Thurs 31 May-Sun 10 June
words: MICHAEL MILLS
It’s that time of year again. The days are getting longer, the uni students drunker and the British weather decides whether it wants to do Lawrence of Arabia or The Perfect Storm. And, of course, the show rolls back into Hay-on-Wye. Now in its 25th year, the Hay Festival has long promoted itself as “The Woodstock of the mind” – a description that only holds water until you think about it for 10 seconds. Quite apart from anything else, Woodstock wasn’t prohibitively expensive for anyone without an NW post code and there were probably fewer fights there too. But self-entitled, middle class Londoners and sky high prices aside, Hay remains an enjoyable experience. If you weren’t able to make it, fear not, Buzz was and we’re here to pick out some of the highlights.
American folk musician Woody Guthrie recorded 150 songs in his lifetime, but left behind lyrics for another 3,000. In the late 1990s, Billy Bragg and US band Wilco were contacted by Guthrie’s daughter to record a selection of these. In resurrecting Guthrie, the collective sought to pay tribute to his iconoclastic beliefs by breaking down the academic megalith that had enshrined him as the archetypal American socialist. Guthrie was a socialist, but he was also a father, a lover, a show off and a wanker. It’s a message that some didn’t want to hear and one which got one heckler thrown out of Bragg’s Hay gig. Bragg’s own anger may appear tempered with age – how many other rockers sip herbal tea during their set? – but there was no doubting the joy with which he sang My Flying Saucer, the socialist zeal with which he sang All You Fascists and the onanistic lust with which he sang Ingrid Bergman.
You don’t have to like Tories to like Boris. Half the time, he doesn’t seem to like them much himself, extolling the virtues of such notable lefty Londoners as Boudicca, Alfred the Great and John Wilkes. He was in Hay to promote his new book about such great figures from the capital’s history. He reads like a fourth form boy eager to show off his poetry piece for the house cup – or perhaps a dirty limerick in the common room afterwards. He rides off the response of an audience – a good or bad thing in a politician, it’s up to you. It should be the making of unattractive egotism, but Boris offsets it with an apologetic enthusiasm. He’s no Hugh Grant – though his legendary philandering may convince you otherwise – but is, like him, loved for giving body to a view of ourselves as British that we really quite like to see.
During the Second World War, the Allies used the psy professions to dive into the motivations of German High Command. Their findings have shaped portrayals of Nazism in popular culture ever since. Most notable amongst these was the analysis of Rudolf Hess through the theories of Freud and Melanie Klein. It’s a long way from there to “Gott in Himmel!” and Nazis from the Moon, but there’s a lot of leg room in the deeper assumptions that underlie those portrayals. Pick highlighted the importance of these assumptions in both a historical and cultural context. He raised the implication that it is the dormant human desire for authoritarianism which continues to make Nazism the Western default for villainy. Now, go home and watch Schindler’s List, The World at War and Raiders of the Lost Ark. I’ll expect your papers on my desk by Thursday.
THE EARLY EDITION
Hay regulars Carrie Quinlan and Andre Vincent returned for another few days of picking apart the papers. They were without their usual chairman, Marcus Brigstocke; he’d abandoned them to go driving across Bolivia. As you do. Few subjects gracing the headlines across the Jubilee weekend escaped their ire – though given the public holiday, they were mostly taken up deriding the papers’ borderline delusional praise of the Queen. The Early Edition has been playing at Hay for 6 years now, but remains a highlight – not least to see the references to Wiis, brazilians and a gay superhero’s magic ring go flying over the heads of the distinctly Radio 4 audience. I got looks when I sniggered: it was that sort of a crowd.
THE GOSPEL OF US
Hay’s got a new cinema – and lovely it is too. The Bookshop Cinema has already played host to a weekend celebrating the art of filmmaking, but the real baptism of fire came as it took up its mantle as the Hay Festival’s latest venue. And it did rather well. There’s no Coke or M&Ms, but you can get elderflower and popcorn, and enjoy a comfier chair and damned more legroom than you get in your average multiplex. The highlight of the festival schedule was The Gospel of Us, Dave McKean’s stunning film version of last year’s Passion of Port Talbot. Imaginative visual techniques compliment some powerful acting and creative set design to deliver one of the most powerful cinematic retellings of the Passion. I’m a fairly manly man and I’m happy to admit I’ve only ever cried at three films; Toy Story 3, Senna and now this. Oh, and I did once cry at Star Trek: Voyager, but there’s really no defence for that.
One of the big exclusives of the festival was Rankin reading an exclusive extract from his next book, Standing in Another Man’s Grave. It’s a common enough marketing ploy at literary festivals such as this, but the book not only sees the return of Inspector Rebus after a 5 year absence, but pits him against Rankin’s other great detective, Malcolm Fox. Such a crossover has been trailed since Fox made his debut, but there’ll be a visceral thrill for fans to know that the thing now really exists. Rankin himself is a wonderfully practical novelist. He spends longer discussing the errors cuts from his books and the practicalities of what goes than he does the thought processes of his characters or the mechanics of his plots.
Book promotions can feel a little cheap; one is paying to be sold to. There is, however, no such worry with Brydon. Readings constituted only a tiny part of his talk, with the rest given over to rambling recollections of school days with Catherine Zeta-Jones, hanging out at Buckingham Palace with will.i.am and nearly insulting Harold Pinter. As with so many events at Hay, they could have skipped right over the talk and gone straight to the Q and A. Brydon has an easy way with an audience and his not-so-gentle ribbing of his questioners cut right through the usual reverential tone of such sessions. Pity the poor woman who stood up to ask a question about The Trip and got some harsh advice on how to rekindle her sex life.
There were plenty of speakers at Hay big enough to pull in people outside the normal festival crowd, but only a few authors. Terry Pratchett was one of them. His health problems have been much publicised, but he can’t be in too bad a shape; his talk at Hay began with his being given an award for his last novel, and he’s got three more out this year. He also gave a laudable snub to the literati, saying he would “absolutely not” want to be considered a serious novelist. What’s the point of that when you can entertain people instead?