Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Woodstock of the Mind
I do love Oxford, not just for its beauty, and the fact you can go up many a twisty staircase in the Gothic towers, feeling frightened and exhilarated at the same time, but also for its central location to the verdant South of England.
A short ride to the East I get to enjoy the sights, bright lights and garrulous music bars of London, where everything swings like a pendulum do..., and to the West, I typically have the rolling hills of the Welsh Borders, around the Wye valley, where, when my shoulders used to let me, I used to limber up for any climbing expeditions I was set on, by practicing scaling and rappelling the cliff gorges over the river.
These days a visit there, as I did Monday, is a more sedate affair, especially when it involves a literary festival. The tiny town of Hay-on-Wye in southeastern Wales, just inside the border, seems like a curious place to hold a major literary festival.
Yet the Hay Festival, which began in 1988 as an insane glint in the eye of its organizer, Peter Florence, has expanded and expanded to become one of the world's best-known and most exciting literary events — the "Woodstock of the mind," as former President Clinton, a participant several years ago, put it. (Think of it as a literary Sundance festival, minus the Hollywood swag.)
For 10 days at the end of May, the town is given over to writers, and its population of 1,500 swells to a remarkable 80,000, as visitors troop to see the likes of Dave Eggers, Kazuo Ishiguro, Don DeLillo, John Updike, Clive James, Julian Barnes, Ali Smith, Patrick McGrath, Jeannette Winterson, Doris Lessing and Jaqueline Wilson, to name a few who have appeared recently.
Not only can these writers engage in ordinary literary-festival activities — reading from their works, discussing their inspirations and answering the inevitable pen-or-pencil-preference question — but they can also be found wandering around town, ordering coffee in local cafes, getting drunk in the bars and buying books in the used-book stores for which Hay is renowned.
Hay has a remarkable 39 bookstores, working out at about 1 store to every 38 people. In the season there are even "honesty" selections inside the ruins of the castle walls, where you leave 50 pence if you find a book you want.
That Hay has an absurdly high concentration of used-book stores is due in large part to the efforts of Richard Booth, a zealous used-book seller who opened his first shop in 1961 and has actively encouraged others to follow.
There's one devoted to mysteries and thrillers, one to poetry, one to bee-related books, another to books about music, and another to rare children's books. There are huge ones, like the Hay Cinema Bookshop, and modest-size ones, like the delightfully named Sensible Bookshop.
Trawling through one such shop, let alone a half-dozen, requires fortitude and flexibility of thinking, which of course is what a Knight of Moleskine, Spirit and Ale is all about. While I failed to locate the book I wanted : an early edition of "To the Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf — I did procure "The Art Of Living" by Andre Maurois ( in French, which I now aim to doggedly translate ), a nice early "Wind in the Willows" by Kenneth Grahame, and a first edition "Clockwork Orange" by Antony Burgess..
So a splendid way to spend a summer morning, followed by lunch in a town Inn of : a rich tomato-based fish soup, and moving along into a traditional Welsh lamb stew, helped down by a good local brew.
Replete and sated, it was a happy Knight who went down to the vast tented meadows on the outskirts of Hay, to listen in on writers reading from their latest tomes.....
.........and as I lay on the grass in the sunshine, I took from my knapsack, a further book I'd found in the castle grounds, by that arch -funster Arthur Schopenhauer, in which he says " the business of writers is not to chronicle great events, but to make small ones interesting". Quite so Artie.
Sir Dayvd ( who has got a good book in him, but that's only cos he accidentally sat down awkwardly on it ) of Oxfordshire
Posted by dkWells