Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Hay Festival

Just back from the quite wonderful Hay festival. Although I was out of Oxford only 36 hours, I was completely disoriented when I woke up yesterday morning, not quite sure where I was or in what world. Being at the festival was so utterly different from my usual routine that my system must have had quite a shock, which my dreams—none of which I remember—tried to sort out. For the first few waking hours of the day, particularly at Matins at the cathedral, I could hardly tell which images were 'real'—that is, had actually occurred in time and space—and which were not. The ultimate sign of a good time, I suppose! But I sat myself sternly down to work on my paper for the July conference (EETS) and by afternoon, thankfully, it was steady as she goes.

It seemed to take forever to get to Hay on Saturday. The railway tracks are all torn up between Oxford and Moreton-on-Marsh so buses were put on, foolishly at the same time as the trains—and of course the running time over the roads is not the same as over the rails, and an 8 minute connexion was just too nerve-wracking to contemplate. When I bought my ticket I was told that if I came early there would be another bus—but of course there wasn't one planned, and it was only because a train was canceled and enough irate passengers insisted that they put the extra one on. I ended up having a complete tour of the Cotswolds, even passing through Honeybourne, which seemed like the end of the earth. I'd like to go back there, though, because it is home to the Domestic Fowl Trust.

We finally arrived at Worcester and in the end the wait for the train was only 20 minutes. We arrived without incident at Hereford, where Rachael Kerr, who had arranged all things Hay, kindly met me and another friend, and took us to the festival.

And what a festival it was! The atmosphere was welcoming, embracing all the paradoxical characteristics of creative thinking: intense yet low-key, laid-back yet intellectually exciting. There were thousands of people there, including a large contingent of children—who had their own festival events—but it was so well organised and designed that you never had a sense of being crowded. People sat in cafés, on the ground (in the fine weather), on the edges of the boardwalks, while others walked rapidly from event to event. There is now a 'fringe' festival in the town at the Globe, mostly philosophers, but some presenters did both festivals. There was a shuttle to and from the town.

This gemütlich atmosphere was even more in evidence in the artists area (the Green Room), where the speakers hung out. Coffee and wine always available, meal and snack vouchers, complimentary tickets to other speakers' events; minders if you wanted them—whatever made you feel at home. It was the sort of atmosphere that put even the largest ego on its best behaviour, and there was plenty of potential for big egos. Some of the people I glimpsed—or more often were pointed out to me!—were: Melvyn Bragg, Bob Geldorf, Julian Assange, Jon Snow (who in the most natural manner was fetching coffee and drinks for his assembled party). I connected with old friends and met some new ones.

At my first session on Sunday morning at 9 AM, there were, unbelievably (because it was the last day and there had been a lot of parties going on the night before), more than 100 people in attendance. Rachael interviewed most competently. I was very humbled and impressed by the quality of the questions from the floor, both at this session and at the panel at 11:30 with Howard Jacobson, Sir Roy Strong, and Peter Guttridge. At that one we talked about Genesis, the Psalms and Revelation. After the earlier session, my books sold out at the signing in the bookstore following the talk.

There were about 600 people at the second session—again, everything smoothly and competently handled. There were people to get you where you were going; then there were people to explain the geography of the venue, and format of the event, and then people to take you, when it was all over, gently by the hand (if you needed it) quietly gibbering back to the Green Room. Except that everything was so calmly and kindly done that the morning was a state of 'flow' with no jitters and no post-event paranoia. It takes great care and an immense amount of planning to create such an atmosphere, and hats off to all who played a role in that.

The only sad note was that I had no time to see the village or explore the bookstalls—or the pubs that were doing a huge trade in the most civilized way (in other words, no town square drunks). I went early to bed on Saturday night at the charming B & B, which had a wonderful, attentive hostess, and took everything with me when I returned to the festival as I had a ride home.

If you have a chance to go to the Hay festival in a future year, drop everything and go for it! It is not to be missed!


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