Thousands descend on book festival to listen, digest and, er, nod off

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So now it's official; more government ministers should visit the Hay Festival. Estelle Morris, the Culture minister, discussing public arts subsidy at the literary festival on the Welsh border, demanded that her co-parliamentarians brush up their Shakespeare ("politicians at senior levels should talk a lot more about culture and the arts") and turn up at more arty events.

So now it's official; more government ministers should visit the Hay Festival. Estelle Morris, the Culture minister, discussing public arts subsidy at the literary festival on the Welsh border, demanded that her co-parliamentarians brush up their Shakespeare ("politicians at senior levels should talk a lot more about culture and the arts") and turn up at more arty events.

What they needed, she said, was a shot of communal adrenalin, the kind you get only from actually meeting people. "Festivals like this are incredibly useful because we all need a place to think and exchange ideas and ideals," she said.

"Politicians on the media can talk to millions, but they don't generally get people talking back at them. They're not used to listening". The 17th Hay Festival began on Friday evening with a concert by Bob Geldof, and concludes on Sunday with the massed bonsai plinking of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. In between, there will be epic feats of Listening, Inwardly Digesting and occasionally Nodding Off at 290-odd events.

There's a hefty salting of scientists and religious commentators among the usual platoon of novelists; the festival has shifted its raison d'etre over the years, from being a strictly literary enterprise to a convocation of "ideas".

Many polycultural pilgrims (by no means all of them from north London) head for Hay-on-Wye at the end of May every year, but their number continues to grow. Eighty thousand came over the 10 days last year. More are expected this week.

Highlights are a rare visit to Britain by John Updike, the world's best-regarded prose stylist, writers from Alberto Manguel to Jeanette Winterson, the TV celebrity reporter Rageh Omaar, the mountaineer Joe Simpson, the pop-art maestro Peter Blake, the Turner prize-winning transvestite pot-maker Grayson Perry and the Beyoncé Knowles of modern British fiction, Zadie Smith.

Updike, 71, tall and slightly hunched, was prodded and gadfly-stung for an hour by James Naughtie of Radio 4's Today. He did not drop his perma-smiling mask for a second.

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