Literary festivals booming

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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? A schedule that follows up 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 when the entrepreneur Richard Booth, self-styled King of Hay, began to fill his fiefdom with second-hand bookshops a generation ago.

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

The business of literary festivals has boomed through the Nineties. A search for more active ways to spend leisure time has coincided with readers' rising curiosity about what their favourite authors 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.

Hay and London's The Word represent two poles of the bookish bean-feast. Hay crams a massively eclectic programme into (literally) a very small space.

Other highlights this year include the poets Les Murray and Tony Harrison (both tipped at some stage for the laureateship, and both self-excluded on account of their republican beliefs), 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.

With The Word, in March, Peter Florence swapped the intensive care of Hay for a literary out-patient policy. About 60 star writers from around the world found themselves scattered all over the capital, from Richmond to Epping Forest.

Deliberately, The Word had no central location and no unified booking system. Major events in outlying suburbs tended to work the best, bringing the likes of Margaret Atwood and Doris Lessing to appreciative halls in Sutton or Redbridge. In the blase, busy city centre, some events blended more or less unnoticed into the capital's already overcrowded cultural diary.

Next year The Word may learn from its teething troubles and focus, as in Hay, on a smaller number of more intimate sites. This year's Hay festival has among its sponsors the new Internet book business 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.