Hay's mad dogs and Diddymen

I have to admit it wasn't the first time I'd been to the Hay Festival of Literature. Two or three years ago I was entrusted with the fairly simple responsibility of transporting the Irish novelist Colm Tibn to the festival in time for him to chair a discussion on the subject of Truman Capote's book In Cold Blood.

And yes, I failed miserably to accomplish my task on time and the face of the anguished novelist standing in the wings watching the discussion take place without him haunts me still.

The thing is, it takes considerably longer to travel from London to Hay, which is just west of Hereford, than you might imagine simply by looking at a map.

On my last visit to Hay I'd made a quick and shamefaced exit, but this year it was different. I was here for a couple of days to see what I'd been missing. Oddly I had no recollection of the town itself. I discovered that it's a picturesque little town with a secondhand bookshop on almost every corner.

Indeed it seems to be easier to buy a secondhand book here than it is to buy a packet of cigarettes. (For the record, they're easy to light, but a bit tricky to fit in your mouth.)

The festival takes place in the grounds of a primary school handily situated next to the Pay & Display car park (pounds 1 for 12 hours - that's what I call a bargain!) and a set of smart green and white marquees are the venue for talks, readings, discussions and master-classes which take place throughout the festival's week-and-a-bit duration.

The first thing that strikes you is the small scale of the entire event. Somehow the word festival tends to conjure up a picture of huge numbers of people, but we're talking here about something of village fete proportions. And perhaps this is as it should be.

As the Italian writer Alberto Manguel pointed out during one of the talks, the crowd at a single major football match is greater in number than the entire print run of a best-selling novel (well, in hardback at any rate, Alberto).

The crowd here didn't look like they'd been to many football matches, being predominantly middle-aged,middle-class and female. I was told that over the weekend the town's entire stock of bottled water had run out - there wasn't a drop of Evian to be found. Quelle catastrophe!

Still, it's all good news for the people of Hay - last year the town benefited from its festival visitors to the tune of pounds 3 m.

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Something to Bragg about

From the festival programme: "Since Wordsworth's time landscape has infused British fiction. It is the connection between landscape and fiction which I want to touch on with particular relevance to the work of Thomas Hardy, D H Lawrence, R L Stevenson and myself" - written by Melvyn Bragg, a man certain of his place in the pantheon of British literature.

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Barking mad but riveting

My first taste of the Hay Experience was a talk by Thomas Pakenham on the subject of trees. Pakenham is the author of acclaimed historical works such as The Scramble for Africa and the Boer War, but trees are the subject of his latest book and the topic seemed to have attracted a rather geriatric audience. I can't say I was expecting too much but it turned out to be riveting stuff.

Pakenham is a delightful eccentric who wears socks with his open-toed sandals (always a sure sign of incipient madness) and his enthusiasm is catching. I'll never look at a tree in the same way again. Someone should sign him up for a television series immediately.

John Fowles was due to give a rare public interview in the afternoon but he was unwell, so Hay's local author was brought in to fill the breach, the local author being the playwright Arnold Wesker. He read sections of his current work-in-progress, a play about sexual abuse. Wesker is a rather camp, dapper little man who sounds a bit like Danny La Rue. He said that in his opinion all literature was a mixture of journalism and poetry and he was rather worried that this new play might contain too much journalism and not enough poetry. Speaking as a journalist, I would say that his new play contains too many cliches and far too much one-dimensional characterisation, but of course I'm not an expert.

Wesker was followed by Alberto Manguel, a playful, bearded Italian polymath in the Umberto Eco mould and the author of A History of Reading. His subject was the way in which reading has changed, particularly in the electronic age, with the advent of CD-Roms and the World Wide Web, and his talk was a stunning tour de force of scholarship and imagination. Someone behind me asked his companion what a CD-Rom is.

The day ended on a slightly surreal note with a performance of The Ken Dodd Happiness Show. Ken Dodd is perhaps not the most obvious person you would expect to find at a literary festival, but comedy is a staple of the event (Eddie Izzard and Ardal O'Hanlon had already appeared) and he was certainly popular - the 1,000 seats in the big Carlton marquee were sold out.

It was a largely local audience that greeted "The King of the Diddymen" when he bounced on stage waving his tickling sticks. Doddy (as he's known) seemed as surprised as anyone that he was there. "Forty years in show business and I end up doing the interval at a secondhand book shop."

He went on to give a consummate demonstration of the comic performer's art which lasted four and a half hours. Some material might have been corny, but the timing was always impeccable. It's quite a revolution to see an old pro really work an audience and they lapped it up. The best gag? "I hear Eric Cantona's going to appear in a sitcom." Pause. "It's called One Foot In The Crowd." Well, I laughed anyway.

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Staying ahead of the pack

Geoffrey Masson, the eminent writer on Freudian psycho-analysis, found himself addressing an audience of dog lovers on Friday, not to mention a few dogs.

Following on from co-authoring When Elephants Weep, a study of animal emotions, he's now written Dogs Never Lie About Love, a book on the emotional life of man's best friends, and he suddenly finds himself with a different kind of readership. "I like it," he told me. "I'm so used to giving talks where people get up in the audience and denounce me that this is a nice change."

Geoffrey is the owner of two former strays and a failed guide dog ("actually we can't use the word 'failed' about guide dogs - let's say she had a career change") and they were the inspiration for his book.

He said he never imagined he would end up writing about dogs and he's aware that he might have unwittingly stumbled into a literary niche.

"For my next book I wanted to write something about fallen heroes, but my publishers said, 'No, no, you have to stick to animals'. I'm Mr Animal now. They wanted me to do cats, but I said no."

Instead he is going to do something on parenting, from both the animal and human points of view.

The Hay audience was clearly entranced by his very entertaining talk, during which, among other things, he suggested we should try to understand the language of dogs.

"Woof woof yap slurp," was the comment of the Dalmatian in the front row.

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Wisdom of Waterhouse

"You arrive, you do it, you go. With any luck, you meet a chum and get pissed. And that's it." That's Keith Waterhouse explaining to me what literary festivals are all about from the writer's point of view. He was in Hay to reel off a few of the funny anecdotes contained in his second volume of memoirs, Streets Ahead, which deals with his early years in Fleet Street.

Keith recently wrote an article in the British Journalism Review explaining how to be a columnist. So I wondered if he had any tips for me on how to interview people. "Yes, it's something Ed Morrow told me," he said. "His advice was: don't ask the next question."

Howard leaks his secret

I ran into Howard Jacobson signing copies of his last book, Seriously Funny, in the little bookshop on the festival site. "It's nice to have a chance to meet your readers," he said. "I tend to imagine my readers are dark, shadowy figures who read under the bedclothes with a torchlight. So I'm always absolutely charmed to find that they're perfectly ordinary, upstanding people."

From my brief observation it appeared that the most Howard's readers demand from him inscription-wise is something along the lines of "To Penny and Pip". I wondered if he'd ever had any outrageous requests. "Yeah, I have been asked to write one of those things that pop stars get asked to write," he said. "But I'm not going to tell you what it was. It was something very personal."

After some coaxing, Howard was willing to admit that it had something to do with the fact that he always warns signees that his fountain pen is wet and they shouldn't close the book immediately or the message will smudge. "The message had to do with ... leaking instruments," he said coyly.

Howard has just finished a novel about middle-age and sex, which he says is a bit shocking, and he's just started one on the subject of table tennis, which he played as a youth. "The world championships were held in Manchester last month," he said sadly. "And nobody gave a shit."

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