John Walsh: Tales from Hay-on-Wye

Where else would Charles Darwin rub shoulders with a Hollywood goddess?
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The Independent Online

The Hay Festival, once a mewling infant in the Welsh countryside, a small provincial phenomenon of novelists reading their works-in-progress in candy-striped tents, is now 18 and has turned into a stroppy adolescent: aggressively sophisticated, politically engagé, crammed with the latest technology, ever-so-slightly bored with the canonical literary stuff, alive to new ideas and crazily random in its enthusiasms.

The Hay Festival, once a mewling infant in the Welsh countryside, a small provincial phenomenon of novelists reading their works-in-progress in candy-striped tents, is now 18 and has turned into a stroppy adolescent: aggressively sophisticated, politically engagé, crammed with the latest technology, ever-so-slightly bored with the canonical literary stuff, alive to new ideas and crazily random in its enthusiasms.

If you wanted a word to express a theme of this year's festival, you could try globalism, ethical living, micro-science or cinematic metaphor, but you'd miss the point. The festival's real theme is the diversity of modern thought. Eclecticism rules, not just in the range of subjects under discussion, but the polymorphous sympathies of the audience.

Call me a dreamer, but I don't believe, 18 years ago, you'd have had the same people, in the course of a single day, attending events about 18th-century shipwreckers, the Koran in translation, Darwin's problem with the non-evolution of the human eye, Chris Smith on poetry, and Elvis Costello singing "Pump It Up".

But then, it's a place of strange bedfellows, startling juxtapositions of public faces and private preoccupations. Take the moment when Goldie Hawn, the Hollywood goddess, drove up in a limo to the back of the bookshop tent and enquired if there were a powder room to be had. "You could drive to the loos on the far side of the festival site," said Diana Blunt, the bookshop's charmingly direct manageress, "or you could go in that hedge over there."

I had the privilege of interviewing the star of Private Benjamin and The First Wives' Club on stage, as hurricane winds savaged the canvas roof like a Force Niner sinking a three-masted schooner. Ms Hawn was clearly unused to such conditions, or to meeting the public close-up. I met her backstage, but only after 10 minutes of being royally ignored as she performed a whole movie-star routine: avoiding eye-contact with mortals, talking to her daughter Kate on a mobile while applying make-up, wrapping herself in a noli me tangere force-field.

But on stage she was sweet, confiding, giggled a lot, and talked about meeting Elvis. "He was sooooo hot," she said, crossing her legs with antsy excitement, like Kenny Everett explaining that everything's being done in the best possible taste. For a 59-year-old granny, she was a bit of a saucebox. And she gave me a nice parting kiss, her enormous mouth landing like a wet, octopodal sucker on several inches of my cheek.

Two of the best events had unexpectedly modern resonances. Saul David delivered a lecture on the Zulu war of 1879 - the one that spawned the film Zulu - and unearthed a shocking story: of pre-emptive British warmongering; of an invasion that was supposed to bring peace in a matter of weeks but dragged on for months; of terrible tales of atrocity by British troops retaliating against the savagery of the enemy; of military propaganda covering up slaughter. It all had a remarkable quality of déjà vu.

And a jolly session on class offered a reminder that in every political discourse, from fox-hunting to hoodie-wearing, class lurked as a dirty secret. It was piquant to hear the audience (patrician, well-educated, and really rather posh) whinnying with distaste as the journalist James Delingpole explained how much he admired the upper classes. Mind you, he chose some odd examples of aristocratic charm. He mentioned an upper-class friend who invited four chums to dinner and, after they'd eaten the salad, explained that "I wanted to share a part of myself with you, my friends, and so I put a little bit in the salad." Yeech. Why did he admire them so much? "Because the upper class have added a lot to the national character." Like what? "Spunk," said Delingpole, innocently.

Elsewhere, there was the usual procession of golden Hay moments. Like John Humphrys reminding us of the ferocious intellectual requirements of the newsreader - "It isn't work, whatever anybody says. You get paid a lot of money, and it requires no brain. I have a four-year-old son, and he'll be ready to do it in a couple of months."

Or Ian McEwan, who was given a ridiculously easy ride about his novel Saturday by the former firebrand Christopher Hitchins; asked if there were any subjects too macabre even for him to contemplate, McEwan replied, "Golf. And VAT ..."

Or Julian Clary explaining how his memoirs, A Young's Man's Passage, fell foul of the libel readers, not because of some scandalous gay sex but because of a Mr and Mrs Plank whom he and his boyfriend met on holiday. "They weren't very tall ... and not especially bright," he told the audience, "but when I referred in the book to being as thick as the two short Planks, the lawyer said that, if they got in touch and could prove they had any academic qualifications, they could take me to court."

Or the Matthew Sturgis story. Matthew is an expert on English decadence and the biographer of Aubrey Beardsley and Walter Sickert, but his publishers were told there would be no room for him at Hay this year - just too many biographies vying for attention. His publishers wrote to Peter Florence, the Festival's imperturbable, papal mastermind, demanding he reconsider. He wouldn't. Sturgis's wife, a distinguished gallery owner, wrote to Florence. So did the publisher's brother, who lives in Hay. So did Sturgis's agent and members of the Sickert Society. Nothing would sway the iron Florence.

Then someone discovered that Sturgis gets his charcoal suits made by the same chap who makes Florence's sacerdotal black ones, and they had a word with him. The tailor wrote to Florence, urging him to have his client Matthew at the festival. Florence relented.

The two men met in the Green Room on Tuesday evening. "That letter from the tailor was the last straw," said the festival director, possibly amazed at what people will do to come a-visiting in his home town.

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