Since 1988, Hay-on-Wye has been the venue for the Hay Festival of Literature & Arts is an annual literature festival held in for ten days from May to June. Devised by Norman and Peter Florence in 1988, the festival was described by Bill Clinton in 2001 as “The Woodstock of the mind”
Magnus Torén, of the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, went to the event a few years ago to talk about Miller, and this is his story, told in tandem with his pal Tomas Flæckman. Enjoy!
Twelve days. Eighty thousand visitors. Four hundred items on the program. The heaviest authors and thinkers.
The literature festival in the Welsh village Hay-on-Wye has grown and is now a gigantic phenomenon. Magnus Torén, of the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, went to the event that has been called ”a mix between an international conference and a peasant wedding.”
”I’m here to talk about Henry Miller,” I say to the young man next to me in the pub The Wheatsheaf Inn in Hay-on-Wye. ”Really?” he says and looks up from his book. ”Who’s that? The one who married Marilyn Monroe?”
My friend Tomas Flæckman is coming back from the bathroom. His literary and cultural magazine in Sweden, ”Tidningen VI,” has sent him over to the Hay Festival to do a story. For me it is a blessing to have him here with me, after all I am here to speak about the scandalous American Author Henry Miller (1891-1980) and about censorship. Miller is still controversial and to have Tomas with me could come in handy if some sensitive culture geek decides to throw seat pads or empty mineral water bottles at me while I do my talk.
In retrospect you could probably say that we were a bit overamped when we arrived. But, you can never tell…
Tomas and I have known each other for more than 30 years. We’ve worked together. We’ve sailed together. We’ve played in a rock band together. We have been chased by angry Fijian men who believed that we were after their women.
You know, the kind of things that cement relationships.
Nowadays we don’t see each other very often. I am living here, in California, in the sometimes-mythologized Big Sur, and Tomas is living in Sweden, in Stockholm, the ’Venice of the North.’
But now we’re here – in Wales of all places.
• Okey, what do we have to select from today? I pull some items out of the program: ”Panel discussion about marginalized children. A priest talking about Money vs Morals. A Welsh Food tasting. Eight different author interviews. French trumpet meets hiphop from LA. A guided walk up the hill behind Hay-on Wye. (Gather by the clock tower at11AM). And so on…”
Hay-on-Wye (Y Gelli Gandrall in Welsh) is an old trading post in eastern Wales, right on the border to England. The town has 1500 inhabitants and is located in the outskirts of the Brecon Beacons National Park. Gentle mountains dominate the surroundings with friendly rolling hills where cows and sheep graze. Green in every possible shade dominate the vista wherever one decides to look. Pastoral is the word.
This little hamlet would still be unknown and quiet had it not been for a bibliophile by the name of Richard Booth who in 1961 came upon the idea to start a highbrow antiquarian bookstore in the village. The business took off immediately and several other bookstores followed suit, and Booth soon decided to make Hay a center for second-hand books: A Town Of Books.
Today there are 30 antiquarians in town with a combined inventory of over a million titles in all possible genres. Boasting the most book boxes in the world per capita. April 1, 1977 Booth proclaimed The Independent Kingdom of Hay-on-Wye, with himself as ruling Monarch. The eccentric king is nowadays weakened by a stroke, but his ideas have spread so that today about 30 different municipalities around the world call themselves ’Booktown.’
1988 the next step towards world fame was taken when the Hay residents, Norman and Peter Florence (father and son) spun further on the village renown and started a yearly literary festival. It begun at a humble scale; the first year was financed by a poker game win that Peter had brought home). There were 20 local authors and everyone gathered in the village.
It was a bit ’hippie-like’ the first few times, says Alice who sits at the register at the mystery and thriller antiquarian bookstore Murder and Mayhem and who has been with the festival from the start.
Literature is still the main content point in the program – this year we had Nadine Gordimer, Martin Amis, Kazuo Ishiguro, David Remnick (right), Tina Brown, Bill Bryson and many, many more. But weight is also placed on programs about politics, environment and philosophy as well as other cultural expressions like music, gastronomy, and painting. The status of the festival has increased year after year and is now according to the New York Times, ”The most prestigious festival in the English speaking world.’
Both Richard Booth and Peter Florence have been knighted for their efforts, and several of the people we talk to testify as to how the whole region, in the past very sleepy, have brought itself up thanks to the initiative of the two men.
When, in the early morning, one walks out towards the festival area along the dangerously narrow sidewalk, one finds oneself in the middle of an over thousand feet long snake of people. There are knitted sweaters, straw hats, Birkenstocks, Møtorhead T-s, reading glasses hanging on chests, white sun hats, fanny packs, backpacks, lots of bearded men…all kinds. Except.
I almost made a mistake right here.
The fact is we did not find all kinds of people here. The audience may be varied in age but it is otherwise remarkably homogenous. It is white, educated, British, middleclass. Academics and labour voters is what we have. The whole festival was humming about the new Tory regime that had just won the election. A paradigm shift is in the offing after 13 years of Labour. One rumor is that the budget for culture will be cut drastically. Troubled faces over teacups and beer glasses.
We have a cup of coffee with Cambridge professor, Priyamvada Gopal, who is here at Hay to talk about the British Empire. As we sat there she was scribbling some changes in her script: ”I’ve just heard that the government is suggesting that the history of the British Empire – the colonial era – again should be taught as having been a ’Grand and Honorable Epoch!’” Hard to swallow for a person with roots in India.
But regardless of ones political sympathies one has to acknowledge that the level is high at Hay. The following may illustrate what I mean:
The British singer/songwriter Laura Marling is performing one evening in one of the bigger tents. Before one of her songs she says: ”I have a question, and I know this is the only audience in the world to whom I could pose it. Is there an expert out there on antique Persian poetry?” Three people raise their hands. Marling has used an old Persian line in one of her lyrics and she wants to know if it is correctly translated.
Indeed. But sometimes we can sense a crack in the intellectual, correct, veneer. For example the disappointment is significant when the glamorous Bianca Jagger – ex-wife of Mick Jagger – is canceling her performance with a short notice. She was going to talk about the consequences of climate change for the populations in developing countries. “I am not sure that the disappointment is entirely because people felt they missed out on Ms Jagger’s opinions on climate change” a Hay staff-member facetiously points out.
Hay would never talk about their guests as ’stars’ or ’celebrities’ but of course some names sell better than others. University diplomas do not vaccinate against celebrity adoration.
On the biggest stage John Gray (right) is speaking about how the human capacity for fantasy is responsible for the worst crimes in human history; in one of the cafés a discussion is ongoing about why the brits of today work harder than medieval peasants; in the middle tent the author Terri Apter is interviewed about sisterhood, and in a small wooden shed – decorated with deep red velvet and golden chairs – the best of Opera is performed by a voluptuous female soprano in front of six people at a time.
I am sitting in the audience when the legendary art director Richard Evans – the man behind some of the most iconic album covers in the history of rock history – is being interviewed by John Harris, political correspondent at The Guardian. It is entertaining and it is clear they both are knowledgeable, the conversation ranges widely.
Both of the men often slip into anecdotes and non-sequiturs like Duke Ellington’s dentist or the perfect recipe for Shepard’s Pie. But seriously; what makes old LP-covers belong here? Who has decided that Evans should be invited?
I was curious how they decide on program, there were several questions I had ready for Peter Florence should I get the chance to talk to him. Who’s in the program committee? How are they selected? What’s their mission? How does the discussion unfold when the decision is made to invite the man who designed the cover for The Who’s album My Generation from 1966?
To put is simply; Peter Florence is not easy to get a hold of. When we finally see the man and corner him up against a rock wall, late one night at a party, the whole battery of questions just crumbles. Florence listens patiently to our forced babble and then calmly says: ”There is no program committee.”
Of course he has many people helping but most everything is decided on by Peter Florence himself and he contacts all participants himself. (I received many e-mails myself personally from Peter). The reason the program at Hay is what it is seems to be a mix of intuition, happenstance, contacts and – of course – genuine knowledge.
Posted at the entrance: ’Program # 287 is moved from Stage B to Stage F. Program 299 is moved from Stage E to Stage A. Program 301 starts at 19.30. # 312 is cancelled due to illness.’
At last time for my hour in the limelight. I am a bit nervous; after all I’ve flown half way around the world to talk about Miller, an author who isn’t exactly on everyone’s radar any longer. The venue for me is one of the smaller tents and the event is sold out.
I start by asking the audience about their experience with Miller. It turns out that very few had read anything. I decide then to change my plan by starting with a Miller 101 of sorts. I then go into what I had been asked to focus on; the issues and history about the banning of Millers books. It is a sensitive subject, even today and even in front of this audience.
I decide to illustrate what it was all about by reading the famous passage on page 5 inTropic of Cancer. Anyone who has read it knows that it is pretty hard-core. The reading of the passage takes about a minute. The tension is palpable, you can hear a pin drop. Everyone is sitting dead quiet except for a woman who now and then giggles kind of hysterically.
After reading I look out over the audience and I feel a bit stunned, I take a few seconds, I say something, don’t remember what, and the audience, in unison, break out in a liberating, and an altogether too loud, laugh. A person asks if I like what I just read. I answer, in part to avoid a discussion on the subject. ”No, not really, sometimes Miller can be ridiculously sexist.”
The last night of the festival we’re sitting down to sum up our impressions together with out host, Malcolm, a retired accountant who with his wife, Shirley, is offering Bed & Breakfast during the festival period.
”I don’t get it!” I say. ”Here they’re starting a festival about literature and philosophy. They expect people and great authors and thinkers to come. They place it all in a small village, in the middle of nowhere, a place that can be reached only via a narrow, meandering country road. A logistical nightmare. The hotel capacity is very limited, food is below par and there’s nothing going on at night. It shouldn’t work!” ”My friend,” says Malcolm with an enigmatic look in his eyes. ”That’s exactly why it works.”
Hay-on-Wye in numbers.
- 1,500 – Number of permanent residents (2009).
- 30 – Number of antiquarian bookstores (2010).
- 1961 – Richard Booth starts his first used book store.
- 1977 – Booth proclaims ”The Independent Monarchy Hay.”
- 1988 – The first Hay-festival.
- 80,000 – Approximate number of visitors this year.
- 12 – Number of days the festival is going on.
- 408 – Number of items in the program (2010).
- 9 – Number of stages at this year’s festival.
- 15,000,000 – The sum (in dollars) that the festival is estimated to bring in to the region this year.
- 8 – Number of countries to which the Hay Festival has been exported. There are now Hay-Festivals in Colombia, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Mexico, Spain, Kenya, Maldives and India.