With a tiny window into one of the biggest book festivals in the UK, Hay Festival, which celebrates its thirtieth anniversary, I moseyed on down to Hay-on-Wye to catch some high profile names and celebrate yet again the world of books and reading. Despite being all too fleeting it was a marvellous opportunity to revel in the well-attended festival as well as taking a moment to gape at all the bookshops that exist in the town itself, at the same time noting that these are all too quickly depleting.
With a blatant political stream of consciousness, this place for ideas and thoughts to be expressed is the ideal haven to be in the lead up to a non-desired General Election. Collectively bringing artists and writers from an international scope to this one field to discuss their endeavours has its merits as it feeds into what Elif Shafak has to say about plurality. With events this closing weekend that included Bernie Sanders and Robert Plant, there is a fantastic vivacity to this festival which brings the big names.
Saturday 3rd June
To say that my day began with a bang would be an understatement. Elif Shafak, one of the most published female novelists of our time, kicked off my day with a talk surrounding the publication of Three Daughters of Eve. Her tenth novel, which is set in both Oxford and Istanbul, where the Sinner, the Believer and the Confused argue about issues such as feminism, identity and Islam at a dinner, questions whether being confused is really that bad a thing after all.
Elif Shafak, was beguiling, as she discussed language, as we are informed that she writes not in her first, nor second but her third language, and with this she exclaimed that the “English language always appeals to my heart, it’s diverse. My connection to the Turkish language is more emotional, my connection to the English language is more cerebral” As she mentions Turkey she describes an angry, polarised nation, a society which suffers badly from paranoia. She informs us that it is still a liquid country and still evolving, nationalistic and inward looking, which upsets her greatly, and particularly as she gets on the topic of Erdagon, who is a very divisive politician: “when you give one man absolute power it is authoritarianism.” The borders surrounding Turkey and the fear of losing territory is where victim psyche comes from, she highlights and she voices her upset about the fact that in Turkey the knowledge cannot accumulate. It will always be erased by the next establishment.
As a writer, she feels that it is her duty to question dualities “like a dance between faith and doubt.” And when questioned on her widened, more worldly view, she outlines that spiritual journeys are each unique. Why can’t we be plural? Why can’t we have multiple belongings? As she moves more onto the topic of feminism, which is clearly a hot topic with Shafak, she claims that patriarchy perpetuates in the way that women are judgemental of each other, and this novel concerns itself with these issues. As novelists they create universes and dictate their characters which she admits can be very lonely, self-centred work.
Next on the agenda was the contentious Howard Jacobson, as he took to Hay to discuss his novel, triggered by the presidential election, Pussy. Described as a toxic fairy story for toxic times, Jacobson informed his audience that at time when things like Brexit and Trump becoming President of the United States was happening, The Independent had left him column less and he did not know quite what to do, as he had rather a lot to say on the situation.
Pussy was not the only book he was here to discuss. The Dogs Last Walk, also published this year, is a novel, which highlights why he had to write those columns, and as he reads sections from the title, it is clear to hear that he writes with the same sharp tongue that he uses on stage. This book is the second selection of columns written for The Independent and, as that newspaper has now folded, it will be the last. The chapter that he reads to us is titled, How Not to be a Knob? This should give enough of an insight into the satirical snobbery that Jacobson exposes to his crowd.
In a fit of rage, six weeks was all it took to work on Pussy, as Jacobson was keen to see it published whilst Trump was still in power and before any other novel on him. On the Election, he mentioned that it is so low that if they had given him ten weeks he might have written another book and called it Theresa. My own personal favourite quote of Jacobson’s at the event was, “I lose more words in five seconds (at my age) than Trump has had in his whole life.” He believes the man fears education, with a profound inferiority complex, and he is simply a “wordless monster.” However, Jacobson does go on to add that no adults should be reading children’s books, which has an air about it I can’t sit well with, an exclusivity to reading that taints the event.
Simon Armitage was next on my programme, reading from The Unaccompanied, giving a voice to the people of Britain with a haunting grace. He aptly begins with Thank You for Waiting which highlights the treatment of passengers by companies like British Airways when it comes to boarding flights, in that they always favour the elite and then slowly work their way down to the more working class. His poem about the nurse at a bus stop outlines the difficulties of working for the NHS. There is a political thread and backbone to this day of events, which sees Armitage, modestly reading about the changing shape of England, most of which can also be applied up north.
He reads a poem about love in the summer, beginning with cider and ending in downpour, which is wonderfully expressive and onomatopoeic, with equal measures of optimism and pessimism. He provided insight in that he woke up to poetry at age fourteen, when he was introduced to Tom Gunn, Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and exclaimed, “you can’t write unless you read – you have to be immersed in what you create” A wonderfully humble, yet evocative poet who is unsurprisingly the National Book Critics Circle Award nominee and recipient of the Forward Poetry Prize.
The neurosurgeon and diary-keeper, Henry Marsh, was next on my list, who had fantastic success with memoir, Do No Harm, but was here to discuss new book, Admissions, which is also a biographical tale that allows him to reflect more deeply about what forty years spent handling the human brain has taught him. With Do No Harm it became apparent that he was as skilful with the written word as he is with the scalpel. Emotionally delicately handled, based on many years of writing, the book was shortlisted for the Costa Biography, Wellcome Book Prize and Duff Cooper Prize as well as winning the PEN Ackerley Prize and the South Bank Sky Arts Award for Literature.
He admitted that this writing lark is not new to him, as he prepared in darkness, keeping a diary since he was thirteen years old. However, he also earnestly admitted that his writing has changed a lot over the years but he did not expect to get published. Talking with such candour about his experiences, he highlights that with all surgery you are dealing with probabilities and you have to balance that with what will happen if you don’t operate. He also suspected that his book was the first one that discussed failure in this profession, when they have a serious responsibility, when it is all too easy to become narcissistic doing what they do, day in, day out. He encourages patients to refrain from viewing their consultants as godlike, which is a high probability and effectively deals with insight of being a patient, but not until he himself was a patient. After several “admissions” by those in the audience of being previous patients of Marsh’s he discourages this behaviour, highlighting how this job can elevate your own status with your own brain.
Last but most definitely not least on my programme was the expressive, animated poet, Lemn Sissay, who received somewhat of a standing ovation for his work and the work that he continues to do, teaching children in care homes poetry. The slam poet is at Hay, promoting title, Gold From the Stone, published by Canongate Books. Literally bringing a bag with the words “emotional baggage” onto the stage with him, we get a sense of how visual this poet works, hinting at his illicit background and upbringing.
He hits us with his first poem, Breaks Morning, which comes with an intensely piercing look from the stage. Powerful, vivid, huge things are on the cards for Sissay. He also reads Invisible Kisses, which can often be read as a marriage poem, which reduces me to a reflective, vulnerable state, not without hope. Having been on Desert Island Discs on Radio 4 he is already on the rise, but as he succinctly pointed out, “you don’t do poetry to be famous.” He admits kindly when asked about our present state, that it’s a great time for words, literature and self-expression, in the same intense, funny and evocative way that he carries the rest of the hour. His endeavours for kids in care is humbling, and a sign of the times, as often it is prevalent in our society to volunteer to support and aid those that are not born into opportunity and bourgeois culture.
Concluding this trip with a talk by new publication, The Amorist’s Rowan Pelling, as well as an event conducted by Swing Patrol London in The Baskerville Hall Hotel, as well as a trek around the abundance of bookshops in Hay-on-Wye, it was an eventful trip with much to see around and supporting the festival. A first to Hay, perhaps not a last, it was different to the likes of Wigtown and Edinburgh, in that albeit a place of differing thought and idea, there is an air about this festival that exudes a little of exclusivity, but not without celebration and excitement.
Photos courtesy of Sam Hardwick, Joseph Albert-Hainey and Paul Musso.
For more on Hay Festival and it’s plans for 2018 see here.