Reading, Looking, Thinking – all at once!
A place for me to ramble on about things varied and unspecified. You are invited to participate.
I’m going to do something incredibly naughty. In this, my first Three Things… post, I’m blending Reading, Looking and Thinking into a single salmagundi of writing. Please don’t think this undisciplined commingling of topics will be a regular occurrence, it’s merely that I want to discuss a subject that simultaneously fits into all three categories. Moreover, I have fallen so far behind with my June reading schedule (not difficult for one whose perusal engine is snail-powered) that a digest of events will allow me extra time to catch-up.
I left my head (and heart) in Hay-on-Wye!
While that statement may look curiously like an outlandish take on an old Tony Bennett number, it is unfortunately true. Since returning from six blissful, uninterrupted days of book binging at Hay Festival 2018, loaded down with assorted titles (still to be shelved), a fat jotter brimming with notes I made on the hoof and pockets stuffed with crumpled ticket stubs, I’ve barely had a moment to take stock.
My good intentions of writing a detailed Hay feature for Book Jotter came to nought, and as the event receded ever further into the past, it seemed less appropriate to share old news, therefore, Three Things… presents me with the perfect opportunity to give a brief impression of my Hay days.
Between the 24th and 29th May I posted several Hay Happenings (updates from the festival), although, due to a shortage of minutes in my day, all but the first two consisted only of captioned photographs. I was consequently unable to share details of a fascinating conversation that took place between the first Polish winner of the Man Booker International prize, Olga Tokarczuk, and the British journalist Gaby Wood. They were joined in the Good Energy tent by Jennifer Croft – the gifted translator of Olga’s books into English – where the novelist spoke brilliantly (in an accent I found utterly mesmerizing) about her award-winning work, Flights. She also talked about: being a psychologist before realising she “had more problems than [her] patients”, her feminism and beliefs in animal rights, and the not inconsiderable influence some of her work has had on Polish politics. I seldom ask authors for their autographs, but following the event I trotted along to the Festival Book Shop and joined a snaking queue leading to a table where Olga and Jennifer were signing copies of Flights. I was shamelessly starstruck!
Neither was I able to enlarge on Rose Tremain’s moving discussion with Peter Florence, in which she talked of her recently published memoir, Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life. Her childhood, it seemed, was a perplexing mix of middle-class comfort, joyous freedom to run wild and a complete lack of parental warmth.
Margaret Atwood was, of course, magnificent. Flanked by a sinister bevy of berobed handmaids, she made her way in a fittingly autocratic manner past the waiting crowds towards the Tata Tent for her first event with Peter Florence. Here she discussed her 1985 dystopian masterpiece, The Handmaid’s Tale, and took questions from the audience, including many about the highly acclaimed TV series, now into its second season. I was fortunate to see her twice: on the second occasion speaking on the subject of her successful career to a visibly edgy Gaby Wood (normally the least ruffled of people). Indeed, Florence was unusually brittle during their encounter, which is hardly surprising as Atwood is a fiercely intelligent and assertive person with a piercing gaze and forthright opinions on almost any topic you care to throw at her. She has a distinctly mischievous, if deadpan, sense of humour, and it was clear throughout both interviews she was in complete collusion with her audience.
In addition to writers, I met any number of charming people waiting in queues to see their favourite authors. Inevitably one gets chatting to those standing closest, and it was noticeable that everyone I met during my time at Hay was, without exception, courteous, cheerful and keen to impart the latest literary goss. Most memorable were two lovely ladies enjoying their fifteenth consecutive year at the festival (how things have changed!). Then there was a fellow Atwood devotee who kept me company for an hour as we waited at the head of the Friends’ line to obtain decent seats to see our hero. Most entertaining was an old acquaintance of Richard Booth, who shared hilarious anecdotes with her immediate neighbours. There were many others, too numerous to mention.
Fiona Sampson’s talk, The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein, was utterly engrossing, especially as I had recently reviewed her new biography, In Search of Mary Shelley, for Book Jotter. Roddy Doyle’s talk to Stephanie Merritt was particularly memorable because of what he had to say on the outcome of the previous day’s Irish abortion referendum. He also spoke well on his concerns about the potential for The Troubles to reignite in Ireland following Brexit. Ian McEwan was no happier about Brexit (I don’t believe I came across a single festival goer, either on stage or in the audience, who was in favour of Britain leaving the EU), but he stuck in my mind for reading a short (and believable) piece of fiction about artificial intelligence.
I suspect there is little need for me to mention my intention to be in Hay-on-Wye for the 2019 festival.