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The mystery of the missing festival chief

As Britain's literati continue their annual pilgrimage to the Hay-on-Wye Festival this weekend, one man can expect to receive a less than hearty welcome from locals.

Peter Florence, the director of the nation's premier book festival, is once more on the back foot. The source of his latest discomfort is Addyman Books, a chain of book shops in the town, which has launched a competition inviting the public to write short stories lampooning him.

In a swipe at what she claims is his habit of arriving in Hay on the eve of the festival and vanishing the moment it is over, the shops' co-owner, Anne Brichto, is offering a £100 prize for the best spoof account of his whereabouts for the rest of the year. The winning entry will be published in the local weekly paper, the Brecon and Radnor Express.

Ms Brichto feels she has good cause for embarrassing Mr Florence. She is still riled by his decision last year to accept sponsorship from Nestlé - a move that caused Germaine Greer and Booker nominee Jim Crace to boycott the festival.

Though Mr Florence has since quietly dropped Nestlé, and Ms Greer has returned to the fold, ill feeling over the fiasco still runs high in Hay.

Ms Brichto is advertising her competition on posters in all three Addyman shops. It features a doctored version of the cover of a Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Musical Cow, accompanied by the words: "No one has seen the director! Has he been kidnapped? Has he absconded? Or has something more sinister occurred? Who would want to hurt him or wreck his career?"

Explaining the idea behind the gimmick, Ms Brichto, 40, said: "Hay is not all one big happy family. The festival can make it all a bit Toy-Townish.

"Until a day before the festival no one had seen Peter at all, so as I was looking for a display for a detective fiction window I decided to run a fun competition. The poster was so good I've put it up in all three shops."

Ms Brichto is not alone in critising Mr Florence. The hangover from the Nestlé controversy has meant that perennial snipers who view the arrival of the literary fraternity as an invasion by bourgeois city dwellers have found new allies among traditional fans of the festival.

One local woman who says her long-time support for the event was tested by the Nestlé issue said: "Most people have the perception that it's a good thing for the town, but there's definitely a sense that some people matter more than others to the festival organisers. If people have lots of money and are seen as celebrities there's a feeling that they are more likely to have their letters answered and phone calls returned."

Another veteran festival-goer said: "There's definitely a love-hate relationship. Many people see the town more like Hampstead-on-Wye than Hay-on-Wye at festival time.

"It's become a bit like a nice tourist resort, which is lovely during the winter but when it gets to the summer it's crawling with people. It's a big relief when everyone goes."

Mr Florence himself professes to be unfazed by his latest slight at the hands of Ms Brichto, who has become something of a bête noire for him in recent times. When Bill Clinton attended the festival in 2001 she filled her window display with copies of Monica Lewinsky's biography, alongside piles of cigars - a reference to the former US president's sexual exploits in the Oval office. Last year, she put up a statement denouncing Nestlé.

"One of the things I love most about this job is that it doesn't require me to spend any time with [Ms Brichto]," Mr Florence said last night, commenting on the short story competition.

He added that the festival remained popular with the overwhelming majority of the residents of Hay remarking that of the 1,300 people who are registered to vote in the town at least 1,000 have bought tickets to attend this year's events.

Asked about his decision to drop Nestlé as a festival sponsor after only one year, Mr Florence said: "Nestlé are not sponsoring this year. We decided that they would detract from the content of the festival. I'm really glad Germaine is coming. I love her and I think she's one of the most inspiring people I've ever heard speak."

Not everyone is so critical of Mr Florence as Ms Brichto. Richard Booth, the bookshop owner who put Hay on the literary map long before the festival began 17 years ago, said: "I like Peter. He's been very generous to me and we work with him very well. The only thing is that we would like to do it [the festival] on 51 out of the 52 weeks in the year, rather than just the two."