Meeting Hay while the sun shines

The visitors greet authors, chatter, read magazines, eat sheep's milk ice-cream or loll around. But why does nobody seem to read any books?
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Located between the Chelsea Flower Show and the first day of Ascot races, the Hay Literary Festival is an unusual event in the English season: it takes place some 150 miles from London with no sporting connection, no special clothing requirements and no fenced-off enclosure to divide the nobs from the slobs - unless you count the tiny writers' eating area where free wine and indifferent pork korma is dished out to starving artistes by a saturnine maitre d' called Fernando. But the festival, run by Peter Florence and his family (his father Norman, whose idea the festival was, died at Christmas) has up-scaled itself over the past few years, from a book event in a field to a vertiginously trendy transmedial extravaganza.

Book festivals have become a wildly successful spin-off from the activity formerly known as "reading". Every self-respecting city in Great Britain will soon have its own festival, following the example of Brighton, Salisbury, Swansea and Edinburgh.

Hay is by no means the best established festival in the country (that's Cheltenham), but it achieves something to which other festivals aspire. It pulls in a huge audience from miles out of town. For 10 days in May, the Premier League of London media-land hurtles up the M4 to this small market town on the cusp of Herefordshire and Wales. They come to be quartered at the impossibly ritzy Llangoed Hall, home of the late Laura Ashley, where the playwright Arthur Miller once stayed a weekend without realising it was a commercial operation; or at the Swan Hotel, the Baskerville Arms (just as chilling as its name suggests) or in one of the ancient cottages tucked away at the end of crazily serpentine narrow lanes. A familiar sound in mid-May is that of braying sociable voices, redolent of Holland Park and Primrose Hill, begging suspicious Black Mountains farmers to help them find their way home across the freezing lunar landscape of Capel- y-ffin.

Nobody can satisfactorily explain why thousands of rational people should travel huge distances to hear writers, the most solitary of professional people, discuss their creations, opinions and regimens, and read to people perfectly capable of reading to themselves. But they come in waves, packing out the Carlton marquee to watch Sir Roy Strong (a lugubrious vision in dove-grey double breasted suit and matching ash-blonde pompadour) read snatches of mild gossip about Mrs Thatcher, Cecil Beaton and the Royal Family ("I said to the Queen, 'Thank you for knighting me, ma'am.' It's quite a safe line, isn't it?"). The crowd in the tents greet every tiny vignette as if comes from Asprey's.

For the writers, it's an opportunity to clap eyes on the people at whom they supposedly aim their books. If every author writes with a single perfect reader in mind, how piquant to discover him or her, made flesh, in a tent in Powys. It can sometimes be a bit of a shock.

At Hay, Martin Amis introduces his new novel, Night Train, to a sell- out tent of admirers. At the end he is asked by a lady in the crowd: "Why do modern novelists write about such disgusting subjects?" He looks puzzled. "The world is full of joy too, you know," she assures him, a rare note of positive thinking in literary circles. "I've never been offered that opinion on the modern novel before," Amis growls. "I'm quite wrong-footed."

Ian McEwan, after reading from his latest novel, Enduring Love, is asked questions about his earlier book, The Child in Time, by readers who have studied it on the school syllabus. "I'm very happy to get a new slice, every year, of a new generation of readers," he says. "I just wonder about the ones who write to the author asking him to write their essays for them ..."

The Chilean dramatist Ariel Dorfman, of Death and the Maiden fame, who is here to deliver a lecture on "Making the Dead Speak" in celebration of the 25th birthday of Index On Censorship, is entranced by his fellow dramatist Harold Pinter, who reads selected monologues from his plays, "and gradually becomes the characters. I like the way he never explains anything, he gives no quarter". At one poignant moment, Pinter listens to a burst of laughter from the next marquee, where Armando Iannucci is being satirical, and says sadly, "Of course, I'd never get that response." This despite the audience's reaction to his description of his role as a conscientious objector in 1948. "Nobody liked me for it," he says. "But I stuck to my guns."

As Dorfman goes off to watch a stand-up gig by Ardal O'Hanlon, the Irish actor best known as Dougal in Father Ted (literary festivals are probably the only occasions at which you get such a convergence of low and high brows under the same roof), the hot ticket for party literati is Brenda Maddox's place. The biographer of DH Lawrence and WB Yeats, she and her husband, the scientist Sir John Maddox, (ex-editor of Nature magazine), live in a cottage of staggering antiquity, tucked snugly into the hillside beyond Llyswen.

Beside the Maddoxes' giant fireplaces and bang-your-head oaken beams, Gerald Kaufman MP rubs shoulders with Brian Patten, the corkscrew-haired, schoolboyish Liverpool poet, and the Spectator's PJ Kavanagh. Brenda's daughter Bronwyn, now Washington bureau chief of The Times, explains her earlier trauma of having to explain to 150 aspirant psychotherapists that the man they had come to see, Adam Phillips, would not now be appearing since, in changing trains, he had inadvertently caught one going back to London - thus pitching the tent into a fever of pop psychological speculation. (He is not the only no-show. Shimon Peres, the former prime minister of Israel, has also pulled out. His excuse - the forthcoming Israeli general election - is considered pretty pathetic by everyone.)

Also at Ms Maddox's is the festival's one-time most outspoken opponent, Richard Booth, once the self-styled King of Hay-on-Wye, and owner of the biggest of its 28 bookshops. He used to fume about the idea of celebrating modern books in a town dedicated to the antiquarian trade. He didn't like all the London pseuds arriving every May. "I can't see," he once told the papers, "why they don't just have a big party on Paddington station and leave us alone." These days, he meekly accepts invitations to join in.

The arrival of the other great media politician of the moment (Kaufman aside) is signalled by a blaze of white suits. Martin Bell spends perhaps too long complaining about the iniquities of Neil Hamilton and, more specifically, Hamilton's wife Christine, whom Bell clearly regards as more terrifying than any wild-eyed Bosnian paramilitary armed with an AK47. "When we had the encounter on the heath at Tatton I thought I had lost the election. I had no idea what to say to them," he says.

But his genuinely worst moment as a journalist, he reveals, was at one of Idi Amin's weddings when the great Ugandan dictator was marrying one "Lady Sarah" from something called the Mechanised Suicide Unit. After pressing Amin for a rare interview, and securing one, he filed it to London with immense difficulty over two days - only to discover it had been dropped in favour of a story about swans dying on the River Thames.

Mid-afternoon on a blazing Sunday, one wonders if this can be the point of literature. Resting between events 100 people loll in the garden formed by the perimeter of tents, licking sheep's milk ice-cream, reading magazines, and working on an early tan. Signings in the book tent are brisk but no one seems to be reading any books. It's a very British way of enjoying the secrets of the intellect.

Everyone knows that the most popular draw for bookish crowds is Alan Bennett. Behind him, though, comes Bill Bryson, the droll American travel writer, who is on stage tonight. It's a sell-out, and for the first time the organisers are worried about ticket touts: "And we have the St John Ambulance Brigade on stand-by for the Ralph Fiennes event on Tuesday," a woman tells me.

Well, well - you look around at the huge tents, the Portaloos, the queues, the Jeep Honchos in the car park, the Winnebagos in the field, the ranks of massive telephoto lenses, the hotline faxes, and the whole panoply of media meltdown in the midst of these immemorial hills and valleys, and you wonder: can it be that literature on stage is the new rock'n'roll?