Wednesday, 3 June 2015

The Hay Festival of Literature 2015

by Laura Burden with images by Lucy Smith

This year featured, among other things, a Chief Rabbi, a war photographer and a ventriloquist…and the sun shone.

The Hay Festival of Literature is something of an annual pilgrimage for me – the lure of the globe’s second hand bookshop capital, talks by some of the finest minds in the world and sheep’s milk ice cream never diminishes. This May, unlike last year, the surrounding Brecon Beacons and Offa’s Dyke path were suffused with sunshine and the field car parks were bathed in buttercups rather than becoming a submerged swamp. I convinced Ms Smith to come along and we went to six events – some relating to our respective disciplines of English Literature and PRS and others for interest.

Our first speaker was Jessie Burton, whose first novel, The Miniaturist, took the UK by storm after its publication last year. Burton, who is in her early thirties, was bubbly and engaging, and was touchingly thrilled to have found renown as an author so early in her career, finishing by taking a selfie with the audience behind her. For those who haven’t read it, The Miniaturist is set in seventeenth century Amsterdam, a wealthy city at the height of its influence in terms of international trade. Burton was inspired to write the novel when she visited the Rijksmuseum and saw a doll’s house – but not any doll’s house: one that had belonged to the wife of a wealthy merchant and was a replica, perfect but in miniature, of her own home. This was not a toy but an ostentatious display of her husband’s wealth, for the minute creation cost as much as the real mansion. Burton created the character of Nella, a young provincial girl married in an arrangement convenient for both families to Johannes, a wealthy merchant. It is both a “coming of age” story of a young woman trying to negotiate the ways of the cold family she is now part of and the metropolis, and a mystery story centred upon the miniature house Nella is given to occupy herself.

Burton tried to make her way as an actress after her English Literature degree at Oxford but it is a challenging career and she had begun to rely on PA jobs in the city. She began to write as she “needed a new dream” after resigning herself to the fact that she would never be “the next Emma Thompson” and produced seventeen drafts of The Miniaturist before submitting it to her agent. It is a testament to the power of the novel that, far from being rejected by publications in the usual manner of a first time novelist, Burton’s book was auctioned to the highest bidder, so sure five companies were that it would be a critical and commercial success. The Miniaturist is soon to appear on television and Burton is currently finishing her next novel.

The next event we attended was by Professor Susan Golombok from the University of Cambridge, whose talk Are The Kids Alright? centred upon the impact of non-traditional forms of parenting upon the wellbeing of children. Golombok defined non-traditional families as those who had not existed – at least not in open society – before the 1970s, including families where children are born from donor conception, and brought up by same-sex couples or were born through an arrangement with a surrogate mother. The short answer to the question posed by the title of her talk is “yes”: the evidence suggests that children brought up in such “modern” families are at no greater risk of experiencing bullying than other children, and are no more likely to exhibit psychological problems or developmental delay than children brought up in more conventional homes.
Lynsey Addario, despite being born into a middle-class family in Connecticut, with both parents working as hairdressers, rose to become a highly respected photographer, primarily of war but also of humanitarian crises, working for publications including the New York Times and the National Geographic

Addario began her talk by playing a clip from CNN that detailed her abduction, alongside three other American photojournalists, in Libya in 2011, with her husband pleading for her release. She went on to describe how she rose from working as junior photographer for a regional South American newspaper to performing at the top of her game with the most sought for assignments in photojournalism – and the relentless pressure to rise within this specialised career and to maintain her position once she had reached the top. Addario talked candidly about her abduction, where she was tied up with her own shoelaces and sexually assaulted several times over the days she was held until her release. More controversially, I suspect, for some, she spoke about working in Somalia and Gaza while she was pregnant with her first child: at one point she was forced by Israeli security guards in Gaza to pass through an x-ray machine three times even though she had called ahead to the checkpoint to explain her pregnancy, and then strip-searched. Some might argue that she took unnecessary risks and prized her career above the wellbeing of her unborn son; Addario herself argues that her experiences have made her more alert to the plight of women in her position but without her wealth and contacts in various African and Asian countries.

Her talk was illustrated with images taken throughout her career. Some were harrowing, particularly those from her assignment in Sudan that displayed a woman haemorrhaging to death after childbirth. Some showed US Marines fighting in the mountains of Afghanistan and others shrivelled corpses in the deserts of Sudan. It was an inspirational talk.

We booked to see Diarmaid MacCulloch at the last minute as a time-filler between other events but his talk on Sex and the West turned out to be very interesting – an extension of his recent television series on the Christian Church’s attitude towards sex and relationships today. He began by saying that he would discuss three things that should never be mentioned in polite society: religion, politics and sex, and proceeded to explore the impact of various cultural and philosophical influences upon the Church’s attitude towards sex today. After noting that Jesus himself said little about sexual matters, aside from warning Pharisees not to cast the first stone and praising monogamy, MacCulloch considered the sexual ethics of two shapers of early Christianity: Greek and Jewish cultures. He also explored the influence of St Paul, Plato, Aristotle, St Augustine, Jerome and Martin Luther, among others, upon Christian thinking. MacCulloch spoke well and with enthusiasm, answering questions smoothly when the audience quizzed him on the decision to consecrate female bishops and the result of the referendum on gay marriage in Ireland from the day before.

If you’ve never seen Nina Conti perform, go on YouTube and have a look. She is a ventriloquist, predominantly using puppets to “talk” to the audience while her own mouth remains immobile. Conti' show at Hay, In Your Face, was entirely improvised. Conti used Monk, a monkey puppet, to open the performance before relying on audience participation/victimisation. We were struck by the metatheatrical deconstruction of the relationship between performer, puppet and audience: Monk constantly reminded us that his eyes were glass and that he relied on Conti for animation. Mercilessly targeting the front row, Conti invited people onto the stage and fitted them with masks which she then controlled, giving them a “voice” in response to her questions while her own mouth remained motionless. The show ended with her becoming a puppet, stepping out of her dress and pulling on a skin tight white catsuit which, when she turned around, had a mask on the back of her head, breasts on her upper back and a pubic triangle. The puppet figure gyrated until curtain call. This description makes her act sound crude but what defines Conti is her wit and ability to respond laconically and with alacrity to an audience’s comments.

The last talk we attended, before retiring to the ancient cellar bar at the ruined Llantony Priory, was given by former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. The Rabbi’s latest book, Not In God’s Name, has just been published and he spoke on the causes of religious violence and conflict.  Sacks argued that the twenty-first century “will be more religious” than the twentieth, by dint of religious families across the world having more children. He explored the sad fact that many, “kill in the name of the God of life, wage war in the name of the God of peace, hate in the name of the God of love, and practise cruelty in the name of the God of compassion”. His book argues that conflict between the main world religions, particularly the three Abrahamic faiths, is a form of sibling rivalry and that, as differences in theology currently cause the problems, theology must be the solution: if people work to understand their faith and its roots, they will grasp that religious violence contravenes the central tenets of their system of belief.

In between talks we spent time lounging on the grass with our new books and investigating the food and drink of the various tented restaurants (the queue for the sheep’s milk ice cream went round the block one hot afternoon). The Hay Festival has a lovely atmosphere, with people of all ages drawn there by a love of books and of learning, and a simple pleasure is watching families and friends sprawled on picnic rugs, reading together. I know exactly where I’ll be during the May half term of 2016.

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