John Walsh: So now we know what rhymes with 'hymen'

Notebook: The Hay Festival still surprises me after 22 years

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The Hay Festival has been going for 23 years. I've been going for 22 of them, and it still surprises me. The iron convention that the first weekend is a tumult of rain and mud, and the second weekend a paradise of sunlight and shown-off flesh, was confounded this year when the sun stayed out all through.

The comme il faut about festival clothing (shorts and white trousers for men, Laura Ashley skirts and cotton tops for women) doesn't stop some people arriving as though dressed for Glyndebourne (in pearls) or for a trip up the Nile.

You find out stuff about writers that you never knew before. I'd no idea that Jonathan (The Rotters' Club) Coe started out in the 1980s playing piano with a feminist cabaret act called Wanda and the Willy Warmers, one of whose songs, about the Rolling Stones bassist and his affair with a 14-year-old called Mandy Smith, began, "What happened to/ my teenage hymen?/ It was broken by an old man called/ Bill Wyman."

It was intriguing to learn that the sleekly unflappable beauty Zadie Smith breaks into a cold sweat thinking about the nasty hack that's always in a festival audience, waiting for her to make a wrong move ("I just know if I say, 'It's quite warm today,' it'll come out as 'Brit Author Slams Brit Weather – Prefers New York'.")

I hadn't thought Martin Amis was still hung-up on ageing and decay; he's been going on about it since The Information. He reported that, after a certain age, the vocabulary shrinks, the words contract and, "as Chekhov said, 'Everything I read now seems not short enough'". Even becoming a grandfather was "like getting a telegram from the mortuary".

I discovered that among the DJ Chris Evans's favourite books are works by Marcus Aurelius, Deepak Chopra, Bertrand Russell and the semi-literate Hollywood mogul, Sam Goldwyn.

Evans was one of the stars of the final weekend, telling a 1,000-strong crowd about his negotiations with Richard Branson, about signing up to Virgin Radio.

When Branson called, Evans was at Heathrow about to board Concorde to visit John Cleese in New York (don't ask). Branson offered to fly Evans to New York on Virgin Airlines. Evans counter-offered that Branson should join him on Concorde. Branson reluctantly agreed, but was given a front-row seat.

Their discussion about money consisted in Branson scribbling a figure on a Concorde in-flight menu, Evans saying no, and Branson scribbling another. Bewildered by the figures, Evans summoned his agent to sit with Branson and do the deal for him. It didn't work out – "but he and I met again," said Evans sleekly, "when I bought his company."

Fast work from the ubiquitous Foster

Evans's agent is Michael Foster, currently in the news for buying Peters Fraser & Dunlop, Britain's oldest literary agency, the cream of whose authors (including Tom Stoppard and William Trevor) walked out two years ago, after the firm was taken over by a US sports agency. Foster, who also represents Hugh Grant, Liz Hurley, Julie Christie and Bear Grylls, is merging his company with PFD, dropping the venerable name and forming The Rights House.

It was a source of great interest and gossip to have the acquisitive Foster at the festival. He popped up all over the place – at events, at Giffords Circus, even at a late-night dance party on the A438. A short, clever and self-confident chap, he brushed aside enquiries about his ruthlessness as takeover king. "It was simple," he told me. "The whole deal took eight minutes."

When Francine got the better of Alastair

Alastair Campbell was there promoting his new volume of diaries, Prelude to Power ("the happy-ending volume") and it was instructive to watch his interactions with the audience. Though overwhelmingly Blair-intolerant, they didn't maul or hiss Campbell for any of his supposed roles as news-manipulator, dossier-sexer-upper or war-apologist. They seemed rather to enjoy his Sir Humphrey-ish evasions ("Let me show you how this might be seen a different way..."). They murmured in sympathy when he explained that the media has become more intrusive, more 24-7, more judgmental, and therefore much harder to deal with than in 1997. Oh no, what a trial for you, Herr Goebbels.

To the popular criticism that he has wielded power while unelected (a constant plaint from Sky's Adam Boulton,) he replied that most people working for government are civil servants who aren't elected either — thus putting himself on a par with diary-keepers and mailbag-sifters. Nobody mentioned that Campbell wasn't, strictly, a civil servant either.

The audience drew a collective intake of breath when told of his anger-management strategy: a psychiatrist once advised him always to carry a sharp object in his pocket to press into his hand in moments of stress. Once, when sued by the MP Rupert Allason, he was advised that Allason's only chance of winning was to get him riled. In court, hand casually tucked inside pocket, he gripped the sharp blade as the questioning began. Only when he felt the blood dripping from his fingers did he realise quite how furious he was...

The best moment, though, was when he told Francine Stock about the Question Time debacle, when the Government refused to let David Laws appear on the same programme as Campbell. It may, said Campbell, have been a warning-shot fired at the BBC for associating with him. "There's another possibility that you won't like," said Ms Stock pertly, "– that it was nothing to do with you at all." The audience cheered. That's the Hay spirit.

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