Rowan Pelling: How does one explain Saffron?

The intelligentsia may feign indifference to celebrity, but they love a bit of star-spotting
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The Independent Online

Cannes or Hay? Or to put the question into its geographical perspective: Cannes sur le Med or Hay-on- Wye? The French film festival immediately precedes the Welsh literary shindig and this year I had excellent excuses, closely approximating to work, for attending both events. But I had sound financial reasons for only going to one.

But which? The decision made itself, really. One event is stuffed full of movie stars, film producers, circling helicopters, paparazzi and American politicians trying to jump on the bandwagon. But, there again, I understand Cannes is quite glamorous, too. You think I jest? Our sister paper, The Independent, ran a Hay Festival diary last week written by the unfeasibly beautiful actress Saffron Burrows, which at first glance looked like a prime example of starlet reportage filed straight from the Riviera. Then you saw that the craggy character actor she was standing next to was actually Seamus Heaney. (Every time Burrows passed through the festival site, some gawping writer would ask me who she was - that's the thing about book people: they feign to scorn your addiction to Heat and Grazia, and then you have to spend your time pointing out celebrities to them.)

At times, the cast of characters here has resembled one of those fund-raising dinners where politicos rub their rhino-hides against the sleek pelts of celeb-land. This small Welsh town of many bookshops has played host this week to Al Gore, Alan Alda, George Osborne, Matthew Modine, Chris Patten, Princess Michael of Kent, Nick Broomfield and Ronald Harwood. My own week was made happy by the sight of Michael Gambon in a Hay pub. And my landlady has just popped by, saying she's witnessed an unprecedented sight in her considerable festival experience: a fashion shoot down by the festival's main entrance.

In fairness, it's pretty evident that the punters' most devoted acts of cult worship are still reserved for the likes of Margaret Atwood, Carlos Fuentes and Jeanette Winterson, and there are plenty of grey-haired authors in bifocals whose names will forever remain a mystery to viewers of Countdown.

Nevertheless, the locals aren't entirely happy. In the pub near the house I've rented for the week, they've been thoroughly enjoying grumbling about how the festival's "too big", "too corporate" and "too star-struck". Disgruntled fellow boozers regale me with tales about how you used to sit down with your pint next to Ted Hughes or Mario Vargas Llosa back in the days when the audience for a reading was the local Brownie pack, your nan and two stray sheep.

This reminds me of the tales about the glory days of Formula One when any old groupie could wander along the pit-lane and plant a smacker on Graham Hill's cheek, or wistful stories of early years at Glastonbury when the bands were still good. To which there's only two appropriate responses: "Oh yes, the good old days, when drivers still got immolated", and "Yeah, wild. The days when there were no loos and human excrement floated on a sea of mud."

In Britain, success and expansion are generally viewed as a form of catastrophic loss, and we resolutely refuse to see any gains of the democratising process. A decade or so ago at the Hay Festival (so I am reliably informed by my landlady), a handful of people would have watched Carol Ann Duffy give a reading in the British Legion hall, while various old gents shuffled from the bar to eavesdrop on proceedings. This year, more than 1,000 people attended the poetry gala at £10 a pop. In an age of Big Brother, Bluewater and I'm With Stupid, I find it encouraging that large numbers head to a marquee in a field in rural Wales and pay twice the price of a cinema ticket to listen to eight poets reading their work.

It's the nature of ventures such as the Hay Festival that they either fail, shrink and collapse, or they succeed and expand and risk bursting. If 100 people liked genuflecting at Seamus Heaney this year, then they will tell their friends and 200 people will want to make the pilgrimage next year. And what's the festival's organiser, Peter Florence, supposed to do? Tell the crowds it's an exclusive event for genteel folk and the rest of you can just eff off and watch Corrie instead?

Of course, I secretly wish that a talk with Christopher Hitchens meant just that: me, him and a couple of similarly enamoured fans down the boozer buying the great man double Scotches (did happen one year, I'm happy to say). I'm British. I love amateur hour - but you can't do that for ever without seeming unforgivably arch and often rather snobbish. In this country, putting effort and money into a venture and allowing unlimited numbers of punters access is often interpreted as sheer vulgarity.

But big can be beautiful in its own exhilarating charabanc-without-brakes fashion. And if you can't believe that, then at least take cheer in the following reflection on the national character: the Hay Festival is living proof that we're still a words-based culture rather than a looks-focused one. While the intensely visual world of Cannes sucks in the literati, here at Hay the literary world sucks in celebrities and judges them by its own high standards. If your words suck, so do you - however big your Hollywood or media cachet.

The most amusing sight of the week was seeing Alan Yentob, Graydon Carter, Gary Younge and (unusually) Christopher Hitchens barracked by an angry audience for a woefully lacklustre Vanity Fair debate on "the state of the union". The audiences at Hay may be large nowadays, but they still don't suffer glitterati gladly.