Tales of the Country: How to hog the limelight at Hay

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The Independent Online

Spare a thought for the Gloucestershire Old Spot pig that takes part in the Hay Festival every year.

Spare a thought for the Gloucestershire Old Spot pig that takes part in the Hay Festival every year. For 364 days in the year, it lives in anonymous, happy squalor nosing around a muddy field in Powys. On the other day, it's yanked from its squelchy habitat, hosed down and limousined in a mobile pig-box all the way to Hay-on-Wye to be photographed with an author who has just won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction. Apart from the indignity of having to pose with a human (who invariably tries to feed it champagne), it has its name changed to the title of the winning book. Last year it became Vernon God Little. This year, it (or an Old Spot very like it) has been christened The Well of Lost Plots. One can only speculate about what existential damage is done to hapless porker by this enforced nomenclature.

Losing the plot is, of course, an occupational hazard at Hay. Ask Michael Ignatieff, the Canadian intellectual and Harvard Professor of Human Rights Practice, who was scheduled to speak on "Political Ethics in an Age of Terror" on Saturday. His driver took him to Ross-on-Wye, 40 miles from Hay. Ignatieff, one of the most brilliant men on the planet, could not understand why there was no festival to greet him; nobody at Ross thought to suggest he might try the literary thrash at Hay - you know, the one with the 80,000 people milling through the streets. Back on site, the restless audience were offered free cherries while they waited...

The 17th Hay Festival has been bursting at the seams with visitors, with strawberries (offered, not in Wimbledon-tennis punnets, but in bulging panniers by loud-voiced local farmers), with parties and with fancy tents. The main sponsors, Channel 4 and The Guardian, threw a lavish do in a big-top, with a complicated centrepiece sculpture of antique dusty books, ancient typewriters and dangling skeletons - an emblem, surely, of the death of writing, though I may have interpreted it wrong.

Zadie Smith glided regally about with a bunch of gardenias in her hair, pointing out her stubble-chinned Irish fiancé and talking about her new book, the self-reflexively titled On Beauty. Patrick ( Spider) McGrath and his wife Maria Aitken came, left in a taxi, then came back for more. Joanne ( Chocolat) Harris and Daisy Goodwin, whose thematic verse anthologies have taken over the poetry shelves, looked on neutrally while a mildly lubricious cabaret quintet of French parlourmaids stripped to their corsets. Catching a flying garment full in the face, I stuffed it surreptitiously in my pocket; only later did I discover it was a yellow, rubber, washing-up glove.

On stage, certain preoccupations became apparent. One is fundamentalism, a word that's been dinging around the festival events like a leitmotif. Religious extremism, multiculturalism and Palestinian issues turn up all over the place. Karen Armstrong, the ex-nun and historian of both God and Mohammed, revealed that she is routinely employed in the US to lecture senators and congressmen about Islam. "Lots of them are very unhappy about the present administration," she revealed. "I went to the State Department, and found hardly anybody who'd wanted the Iraq war. But they really loved finding out about the issues. They love going to lectures."

More alarmingly, she pointed out that George Bush and Osama bin Laden sometimes speak in the same terms: "They both divide the world into good and evil - and once you've done that, there's no need to justify yourself further." Not a big fan of the President, Ms Armstrong shook her head about his use of language when calling on Muslim nations to join "a crusade" against terrorism... "Some Americans have come to me and said, 'You do realise George Bush thinks he's been chosen by God?' - which makes rather a good case against the existence of an intelligent supreme bring."

Malise Ruthven, author of A Fury for God (about the reasons for September 11), held an explanatory session about ideological purity. It was hijacked by Peter Tatchell's eloquent condemnation of gay and lesbian-bashing among hard-line Muslims (for which he was instantly condemned as racist by a member of the audience), and nobody managed to establish how a true fundamentalist feels his God within. This despite the efforts of Zia Sardar, a charming, Westernised Muslim who gently pokes fun (can that be wise?) at his more extreme brethren. He talked about going to a meeting of Muslim academics, where every single man had a huge beard - except himself. Soon he was being brow-beaten for lack of hirsuteness. "Don't you believe in the Prophet's example?" they demanded. " He had a beard..." "Yes he had," conceded Sardar, "but if there'd been razor blades around, he'd have shaved", for which he was ejected.

A lady in the audience asked sweetly, "Could you explain the difference between a fundamentalist, a literalist and a Judaist - and by which of them am I more likely to be stoned to death for adultery?" It was a classic Hay question, the tone of bourgeois commonsense applied to serious issues. Can it have been the same lady who asked Dylan Moran (the stand-up comic and shambolic star of TV's Black Books), "I would like to run a bookshop while drinking too much and never selling anything, but I'm not sure how I'd manage to keep it afloat. Have you any insights about how Bernard Black keeps going financially?" Moran blinked crapulously (it was, after all, only 10.30am). "Could I just say," he said, "that you win the 2004 Librarian Voice of the Year Award? That was fantastic."

At the Hay Festival, you see, it's not just pigs who get their moment of glory.

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