F W de Klerk, another guest at Hay, the literary circuit means a dogged attempt to shed the tag of repentant villain.

On the eve of his country's second free election, the last president of apartheid South Africa defended his role as a catalyst of change. His reforms meant shaking hands with veteran radicals who to this day retain close links with the Communist Party. After his talk yesterday de Klerk drove off and did some more of the same.

At an elegant country-house party hosted by the festival sponsors, the modernising Afrikaner met Professor Eric Hobsbawm, eminent historian and modernising Marxist.

Other writers had different sorts of peaks to climb. Edna O'Brien, who has taken a vacation from fiction by writing a short life of James Joyce, said that her friend Philip Roth had commiserated with her on the hard labour that biography requires. "Philip gave me a little elbow and said, `The made up stuff is easier, isn't it?'"

The cult New York novelist Paul Auster made up half a dozen novels before any publisher would take him seriously. Auster, who has renamed the festival location "Ham-on-Rye" swapped compliments with Robert McCrum, the editor who first showed faith in his work. Auster admitted that at his first publication dinner, his gratitude to McCrum overflowed to the extent that he knocked a full bottle of red wine down his publisher's white shirt. Intense fans of Auster quizzed their idol on his major influences.

How about Saul Bellow, for instance, asked one enthusiast? "I have never read a novel by Saul Bellow," Auster coolly revealed. "I tried to once but I couldn't stick with it."

Among Hay's plethora of bookstalls is a wall of shabby tomes called "Honesty Books". No one takes any cash. Instead a notice politely requests punters to leave the correct amount. Paul Auster must surely be their best customer.

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