Hay Festival…Off and Raining…erm…Running!

As the 25th anniversary of the Hay Festival arrived, so did the rain.

I’m not surprised, and I wonder why everyone else is. It is as much a part of the tradition as the Telegraph bags (even if they aren’t the Guardian – they are MUCH nicer than last years, thankyouverymuch), sitting on the lawn with a book (or at the edge of the walkway, given the weather), craning for a glimpse of the famous and infamous (and maybe even sitting behind one at supper) and cleaning glitter off the back of your jacket from where some child (likely mine) bumped into you after joyfully creating a masterpiece in an event in the Scribblers Hut.

This weekend has not disappointed.

While for my son the Festival kicked off on Thursday with talks offered by James Mayhew and Francesca Simon for the primary schools, we had a slightly (ok, much) edgier and in-your-face start with Tim Minchin.  As Minchin launched into the chorus of “Prejudice” – a song in which he sang about a word made up “of Gs, an R and an E, and an I and an N” – and I was briefly (and unnecessarily) befuddled at how he was going to sing about THAT word – my ginger haired friend sitting next to me had a huge grin as we registered that it was indeed “Ginger” he was singing about. He is definitely irreverent, anti-religious and a bit controversial, and it was fun and refreshing. The only shame was that the band (particularly the bass) tended to drown out his vocals most times.

Saturday was fully loaded. We started the day splitting up, with the Hubs taking Pea to see Sue Kendra and “Barry the Fish with Fingers” whilst Boo and I heard Mitchell Symons speak on topics such as “Don’t wipe your bum with a hedgehog”. Symons talk had the room yelling “bum”, attempting to lick their elbows and had a few children trying out the “most difficult words for a ventriloquist to say”, which he had researched for one of his books. I think my favorite bit of advice given was “when in doubt, don’t assume it’s chocolate”, while unfortunately Boo preferred the “don’t ever hit second – it’s the person hitting back that always gets in trouble from the parents. Therefore, you should always hit first.”  Um, not so funny.  Symons, who confessed “he doesn’t have an embarrassment gene” started off a bit slowly but proved to be good fun.

We then met up to hear Francesca Simon (the second time for Boo). As she talked about her love of alliteration, how she comes up with her ideas, whether or not her son is the inspiration for Horrid Henry (he’s not), she had the audience engaged, and laughing in her reading from her newest Horrid Henry book (which we had to buy immediately following the event, although cowed by the length of the line, my 8-year-old took a pass on getting it autographed).  She also introduced her other new book “The Sleeping Army”, a Norse adventure that she has geared more for eight-year-olds and older. My son is a huge fan of Cressida Cowell’s “How to Train Your Dragon” series, so we will definitely be adding this to our library, but it did beg the question as to what age group the Horrid Henry books are intended, as they seem a bit wordy for beginning readers. (My 8-year-old reads them with ease, but it is a bit more of a struggle for my 6-year-old.)

While the kids and I battled the crowds in Pemberton’s (picking up a James Mayhew book for Pea and a few for me), the Hubs headed off to hear Boris Johnson. The tweets I picked up in response to the talk were favorable, and the general review from the Hubs was “he was interesting, and personable…in that slick, Bill Clinton kind of way”, and as he asked for a Kindle version of the book, I think Boris fared well in selling the book, if not himself.

The kidlings headed home with the Hubs as I dashed off to hear Phillipa Gregory, who was actually appearing in two events at the Festival – one to discuss her new young adult novel, “The Changeling”, and one to discuss her adult books, including her soon-to-be-released book, “the Kingmaker’s Daughter”. Her love for her topics was evident as she talked of becoming obsessed with the characters, living with them twelve hours a day while she wrote, and making the point that she spends more time with them than her now-adult children, adding, that she’s “never forgotten the names of her characters, which can’t be said of her children”.  She was able to share that BBC will be starting filming on an adaptation of “The White Queen”, “The Red Queen”, and “the Kingmaker’s Daughter” for a 12-hour miniseries – something that will allow the stories to develop in a way that a 90-minute big screen adaptation of “The Other Boleyn Girl” could not.

Next on the agenda (after grabbing a quick latte to battle what I refer to as “4 o’clock drowsies”), with the Hubs back after getting the kidlings settled with our babysitter,  we were off to Barclay’s Pavilion to hear Harry Belafonte speak to David Lammy, an event we were both quite looking forward to. We were not disappointed.

Harry Belafonte was mesmerizing, speaking fluidly and melodically to the Tottenham MP on his mother’s influence, his love of music, and how he originally intended to be an actor, studying with such greats as Marlin Brando, Walter Matthau and Sidney Poitier, the latter whose career was launched by being discovered playing a role he was understudying for Belafonte while Belafonte had to return to his job as a janitor, collecting the residents garbage.  He endeared himself to the crowd saying that when he agreed to do the talk at Hay, “No one warned me this would be Woodstock with a high level of academic personality”. While for many the first association one makes with Belafonte is “The Banana Boat Song”, it is his involvement in the civil rights movement which was the most captivating.  His book, “My Song: A Memoir” is definitely in the to-be-read queue on my Kindle. (Yes, I live in Hay and own a Kindle.)

We rounded out Saturday night with Peter Florence and his “25th Anniversary Alphabet”, for which we had no particular expectations as the listing only said to check back on May 30 for the full lineup (one we never did find updated).  Of all the events, this was the most hit-or-miss, with a not-quite-complete alphabet (which did not start with “A” but did include an extra letter – the “silent G”, as presented by Elif Shafak) and Andy Fryers mysteriously choosing to play the fiddle for the letter “E” – it was later alluded to that there was a bit of a battle for the letter “F”, and he was not the winner. Other guests included Owen Sheers, Simon Armitage, John Mitchinson,  Baroness Helena Kennedy speaking on “B” for “bee in her bonnet” (media in the courtroom), Norma Percy (who discussed “P” for  Vladmir Putin), and Percy’s husband (and my favorite), Steve Jones, whose letter I can’t remember, but if I had to guess, it was “S” as he talked a lot about sperm in a very scientific yet laid-back and humorous way. It had a definite “we’re flying by the seat of our pants” vibe, but overall was good fun.

Finally, today we heard Chad Harbach (“The Art of Fielding”) and Grace McCleen (“The Land of Decoration”) talk to Sarah Crompton. Both author’s books were chosen as part of Waterstone’s Eleven as debut authors to be watched. Harbach’s publication time (11 years from writing to publication) contrasted sharply tp McCleen’s one-year writing journey (during which time she also wrote two other novels, to be published in 2013 and 2014, respectively).  McCleen had a very delicate, almost fragile faerie-like air about her, and she talked about of how the rigors of writing make her physically ill, manifesting in neurological problems. She added that she would be relieved to be finished with the writing of her final novel, and when it was done, she would be finished with writing.  Meanwhile, Harbach pooh-poohed references to his book being the “Great American Novel”, saying that was a term that must be used in the UK, as it really isn’t in the US (to which I might disagree with him). Interestingly, despite the difference in the authors subjects and writing styles, both books originated on one simple nugget of an idea, and they discussed the difficulties is turning that basic concept or idea into a full-fledged book. The discussion was entertaining, although at times McCleen seemed a bit confused by Ms Crompton’s questions. I thoroughly enjoyed “The Art of Fielding” (you don’t have to be a baseball fan to appreciate it) and am look forward to reading “The Land of Decoration”.

in the coming days we have Jo Caufield, SJ Parris (hopefully), Joanne Harris and Rob Brydon to name a few.  My biggest disappointment of the weekend is that, due to the dreadful weather, I left my camera at home.

On the other hand, this weather has provided the perfect excuse to curl up with a book and a hot cup of tea when I’m not at the Festival.

As if I really need an excuse to curl up with ANY book.

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