The Hay Festival 2015 was, for the most part, privy to no less than a miracle: a near-unbroken period of dry British summer. The gates themselves therefore seemed to promise great and unexpected things. The main site spreads from there, an interwoven network of rectangular canvas avenues and beachy isometric patches of sunlounger-dotted grass. Cafes and food courts are more numerous than the site’s size would have you believe, and behind every flapping tent is a bustle of organisers and stewards. Not an inch is wasted. From the moment you walk in, there is no doubt that everything is under control. There is therefore not much surprise that, no matter how wayward they try to be, visitors are just along for the ride.
On Thursday afternoon, Rae Langton gave a talk to a sun-beaten audience about the ways that society uses slurs to galvanise and create barriers and, in turn, how this creates a sense of what should and should not be said. Being explicitly uninterested in political correctness, she was careful to avoid the word “offence”. Langton is a philosopher of academic rigour, which meant she cared only about the observable ways that genders and ethnicities linguistically and politically dominate others. It made for a cerebral beginning to proceedings, and it was this event that evoked more mental fertility that any other.
Later that evening, masses gathered for author Tony Hawks. Though present as a writer rather than a comedian, he began his talk in true stand-up style, rambling about breadboards and American youth. Hawks’ career has been haunted by his skateboarding namesake, and he enthralled with tales of adopting the other’s identity when responding to ill-sent emails. It was light-hearted compared to the intellectual formality of that afternoon, and it gave way to an entertaining hour of anecdotal book-plugging. His recent release is a series of anecdotes collected from his move to the West Country, one of which he read out to titters of teary laughter. Afterwards, the gathering crowd was testament to his popularity and prowess as a performer.
Friday arrived. 1pm. A sizeable queue formed for a talk called The Shakespeare Dictionary. Ben Crystal is an actor with the RSC who specialises in “original pronunciation”. His father, David, is a writer and the most popular linguist in the UK. The pair were at the Hay Festival to present their book, The (aforementioned) Shakespeare Dictionary, an Oxford Illustrated edition that explores the language of Shakespeare to make his work more accessible. Indeed, David Crystal showed off his gift for simplifying complex ideas and most people, judging by post-show whisperings, wanted to see more of him. Their speech was engineered to appear improvised, but poorly so, while some jokes landed far off target. Though an enjoyable affair, it’s reliance on “pop” versions of literary criticism appeared to generate irritation from a crowd thick with academics.
Some short hours later, a smaller crowd huddled into a tent that creaked in the rickety Welsh wind. Marc Morris was presenting to the Festival his book – Treachery, Tyranny, and the Magna Carta – in which he picks apart attempts from the 1970s onwards to humanise King John II. According to Morris, the man was a cowardly psychopath with an abject indifference to human life. This talk, like that of Crystals, began to fall apart at the end, when damaging audience questions were deflected with little more than confidence. There was a sense that Morris was disregarding evidence that didn’t fit in with his argument, but that is not to say that it was an hour wasted. Morris was witty, polemical, and unpatronising, a feat for which few speakers can claim credit.
That evening, Neil Gaiman spoke to Claire Armistead about his work and the passing of Terry Pratchett. It began with the latter and there was for this period an eerie mixture of laughter and sad silence. Gaiman was at turns bereaved, fondly reminiscent, and awestruck by the memory of his long-time collaborator. The second half focused on Gaiman’s own work, Trigger Warning, a “calendar” of short stories that appeared before him while working on a smaller project. Gaiman speaks often of the organic quality of writing and gave a young audience member with writerly ambitions some chord-striking advice:
“Think that you’ve got half a million terrible words inside of you, half a million words of awful plots and they’re sitting there inside you hand. You’re job is to get them all out so that good ones can start coming out. You start early and you write a lot.”
Then Sunday came. The final day of the festival. That afternoon, filmmaker Paul Fischer was speaking about Kim Jong-il’s reign over the North Korean film industry before his promotion to internationally-ridiculed despot. While serving as Cultural Arts Director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department, Kim attempted to fix a failing industry and his own bursting jealousies by orchestrating the kidnap of South Korea’s Choi Eun-hee and her director ex-husband Shin Sang-ok. The two were held captive and, with Kim, they produced movies. Fischer was dry-humoured and pleasant to listen to, and he had none of the intellectual over-confidence that professional academic speakers were accused of. During the post-talk book-signing, he discussed how observing a nation’s culture can provide a better understanding than its politics.
Fischer, in saying this, summarised the prevalent theme of the festival. Each talk was an examination of some artistic, cultural, or social element of society that, once probed, revealed profound truths – or at least questions – about some part of humanity. The whole thing is orchestrated with little commercialism, while any advertisements were for green living initiatives and charities. The Hay Festival is a philanthropic affair that people leave with a sense of progress being made, and the best thing of all is that it isn’t exclusive or elitist. All the events listed here were priced between £6 and £8 regardless of who was speaking. Furthermore, the Hay Festival sets aside 20% of its tickets for students and anyone with a university or college ID can claim up to five tickets for free.
The Hay Festival is the perfect balance struck between artistic exchange and philosophical idealism. No one present made a loss – books sales were a key motivation, it seemed – but only because visitors made investments in what interested them. This, as opposed to the extortion of popular festival pricing. In keeping with this spirit of intellectualism and community, is this not therefore a model more festivals should emulate?