Tales Of Hay-On-Wye: Even royalty is doing it by the book

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The Independent Online
In the garden of the Kilvert Hotel in Hay, a serious young chap in denims is drinking lager-top and reading Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus with page-turning insouciance, as if it were nothing more taxing than "Ludwig Jones's Diary". In the High Street, a busker resembling the Ancient Mariner's more whiskery older brother plays "Danny Boy" heart-rendingly on a squeeze-box, while the metropolitan blow-ins sit outside the pillared market sipping moccafrappacinos and yakking about Don DeLillo. Outside the Orange Word tent, the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Award for the year's funniest book is soberly handed over to the author of a Faber book called Vernon God Little: the prize is a jeroboam of champagne and an Oxford sandy black sow that will henceforth be called Vernon. All over town, small children walk about with livid orange lobsters clamped to their ears because the sponsoring IT company is giving away soft-toy mobile-phone holders.</p>It could only be Hay-on-Wye, where the 16th annual book festival is in full swing. The combination of high-table debate and low-life debauchery is well up to the festival's high standards. DeLillo (who may not be a recluse like Salinger and Pynchon, but doesn't spread himself around the literary circuit) has come and departed, leaving a hole in the atmosphere. Thousands of people have queued for glimpses of Margaret Atwood, the legendary historian Eric Hobsbawm, the Palestinian sage Edward Said, and Christopher Hitchens, who has embarked on a stand-up, cabaret routine in which the audience is invited, more or less, to come and have a go if they think they're hard enough.</p>Other intellectual highlights have been Sir Martin Rees, the top cosmologist, a man renowned for caution and good sense, explaining that our chances of surviving to the end of the present century are alarmingly slim. And Dr Olivia Judson, the dreamboat American evolutionary biologist who writes as Dr Tatiana, agony aunt to anxious animals, insects and slime moulds, explained about the mating ritual of a certain female midge - how she plunges her proboscis into the male's cranium, turning his insides to soup and shrivelling his genitals inside her... (Although, as someone pointed out, this is perfectly familiar female behaviour to anyone who's ever lived in Croydon.)</p>Famous faces turn up in odd places. At a fancy party thrown by the sponsoring newspapers at the gothically named Baskerville Hall, I silently digested the fact that Gillian Anderson, Agent Scully of The X-Files, was standing two feet away from me, next to Ed Victor and Joan Bakewell. Joe Fiennes, the swarthy actor, popped into the Green Room the day before, unannounced and unnoticed - except by a couple of broadsheet hacks who tried to conceal their excitement, for fear of seeming no better than the 3am Girls.</p>And just as things seemed to be quietening down, there came news that Queen Noor of Jordan was helicoptering in to Cabalva House, the gorgeous mansion a few miles from Hay where Bill Clinton attended a garden party two years ago and had the London media queuing to pump his hand. He hadn't needed a special chopper, nor for any other special arrangements to be made. For Queen Noor, however, the festival organisers were left wondering where on earth, or, at least, where between Hereford and Brecon, they were going to find a red carpet at 2pm on a bank holiday Monday.</p>Waugh breaks out on the home front</b></p>Evelyn Waugh is getting a lot of ambiguous celebration in his centenary year. Waves of distinguished speakers have come to Hay to tell the crowds that he was a) a brilliant writer; b) a perspicacious forecaster of media-driven war and press power; and c) a real bastard. William Deedes, pushing 90 and a former flatmate of Waugh (and the supposed original of William Boot, the hopelessly out-of-his-depth hero of Waugh's Scoop) was asked if he was on the receiving end of the writer's acid tongue. "I was always glad," he replied, "that I'd been to a reasonably good public school. Harrow always overrode Lancing, you see..."</p>Alexander Waugh, the great man's grandson, told a disturbing story about Evelyn upbraiding his long-suffering second wife for letting some fruit go rotten in a bowl. When she failed to remove it the following day, he took it out, piece by piece, and flung it at her, "so that it bounced off her face, her shoulders, her bosom, while she just stood there. You could see it as just part of the intense continuing drama of life at Combe Florey..."</p>Place your bets, please, gentlemen</b></p>Stephen Fry, who is currently trying to flog the foreign distribution rights to his £8m film Bright Young Things, a version of Waugh's Vile Bodies (although BYT was one of the book's work-in-progress titles), played the Hay audience an 11-minute "promo" sequence, revealing his directorial debut as a cross between Moulin Rouge and Gosford Park, with the Charleston and Brooklands racing track thrown in.</p>He told a charming story about meeting John Julius Norwich (also at Hay), who was waving a piece of paper that he'd just won in an auction. Norwich is the son of Duff Cooper and Lady Diana Cooper and, when he was born, Stephen Baldwin, son of Stanley, the prime minister, remarked to Waugh in White's Club that, with Duff's brains and Diana's beauty, the new arrival would be a lovely child. Waugh, it seems, thought differently and put a bet on it. And because they were in White's Club at the time, it went into the Wager Book.</p>So the scrap of paper that Viscount Norwich held so proudly contained the words: "Evelyn Waugh bets Stephen Baldwin a pound that, by the time he is 21, John Julius Norwich will be accounted by all decent people as a terrible little shit." Ah, those golden days... </p>