If you love books, ideas and ice cream, and you’ve never been to Hay…to paraphrase Bill Bryson, “go there at once” – or certainly to next May’s festival. “Take my car”.
Or don’t: my car is white and any vehicle that has been in one of the festival’s charity car parks (increasingly boggy fields) will not look the same again for some time. However, eco-awareness is the order of the day here and there are plenty of “park and rides” on the outskirts, with a regular festival bus shuttling between the world’s capital of second hand bookshops and the festival site itself in the fields bordering the river Wye.
The Hay Festival always coincides with the May half term. For the past two years I’ve been blessed with gorgeous sunshine lighting the surrounding Brecon Breacons. This year the heavens have opened and each day the event has run on “Hay Time” – all events delayed by fifteen minutes so that attendees can arrive punctually after tackling rain and mud. It has made very little difference – my only gripe about the weather is that fewer people have been sprawled out on the grass or in deckchairs and more clustered in the tented cafes and covered boardwalks. The diversion for each day is “welly watching” – as one speaker pointed out, Bill Clinton may have described the festival as “the Woodstock of the mind” but it is certainly “the Glastonbury of the feet.” The catchphrase of the festival is “imagine the world” and it has corresponding festivals in Asia, Africa, the Americas and the Middle East.
|"Late (due to Mud)"|
The first talk I attended this year was by a Herefordshire historian, John Lewis-Stempel. His book The War Behind the Wire centres upon the reality faced by the 170,000 British soldiers captured by the enemy. The title illustrates that, in Lewis-Stempel’s words, those who surrendered or were captured had “swapped one war for another” – the survival chances of prisoners were below those still on active service in the trenches. Lewis-Stempel has researched and revealed a series of brutal truths. Those surrendering had, at best, an 80% chance of their surrender being accepted: on occasion men were shot either by the Germans or by their own comrades when their hands went up. Once caught they were crammed into train carriages like cattle in scenes that Lewis-Stempel points out are reminiscent of a later Germany. At stations the prisoners were routinely mocked by the German public, who blamed the British entry to the war for its lengthy duration. How long the journeys lasted depended on the location of the base of the regiment that had captured the men - those being shipped to Prussia were in for a long travel time. Some died of wounds en route. Once interned in Germany, prisoners were sometimes subjected to brutal treatment. In the latter stages of the war in particular, they were forced to work in coal and salt mines.
After a break for Shepherd’s ice cream (which is made from Welsh sheep milk and absolutely delicious – I overheard one American tourist saying that she wished she could transport a tub back to San Francisco).
Toni Morrison is the matriarch of American fiction. The news of Maya Angelou’s death broke later in the day I saw Morrison speak and she is now the most well-established voice of black, female literature. This is not a label she herself would necessarily welcome: one comment that Morrison made during her discussion was that she felt that “black writing” and “women’s writing” and any other genre characterised by its author’s gender and ethnicity should simply be “writing”. “Why can’t I be alphabetised?”
Now 83 and wheelchair bound, Morrison spoke slowly but lucidly in her conversation with Jerry Brotton about her play Desdemona, written by Morrison herself but with lyrics and music by the Malian author Rokia Traoré. To describe it as a sequel to Shakespeare’s Othello is a loose term. The action of the play takes place in the afterlife and features some of Shakespeare’s creations – Othello, Emilia, Cassio and Desdemona herself – but also characters whose existence is peripheral to or merely implied in Shakespeare’s play: Desdemona’s mother and the maid “Barbary”. Morrison even gives Othello a mother, Soun.The character who is most obviously absent is Iago. Morrison described Iago as a “nuisance” and claimed that, by excluding him from her play, the characters could “get on with the real business” of discussing their lives and the events of the play. In her talk, she was reluctant to discuss the villain in any way, saying of those who argued that Iago was the true protagonist that he was not the eponymous hero. She has taken pains to give her Othello soliloquies as opposed to mere monologues, finally to place him upon the same pedestal as white Shakespearean heroes such as Hamlet. Emilia, in almost every scene of Othello and usually silent (at least, until it is too late), is given a voice. Morrison has enhanced the qualities of her titular protagonist that Shakespeare gave us glimpses of: naivety but also a strong sense of independence and a willingness to risk everything for love.
The “Willow Scene” of Othello is the main inspiration for Morrison’s Desdemona. Morrison became fascinated by the line “My mother had a maid called Barbary” – the idea that Desdemona, the white girl who ran off with a black mercenary, could have been raised by a black maid. Tellingly, her character “Barbary” changes name mid-way through the play: she reminds Desdemona of her slave status and points out, “…you don’t even know my name. Barbary? Barbary is what you call Africa.” Morrison re-names the character Sa’ran, who assertively tells her former child-mistress that she was trapped in her role of Desdemona’s carer. The character Emilia makes a similar statement about her social status. Morrison’s Desdemona responds to both that, ultimately, their status of women imprisoned all three of them, in different ways.Desdemona could be dismissed by the likes of Harold Bloom as a mere forum in which to raise issues of race and gender. Yet the same could be said, in my view, for Shakespeare’s original play.
Morrison appeared to enjoy the question and answer session at the end of her talk, taking time over each response. Some English teachers in the audience seized their moment, aware of the press presence, and asked the author for her view on the Education Secretary Michael Gove's decision to exclude classic twentieth century American novels from the new GCSE specifications. If one listened carefully to Morrison’s response, she spoke lengthily and generally about the benefits of a wide range of Anglophone texts without directly condemning the move. Nevertheless, by the time I had driven home, the headline “Toni Morrison: Michael Gove will regret US books ban” had already appeared on the online editions of two national newspapers. You have to give those teachers credit: smart timing.
Cerys Matthews, former rocker, now sings and composes for the BBC and regularly appears at festivals such as Hay, having branched into folk music. Her repertoire on this evening was thoughtful: Welsh folk ballads, Catatonia’s hit Mulder and Scully, Welsh hymns sung by battalions marching in the First World War. She had an easy, chatty rapport with the audience and asked them to sing or whistle at certain points.
On Saturday, my first talk was by the celebrated historian Niall Ferguson. I use “celebrated” most deliberately for he is, in my view, a professor most conscious of his own celebrity. His book The Pity of War runs neck and neck with Max Hastings’ Catastrophe this year, the year of weighty tomes on the Great War. Both books focus upon the decision to go to war in 1914 but their authors come to radically different conclusions. Ferguson’s premise is that Britain’s entry to the war was avoidable and that the sacrifice made by ten million, the majority of them young men, was not worth the cause (of the preservation of Belgian neutrality). At times, the talk was more like a polemic on the politics of 2011-14 than a historical discussion. Ferguson touched upon Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, citing a “cognitive dissonance” in the British public that they will commemorate the First World War and see Britain’s entry to it as just and inevitable yet repeatedly state in YouGov polls that they consider the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to have been futile and oppose intervention in Syria. The Obama administration came in for a few swipes: Ferguson dismissed the “isolationist” stance of the current American regime as representing the “muddled” politics that, in attempting to avoid war, often cause it.
Ferguson ended his talk before the questions, movingly, with the fact that his book is dedicated to his grandfather, a working class Glaswegian who survived the Great War despite suffering a gas attack and a shot to the chest in the spring offensive of 1918. He read an abbreviated version of Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” as a tribute, citing the fact that as a child he had sat on his grandfather’s knee and heard him fighting for breath. Ferguson’s reputation, which he clearly embraces, is that of a right wing historian. However, in this talk, and in his book, it is the workers that he sides with, seeing them as “screwed over” for the sake of an imperialist and expansionist cause. For all his theatricality, the complacent comfort with which he handled questions from the audience and his readiness to dismiss the tweets of rivals and refer to his own Wikipedia page, Ferguson’s passion for the road not taken shone through.
Thomas Weber, whose event I moved on to, is a disciple of Niall Ferguson’s: in fact, his book Hitler’s First War mentions Ferguson as his mentor in the acknowledgements. His style is less bombastic and, rather than stand at a lectern, Weber explained his book through a conversation with the Chair, Rosie Goldsmith. He was also at pains not to deride other historians, explicitly stating that he owed seminal authors on Hitler (such as Kershaw) a great deal.
Weber has, as he put it, partly through serendipity and partly through determination, accessed a number of archives and family records that have not hitherto been viewed by the public. In addition to trawling through a mass of papers detailing the involvement of the List Regiment (Hitler’s) in the war at the regiment’s headquarters in Munich, Weber managed to persuade families in Germany and the United States to allow him to peruse family papers of those who fought in the same battalion as Hitler.
The result is a remarkable and readable book that sheds new light on Hitler’s involvement in the Great War. Weber has paid particular attention to the experience of Jewish members of the List regiment and argues that this corner of the German army was not anti-Semitic. He also contends that Hitler tended to glamorise his war experience at the time and that the Nazi propaganda machine exaggerated his role further in the 1930s and 1940s. It has become commonplace to state that Hitler’s role as a dispatch runner was a particularly dangerous one; in fact, Weber argues, this was not the case. Weber also argues that, contrary to Hitler’s own account, it was not the war that transformed the Austrian painter into a charismatic leader of men (as Hitler claimed in Mein Kampf in 1925) but the aftermath of the conflict, and the impact of the Versailles Treaty in particular. I spent the gap between this talk and the next reading this book in a quiet corner of a tented bar and can recommend it.
Jim Al-Khalili gave a lecture on Humanism and the Tolerant Face of New Atheism in his capacity as the current president of the British Humanist Association. As he stated at the beginning, this is not his usual subject, which is, of course, the Physical Sciences. He outlined what Humanism is and the differences between Humanism and atheism. He was also clear that atheism cannot be compared to a religion, citing the common analogy that it is the difference between being on a different television channel and switching the transmission off altogether. The most personal moment of Al-Khalili’s talk came when he described how, after being a lead signatory on behalf of the BHA to The Telegraph to condemn the Prime Minister’s comments about Britain being a Christian country, and The Daily Mail picked up the letter as a story, a number of people wrote to say he should “go back to Iraq”. But as Al-Khalili himself noted, there are good and bad religious people, just as there are good and bad atheists.
It was the talk from which I learned the least but that is possibly because it was, for me, a case of preaching to the converted: I’ve been a Secular Humanist since 2002. I also found the question and answer session at the end irritating as a number of people used it to challenge Al-Khalili’s view that using complementary medicine is tantamount to a belief in magic and, as it can only be effective as a placebo in his view, should not receive NHS funding. Several people took issue with this and with a perceived lack of respect on his part for “blind faith” – I’m not sure why, as if one chooses to attend a talk given under the banner of the BHA it is fairly obvious what the content will be. Nevertheless, Al-Khalili spoke well and persuasively and I hope he does achieve his stated aim of appearing on behalf of the BHA on Thought For The Day.
Like Jim Al-Khalili, Ian McEwan is a Humanist, an atheist and a rationalist. In previous novels he has chosen a brain surgeon as a protagonist and crafted highly realistic psychiatric case studies. Here, in conversation with the polymath Raymond Tallis, McEwan outlined his new novella, The Children Act, which will appear in September.
McEwan has chosen a female protagonist (and narrator) this time. At the end of the talk some members of the audience asked him of this significance of this and he claimed that there is none, that he sees his creation as a “person” rather than as a woman. This “person” is Fiona May, a judge specialising in Family Law.
McEwan traces how his character is forced to come to complex judgements on morally difficult cases, always conscious of the pressures of time and public scrutiny. In the extract he read to the audience, Fiona May has to decide on whether a hospital should separate conjoined twins in a situation in which not to do so will certainly mean death for both babies, a fate accepted by the articulate but staunchly Catholic parents, but to perform the operation would mean actively killing one brother to ensure the survival of the other. The narrative seemed compelling, with all the appeal of a courtroom drama. McEwan stated that in his view court judgements are a “treasure trove” for a novelist and that many judges write very elegantly, in literary prose. I will definitely read The Children Act on its publication: McEwan claimed at the end of the session that he was able to write about distressing legal cases as novelists have “a chip of ice in the heart.” He also promised that the novella does not contain a single semi colon.
As I left the tent McEwan spoke in, Hay looked beautiful. The sunshine had finally broken through and the hills surrounding the valley glowed green. I contemplated driving up to Hay Bluff, one of the most stunning hillsides in mid-Wales, but decided it was too late. Instead, after extricating the car from the swathe of mud it had become marooned in, I took a cross-country route home, driving westwards into a glorious sunset.