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.

v

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.

v

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.

v

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.

v

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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
News
Robert De Niro has walked off the set of Edge of Darkness
news The Godfather Part II actor has an estimated wealth of over $200m
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Sport
Robbie Savage will not face a driving ban
football'Mr Marmite' faced the possibility of a 28-day ban
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Voices
voices
Life and Style
Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries were putting themselves at risk of tinnitus and, in extreme cases, irreversible hearing loss
health Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries are at risk of tinnitus
News
It was only when he left his post Tony Blair's director of communications that Alastair Campbell has published books
people The most notorious spin doctor in UK politics has reinvented himself
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in ‘I Am Michael’
filmJustin Kelly's latest film tells the story of a man who 'healed' his homosexuality and turned to God
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst - High Wycombe - £30,000

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst role...

Guru Careers: Talent Manager

£30-35k (P/T - Pro Rata) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienc...

Sauce Recruitment: New Media Marketing Manager - EMEA - Digital Distribution

£35000 - £45000 per annum + up to £45,000: Sauce Recruitment: The Internation...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing / PR / Social Media Executive

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A thriving online media busines...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower