John Walsh: Tales from Hay-on-Wye

'From his wheelchair, Gore Vidal glowered indignantly, like a man who had been exhumed against his will'

Sunday 23 October 2011 04:17

I arrived too late to hear Cherie Booth discuss her contraceptive impedimenta in front of strangers, too late to enjoy Ken Dodd's Happiness Show, or to witness Stuart Rose, the chairman of Marks & Sparks, talk about his fondness for Twiggy, or to hear the cult Touareg band Tinariwen introducing the audience to the new genre of Sahara Funk. I know they were on stage at different times, but in my head they're all still hanging out together in this town on the Welsh border. I'm trying to imagine the scenes in the green room, had they all been in there at the same time. Would Sir Stuart have encouraged Ms Booth, now that she's washed so much dirty linen in public, to take part in his next TV commercial? Would the Touaregs have assumed that Dodd was an important public figure, and that that's how posh Englishmen look and behave?

Eclectic has always been the word for the Hay festival; you're as likely to see astronauts and TV chefs, foreign heads of state and Hollywood stars as you are to see novelists and biographers wandering under the tented walkways and negotiating their way along the wooden duckboards over the mud slurry. Since it changed from a literary festival into a festival of ideas, the programme of events has become a smorgasbord of heterogeneity, a mixum-gatherum of creativity and gravitas. You really don't know who on earth you're going to meet next.

Take Saturday night. One minute I was in the hospitality room gazing in wonder at the Duchess of Devonshire, last of the Mitford sisters, the next I was being directed to Cabalva, the Howards-End-style house owned by Revel Guest-Albert, the festival's chair. A cocktail party was winding down. In the hall, up the stairs, outside in the shrubbery and, quite possibly, in the bar as well, lurked 16 heavy-set security men with flexes behind their ears, and looks of stern implacability. In the main living-room, becalmed in a wheelchair, sat Gore Vidal the writer and savant; he glowered like a man indignant at having been exhumed against his will. Beside him stood the star of the show, shaking the hands of guests in a line-up of worship. I said, "Hello Mr President," the way you do, and we talked about his young days as governor of Georgia. Then Jimmy Carter (for it was he) spotted my 12-year-old daughter, wound an arm round her waist, said, "Ah bin watching you a long time," in a just-slightly-creepy way and bestowed a kiss on her brow, as a dozen cameras popped and flashed.

One cannot hang around in Hay, though, so we decamped for another party in a Llyswen farmhouse owned by Sir John Maddox, veteran editor of Nature magazine, and his wife Brenda, the American biographer. Among the throng in the kitchen noshing lamb stew, I noticed Rhodri Morgan, First Minister of the Welsh Assembly, in deep conversation with Steve Jones, the nation's leading geneticist. I remarked on the starry nature of the gathering to a tall, elderly American gentleman. He said that he himself was engaged on the far-out shores of cancer research, but that the last time he'd spoken to a journalist, it had got him into terrible trouble. As the conversation shifted to the relative intelligence levels of different races, it dawned on me that I was talking with Sir James Watson, one half of the Crick and Watson gang who discovered the structure of DNA and therefore the key to life on earth. He was stoutly unregenerate about the trouble he'd caused by airing the subject of comparative racial brain-power, though he was sorry to find himself "banned" from the festival because of his unwelcome views.


Another banned figure took to the stage on Sunday lunchtime, introduced as "the most controversial Christian in the world today." It was the Right Reverend Gene Robinson, whose refusal to keep schtum about his homosexuality has split the Anglican church in twain.

He didn't look terribly dangerous: small, slight, benign and smiling in rimless specs, as he argued that the Church was too occupied in keeping an orderly house rather than facing the truth. He confronted the famous seven verses in Leviticus, the ones about chaps not lying with chaps as they lie with women, and explained that they were written at a time when there was nothing more degrading for a chap at the end of a battle than to be "treated like a woman". Choosing a slightly unfortunate image, he argued that, instead of creating a schism in the Church, the warring factions should "cling fiercely" to each other while finding a solution. In the meantime, he explained that God's love is endless. Unfortunate, then, that not an hour later, Christopher Hitchens explained that God's love was baloney, God an insult to the intelligence, and religion a blight that poisons everything. He was suspicious of the idea that Heaven was a place of eternal praise; he had, after all, been to North Korea. In short, he concluded, religion was invented by humans to terrorise each other and to appeal to those who like to grovel, fawn, apologise and propitiate.

Here were two extremes of opinion, forcefully advanced and passionately argued, and utterly cancelling each other out. To allow both Hitchens and the bishop to inhabit the same universe seems a curious oversight for a tidy-minded Supreme Being. That they should occupy adjacent tents like one angel and one devil, vying for your soul on a Sunday lunchtime, is the mark of an excellent festival.

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