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Ten Brimful Days in Hay

June 22, 2016
The Hay Festival Site

The Hay Festival Site

All book-lovers should live in Hay-on-Wye. There are 26 bookshops in the small Welsh town, and every year the population explodes as thousands flock to the Hay Festival, a celebration of books of all kinds.

Recently I spent ten brimful days in Hay, dashing between the main festival and its fringe, HowTheLightGetsIn, seeing only a sliver of the many hundreds of events on offer. There were remarkable women: lawyer and Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi struggling for justice in Iran, defending ordinary people and losing everything; Nobel Literature Laureate Svetlana Alexievich, who tells the stories of ordinary people experiencing the trauma or war, Chernobyl or the collapse of the Soviet Union;  journalist Janine di Giovanni, who writes about what is happening to the ordinary people of Syria: “I don’t want us ever to look away.”

One of the HowTheLightGetsIn sites and the Yurt field beside the River Wye

One of the HowTheLightGetsIn sites and the Yurt field beside the River Wye

And we were galvanised by one of the highest-achieving women in the world, Christiana Figueres, the head of the UN’s top climate body, who managed to get 195 countries and countless numbers of provincial governments and corporations to agree to the Paris Climate Accord.

In a mesmerising performance, Jeanette Winterson recreated the unruly and rude atmosphere of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre – the “original virtual reality”. And, 400 years dead, the bard poked his quill into many corners at the festival – there was even a session on Shakespeare and capitalism.

On the delightful walks around Hay, you will meet locals like these.

On the delightful walks around Hay, you will meet locals like these.

And remarkable men: Salman Rushdie defending magic realism; George Monbiot deconstructing the ideology that got the world into its current mess; Billy Bragg telling the stories that led to his songs, then performing those songs. Question: Billy, who had the most influence on you, Joe Strummer or Margaret Thatcher? Billy: Well, I remember when the three of us were having dinner one night …

Over at HowTheLightGetsIn, speakers debated good and evil, morality and empathy, the nature of reality, whether conceptual art is art, and every other possible topic in the universe. And there was music everywhere, at both festivals and in the town. We spent a lazy hour one Sunday afternoon over a beer and a falafel at the market in the middle of Hay’s winding , narrow streets, being entertained by a cheerful and enthusiastic Aussie girl band, playing guitar, violin and double bass.

And yet more remarkable women: The National Youth Theatre performed The World’s Wife, the stage version of Carol Ann Duffy’s poems giving voice to the wives and lovers of supposed great men, such as Frau Freud, Mrs Faust and Mrs Sisyphus. The actors had a ball playing these women, and the audience loved it. Here’s Mrs Darwin:

7 April 1852
Went to the Zoo.
I said to him –
Something about that Chimpanzee
over there reminds me of you.

More posts to come about the events that had the greatest impact on me.

My accommodation for the 10 days of the festival

My accommodation for the 10 days of the festival

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