Hay. Bank Holiday Monday and the sun is shining. This is my fourth day at the festival of ideas and I’ve just seen Andrea Levy talk. I’m loving it so far. I arrived on Friday evening to collect my bundle of event tickets and sing-along to the chorus of ‘Ride On’ in the audience of Christy Moore. He wasn’t very rock’n’roll, pulling on a jumper and a hat a couple of songs in – ‘You’ll seldom see this, I miss my hair at these moments’ – but he played a great set including a wonderful rendition of the Pink Floyd classic ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ as an encore.
Saturday had me in a panic quite early on after a text from the novelist Matt (Matthew David Scott) who I was due to be interviewing on stage later that day. He was having transport issues. Eek. After a few hurried ring-a-rounds to our mutual publisher, Parthian the problem was solved and I could relax again. I breathed a big sigh of relief and headed for refreshments and comfy seat in the Green Room. I joined The Blondes (Rachel Trezise and editor of New Welsh Review, Kathryn Gray) for a natter prior to their on-stage discussion of new novel Sixteen Shades of Crazy.
Rachel read a couple of extracts from the novel before chatting about themes and characters. In the book, inspired by her time on the road with the band Midasuno for Dial M for Merthyr, the story is told from the perspective of the women, all wives and girlfriends of local band The Boobs. In it a stranger, Johnny moves into a valley town where nobody new ever arrives causing plenty of disruption as the three females vye for his attentions. Asked if it is harder writing about gritty issues as a woman Rachel explained that she is just writing life as it is, as it happens around her. America also crops up in the chat, as the main protagonist, Ellie is a factory girl with an obsession with New York and Rachel also admits to being obsessed with America, especially New York. Why? The Welsh valleys are populated by immigrants – English, Polish, Italian, etcetera. She suggests that the tight grasp of Welshness held dear in the valleys now is, in many ways invented. She also explains that the Welsh look to America rather than England for influences and aspirations.
Next up, I meet Matt in the Culture Cymru tent, who has survived his travel nightmare. We talk about his novels, the Dylan Thomas Prize long-listed debut Playing Mercy and his latest, The Ground Remembers. He has just finished the draft of his third, from which he reads, it sounds promising. We also talk worst traits (laziness) and musicians he’d like to strike dumb (Sting) as well as Balloon, the fantastic music and spoken word event that he runs with Matt Jarrett of Newport’s Diverse Records. There are many great events coming up over the summer months including ‘Couplets and Cutlets’, a poetry BBQ, and ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Rhondda’ featuring Rachel T. Visit their Facebook Groupfor more info. Event over, the rest of the day is left to the fun stuff. Back in the Green Room Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry swoops through in a fabulous frock prior to the ceramicist’s talk later that evening, far upstaging all the glitterati, even me. Coats collected, Matt and I head to onsite mini-venue The Summer House for the official launch of Sixteen Shades of Crazy, a glass or two of bubbly and the first chance to play my 2010 Hay game of hunt Susie a fantastic literary agent. Rachel’s publisher, Patrick from Blue Door is darling, he introduces me to some promising leads, or jerks his head to alert me to the right people to say hello to. Cards are swapped. Fingers crossed. Schmooze over, I sidle over to join mutual pals and catch up on news, clink glasses with top Welsh writers like Aneurin Gareth Thomas (Luggage From Elsewhere) and Owen Sheers. The party relocates to town and long continues.
Following all the expected fun of Saturday I had thought Sunday was going to be an easy day, but I planned badly. Luckily the party hadn’t taken too much of a toll, and I was on site, coffee in hand for a 10am start. I am delighted I made it as the first event was absolutely fantastic.‘Poet, dancer, writer, wanderer’ aka Tishani Doshi was in town to talk about her debut novel The Pleasure Seekers (Bloomsbury) which was inspired by the love story between her Welsh mother and her Gujarati father in the late 1960s. Tishani spoke of the influences of hybridity and place upon her, as well as the profound effect India’s leading choreographers – Chandralekha – has had on her life and work. She was joined by Asian-American writer Wendy Law-Yone whose novel of a Burmese woman in exile took her 17 years to complete. She talked of difficulties in the writing process, how she had become trapped by writing in a strict meter, poetic prose, and that once she had freed herself from that she felt more able to write, to let air into the narrative and she completed the work. Both novels are now on my reading list.
I head over to see the South African writer, political activist and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer answer questions about ‘The Image and the Word’, how universal technology of the image threatens the book. Wise woman she may be, but many of the important questions are left unanswered, and Nadine gives the impression of being out of her depth due to a limited grasp of the technology she speaks of, although she did give the perfect response to ‘Do you welcome the Fifa World Cup to South Africa’ — ‘Do we really have to bother with that?’
Over in the Culture Cymru tent Clare Dudman has made cupcakes. They are delicious. We tuck in and settle into our seats to watch her illustrated talk about her latest novel, A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees. Dressed in a purple shirtdress and atterned scarf she recounts the trials of Welsh settlers attempting to set up a colony in the wilds of Patagonia, accompanied by three short films. She tells of children dying on the voyage over and of near-starvation as black and white images of settlers and natives stare back at us from the plasma screen. Fascinating.
National Poet Gillian Clarke is also taking a coffee break in Culture Cymru, the caffeine has not been helping nerves about chairing an event later on that day, this jittering surprises me as Gillian usually appears confident and collected on stage. She dashes off, as do I.
This time to see University of Glamorgan lecturer Tiffany Murray (Happy Accidents) all smiles when discussing her second novel Diamond Star Halo. Did she suffer from ‘difficult second novel’ syndrome, following the critical acclaim of hr first? Apparently not, yet the novel has taken seven years to write because she didn’t have the pressure of a two-book deal to fulfill with her publishers and she works fulltime: ‘I really enjoyed the whole process and wanted to linger over writing this book; I wanted to do it properly.’ When first planning the book, Tiffany says she was influenced by the likes of Tristram Shandy and says she had the image of the lead character Halo being born underneath a drumkit – and born into rock’n'roll. She also knew that Halo would have corkscrew red curls and freckles. It was also influenced by her upbringingat the legendary Rockfield Studios in Monmouthshire, where her father was a record producer and her mother the cook. This gave the colour to the story, while one seed of an idea came from Wuthering Heights — ‘I’ve always seen Heathcliff as a gnarly rockstar.’
Budding journalist? You will probably be glad to have missed A-list editor Tina Brown (Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Talk) discuss the future of print journalism — in short newspapers as we know them are on their way out, magazines are going to be greatly reduced in their circulation and impact – and the profession, claiming it could take six years or more for the problems the media is currently facing, i.e. how to make any money – to be ironed out. There is some relief, though, and plenty of hope as she discusses the future of online publishing, citing her website The Daily Beastas an example of the new model, and suggests narrative journalism and reportage may find a new way to retain readership through the printing of 30,000 word essays in book form either as print or download. A very interesting hour, and one that many, many people attended. Also there were amusing moments, as Tina Brown, Proprietor of The Daily Beast talked of her love of switching off at home, how she ‘really enjoys not being in touch with people.’
Finally for Sunday, I found Jeanette Winterson absolutely endearing as she discussed her upbringing – ‘All children think their lives are normal, at the time’ and difficulties with her mother who banned books in the house. Jeanette explained how she used to keep her books under her mattress, but as the mattress rose closer and closer to the ceiling her mother found them and burnt them all. The writer learns texts so they can never be taken from her again. This same mother told her 16-year-old daughter ‘Why be happy when you could be normal’; love, her wonderful new girlfriend. Celebrating the 25th anniversary of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit Jeanette says her mother ordered the book in a false name when it came out. At question time a member of the audience, Jane, says simply ‘No question, I think you’re bloody fantastic.’
Back to today, then, Monday has been calmer. Some flyering for my events next weekend and then I dropped into Culture Cymru and chat to Frances Jones-Davies from Cambria Magazine. Jasmine Donahaye reads, a little hesitantly yet sensitively from her Wales Book of the Year long listed poetry collection, the brilliant Self-Portrait as Ruth (Salt), following recent atrocities in Gaza. I’d be surprised if this doesn’t make the shortlist (announced later this week). Another announcement, Jasmine has got the job as editor of Planet Magazine, the Welsh quarterly journal, and again I think they have chosen well. It will be interesting to see what the winter issue brings.
Finally, for this blog, I shuffle in, a teeny bit late for Andrea Levy. She is talking charismatically, in a thick Caribbean accent, in character as Miss July from her new novel The Long Song. She talks of the need for accounts, for history – even if part-imagined, part pieced together from real-life accounts, journals and documents – of the 300 years of slavery, visibly appalled and distraught at how little we know of these times. On writing, Andrea says she ‘always, always, ALWAYS starts in the third person.’ With her latest she wanted a character that, again like Tristram Shandy, will not leave the reader alone. She certainly succeeded. Such colourful writing.
Tonight I get some time off from Hay, but not for long. I’ll be back at events from Thursday, and pottering about the town preparing for the Hay Poetry Jamboree (Salem Chapel, 3/4/5 June) over the next few days. I’ll report back then. The sun is due to return, make the festival while it shines