Nicholas Lezard: Hay is lovely, except for the festival

Having a way with written words is no guarantee of being a decent orator
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When I heard the news that Pervez Musharraf, former president of Pakistan, is to appear at this year's Hay-on-Wye literary festival, I first thought that someone was making a mordant joke, the purpose of which was to indicate that literary festivals are getting a bit out of hand. But no – he's really turning up, apparently.

I wonder what he's going to talk about. As military dictators go he was, I am sure, one of the nicer ones, but his connection with the realm of literature seems tenuous at best, unless I have missed something. Then again, Hay has always been happy to give the powerful, or the formerly powerful, a platform: who can forget Bill Clinton in 2001, calling it "the Woodstock of the mind"?

The comparison with Woodstock is interesting. For I have to admit that I have a problem with literary festivals tout court, which largely revolves around the fundamental difference between what it is writers do, and what it is they do at festivals. When you go and see a band play live, you are watching it do on stage what it is meant to do. When you watch an author perform live, you are, most of the time, watching a dog walk on its hind legs.

There are one or two authors I would pay to see, but that is because they are naturally amusing in the first place. But not all of them are, and there is no real reason they should be. Just because you have a way with words on the page doesn't mean you are a gifted orator, or good at fielding questions about where you get your ideas from. I remember years ago going to cover Hay for this paper's magazine, and the biggest draw there was Jeffrey Archer, who is barely a writer in the first place.

But on they march, these bookish ding-dongs. There's a recent Private Eye cartoon in which two castaways are washed up on a desert island. One of them says: "Obviously, the first thing we have to do is start a literary festival." I can understand why you might have one, or perhaps two – but as far as I am concerned Hay-on-Wye is my idea of heaven on earth, a paradise of first-rate second-hand bookshops and good pubs set in beautiful countryside, which for 11 days or so each year becomes uninhabitable.

(I also freely admit that part of my dislike of festivals is that I'm no longer invited to them, which may have something to do with what happened at 6am outside the Queen's Hotel in Cheltenham in 199-. There was an unusually big audience watching me interview Nicholas Blincoe and Alex Garland later, and I bet quite a few of them were wondering how one half of me got to be covered in mud.)

I propose a new kind of literary festival, one in which authors are not encouraged to strut, or become big-headed. It would be a kind of zoo, or an open monastery, where the public can pay to watch writers doing what they really do: sitting at keyboards or exercise books, staring into space, yawning, scratching themselves, looking stuff up, and, occasionally, writing. It's not rock and roll, and I'm not sure it's healthy to pretend it is.

n.lezard@independent.co.uk

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