Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Hay Festival - An Insider View

                                Image courtesy of: Finn Beales

Time to return to Hay-On-Wye for an update from our guest blogger, Andrew Campbell, who is currently soaking up the literary atmosphere as a volunteer steward at this year's festival!


Hay. Fine weather. No need for wellingtons. A steady procession of visitors enter the festival site. Cheerful, chatty, eager with anticipation. First time visitors will know no difference, but the site has been reconfigured. Interestingly it is now smaller in size, but appears bigger. A sleight of hand or just another example of the magic of this place. It’s good to meet fellow colleagues from 2012. “Had a good year?” everyone seems to ask. It feels like a reunion which it actually is. The hesitancy of newly inducted stewards is apparent, but like the first day of school will soon disappear.

Commence work at “Barclays”, the largest venue (1500) and mecca for all the big name speakers. First up is John McCarthy, who is supposed to be talking with Sandi Toksvig. Big problem is that she’s ill. Unusual for Hay and for some attendees there is disappointment. She is a draw in her own right. McCarthy instead delivers a reading, but conversations are invariably better. The subject of Palestine is clearly a passion and he receives respectful attention. Prior to the talk commencing I chat to a gentleman taking notes. “That’s the sort of thing I suggest to my students when sitting in lectures”, I quip. A conversation ensues. Turns out he’s note taking for a blog. We have something in common (if you haven’t noticed you are reading mine right now)…but that’s where the similarity of sorts ends.  He’s a blogger with a difference, no less than Benedict Brogan, Deputy Editor of the Daily Telegraph! He graciously accepts my excuse for not having renewed my DT annual subscription and generously shares some blogging tips. Short, incisive commentary is best, so I make no apology now for my change in style. It’s the Benedict way. We become best friends.

To a smaller venue next. The Landmarc Stage. Title of talk: ”Futures in the Making”. All quite intellectual. Both speakers and audience appear equally challenging. I shall be making my debut here tomorrow as Venue Head, so concentration levels are at an all-time high. Visitors file out thoughtfully (something they always seem to do at presentations). Perhaps they are contemplating their own personal futures …

Head on over to the Wales Stage for a music performance. Hay covers a multitude of artistic presentations. Rokia Traore, a singer from Mali is performing. She comes with a big reputation and does not disappoint. The music is pulsating; pockets of the audience, unable to contain themselves, break out into unrestrained dance; some of the seated look on with envy, weighing up thoughts of how they might look if they joined in. The place as they say, “is rocking”. Truly a captivating performance! My working day ends up at Barclays. Another full house for Irish singer Christy Moore. A musical contrast; an audience comfortably seated and more constrained…but no less the poorer for that.


Hot and sunny today. The wind has dropped. No sounds of flapping canvas.  Visitor numbers seem high. Bump into my new best friend, Benedict, early on. We discuss blogging (what else?) and I compliment him on his posting which I had read earlier. Brevity, reflection, salient points. These are my new reference points. Help out at Barclays and listen in to Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google. Astonishing revelations and insights. Schmidt delivers with a languid and easy style. Spot my work colleagues Lucy and Chris on the front row (where else?). Never mind Google Glass. Medical tablets have been invented to determine your state of health. Simply swallow and check the feedback on your mobile phone. Plenty of bemused reactions to that! No time here to discuss his coverage of “code wars” (cyber space attacks); or social revolutions; or political influences surrounding broadband provision. Better to buy his latest book. Make my way to lunch. Surprisingly BBC Middle East Correspondent Jeremy Bowen swerves masterfully out of my way into a food court. Has he had a rugby past - or is it a developed skill to stay alive in dangerous places?

Spend most of my day at Landmarc. Was amused by Irish writer Colum McCann’s response to an opposing point of view, “I accept what you say, but I’d like to examine it”. Clearly it was nonsense to him then. Make a mental note to use that one at work. Out on the boardwalk, I get asked by Lord Stern’s wife for directions to the Green Room. We walk across together chatting briefly about climate change issues. I can safely report that despite his underestimations of former predictions, he does sleep well at night. In the Green Room spot an all-time hero, AC Grayling in thoughtful conversation. What wonderful hair! The boardwalks are now teeming – and there is hardly any room for deckchairs on the grass. But the crowds seem content.  Bump into friends from Carmarthen. They appear enthused. Again on the boardwalk I get asked for directions. This time from Welsh Govt Education Minister Leighton Andrews and wife. We walk and talk, Leighton holding his white rose (which is given to all presenters). It doesn’t hurt to mention that my day job is at Swansea Met. A piece of information that I pass on later to First Minister Carwyn Jones , when he comes to present at Landmarc.

My day ends in more sombre fashion. Faction Theatre are delivering a tribute play about gay rights activist David Kato, who was murdered in Uganda. Controversial. Shocking. Moving. It reflects much about the human condition.

                                Image courtesy of: Finn Beales   

38,000 tickets sold yesterday. Car park spaces suggest less numbers today. Still busy though, but more room to breathe on the boardwalks. .

Was able to catch Hans Blix earlier in the day. He revealed truths that we already knew but the audience was no less astonished. “Iraq has taught us that we must act upon fact not fiction”; “if you break the pot, you own it”, were just two of his lines. Uncomfortable listening for any former Prime Ministers in the audience. I was drawn by interviewer Jon Snow’s pink socks during the session. Quite striking, quite bold. Much in keeping with Blix’s presentation.

Spot Benedict in the Telegraph Tent and ask him how he managed to be brief about Schmidt yesterday. “Not easy” was the response. So I’m human after all. He was dashing off in the direction of Carl Bernstein’s presentation – one journalist in support of another I suppose. Return to Landmarc to set up geneticist Adam Rutherford’s talk. Science was never my thing, but his ability to explain difficult concepts with ease impressed. Had he been my “chem” teacher at school, who knows how life would have turned out? For the record – and you heard it here first, we are all descended from rocks. Yes rocks. My thoughts as well!!

The IF Campaign, “Enough Food for Everyone” brought a sense of sobriety late in the day. One in eight people on the planet go to bed hungry each day. Esther Mweto, from Malawi, grew up with such hunger. Her testimony was moving. Former Jain monk, peace activist and pacifist, Satish Kumar, known for his 8,000 mile walk to all nuclear powers 50 years ago, electrified the audience with his oratory. Calling for more dignity for farmers, his message made perfect sense. Reflected on the way home about the contrast between Schmidt’s Google advancements – against a world that still cannot feed itself. Very much food for thought.


November returned with a vengeance today. Strong winds; lashing rain; low temperatures. Despite the conditions British stoicism was evident amongst festival goers. There was a grim determination to enjoy it; a sense of pride in seeing it through. Queues were patient and polite; cheerfulness and humour to the fore.

Stella Rimington, ex MI5 chief, lightened the gloom with a riveting performance. Not at all George Smiley. More like the neighbour next door. Down to earth, personable, appeared entirely “normal”.  Fascinating insights into a life living with secrets. Was totally against the invasion of Iraq – and believed Government put pressure on the Intelligence Services to “sex” up the dossier. It was again not a good day for ex Prime Ministers.

My most embarrassing moment of the day was asking Edith Grossman for her ticket when she entered the venue. Unbeknown to me, she was the guest speaker. Grossman is arguably the world’s leading literary translator. A reserve list of ticket applicants bore testimony to the fact. Think she found it all very amusing. Hope so. Must remember though to purchase her latest translation of Garcia Marquez’s novel when next in Carmarthen.

“Low Impact Travel” was the last talk tonight. Many suggestions were given. Apparently overland travel reduces the carbon footprint and brings people together. It connects individuals and communities. Had a random thought that perhaps Satish Kumar was onto this 50 years ago. Perhaps there is nothing new under the sun.  Sadly Benedict was nowhere to be seen today. So no blogging chats; no top tips; no thoughts about how to compose that masterful turn of phrase. Bearing in mind the weather he might have left for London. It seems therefore an appropriate juncture to end this particular literary excursion. I trust the insights have been interesting – and provided some “feel” about this most special of festivals! And that one day you might visit!

 Andrew Campbell.


  1. Well done AC - keep up the good work. It's almost like being there (well, not quite!)

  2. Andrew your an inspiration, Awesome blog, Kay.

  3. Great reportage Andrew, brings back boundless memories of Hay and its punters...keeps getting better! Get them to buy the book! Jenks

  4. very interesting. A shame I missed it!

  5. As I have never been to Hay, but always wondered about it - this had definately inspired me to go. Thanks Andy