Writers love being invited to the Hay Festival. Sales will rocket into double figures, you get into the green room with a free coffee and a chance to smile flirtatiously at Germaine Greer and listen to Stephen Fry talk about his bunions. The festival was sponsored by the Times, then the Guardian, Channel 4, Tata Steel, a few dubious oil states, Sky, Barclays Bank, Borat, a Russian Oligarch, David Cameron’s dog and then the Telegraph. How low can you go? There’s always someone with cash who likes books. Rishi Sunak is sponsoring it this year along with Mark Drakeford.
Hay has taken a colonial interest in Welsh literature and culture, a bit patronising at times, like a great maiden aunt congratulating you for passing your piano exam grade three and wishing you well before you have to go down the mines. It has made a significant difference to thecareers of writers such as Owen Sheers, Rachel Trezise and Carwyn Jones. One year when Owen couldn’t make it Hay had to commission a blow-up life size blimp of him which floated above the car-park directing traffic. The festival has provided employment and generated wealth. The British Empire was good at that as well.
So why this year has the Hay festival programme abandoned Wales? The level of engagement is a disgrace for a festival receiving a significant amount of Welsh government/ Arts Council of Wales, British (Welsh) Council money. It opens on the Llwyfan Cymru Digidol. Although why they bother with the translation I’ve no idea, they might as well put it in Russian. The children’s programme has an even poorer representation; from 27 events the closest thing to a Welsh connection is Bad Wolf talking about His Dark Materials. They have the English children’s laureate, a former Irish children’s laureate and one of the writers was born in Dorset. The Central Republic of Wimbledon is well-represented but there’s no room for Eloise Williams, the children’s laureate for Wales. We are again outsourcing our children’s reading culture to another country and in the case of Hay, paying them for it. For Wales see England.
The festival has become unmoored from the land, existing out there in the ether somewhere between Bloomsbury and the Cotswolds. And this year the guests don’t even have to travel to Wales. We have everyone from Tony Blair to Simon Schama to Neil Hamilton to the Reverend Richard Coles. I’m not sure how more middling England it’s possible to be in Wales. It’s the type of programme designed by Alastair Campbell. And he’s in it as well, promoting the twenty-sixth edition of his interminable diaries. The Blair years were really the Alastair Campbell years and we didn’t invade Iraq. Hay traded for a while on being the Woodstock of the Mind thanks to Bill Clinton but it’s becoming more like shopping on-line for wallpaper at John Lewis and that never ends well.
I first went to the festival close to 30 years ago now. It was held in three tents stretched out along the river. Things have changed, as they do. It is now moored in a corporate field a mile or so along the Brecon road. It f has been good for the town and the town good for the festival. It’s an odd symbiotic dance of commercialism. The pubs change the menus and hike the prices hoping to make the most out of all those toffs from London and Merthyr.
Peter Florence and his father had a bit of vision to set it up all those years ago, at a time when to sit and listen to writers talking about their work in a tent in a field was considered distinctly odd. Florence has had no involvement in the programme this year.
I get the attraction: books, interesting people, picnics and swimming naked in the river. There was one event with Roger Deakin when the whole audience went swimming in the river after he read from this book Waterlog.
I know I shouldn’t make a fuss. I should take the long view. But I can’t quite bring myself to do that this year. It’s a question of being ignored in your own country and whether we are to cede completely to the colonial attitude which seems to have seeped into the process of making the decisions in the Hay locked-in bubble. I wonder how it would go down in Edinburgh if the literary festival went ahead without any Scottish writers. Yes Cymru but no thanks Welsh culture.
Richard Owain Roberts won the Not the Booker prize in 2020. He doesn’t get a gig at Hay. But where’s Huw Stephens talking to Peter Lord, Christopher Meredith with his two new books? Where’s the celebration of 40 years of publishing by Seren Books? Or Rachel Trezise discussing her novel set over on the day of the Brexit Vote in the Rhondda? John Sam Jones talking about growing up gay in Wales and receiving electric shock therapy treatment from the NHS in a Denbighshire hospital in an attempt to cure him?
Richard Booth declared Hay independent and crowned himself king. I don’t think he would like the new republic of Bloomsbury-on-Wye. The festival will claim that they need to sell tickets. It is a festival with an international audience. But is that only what it is about? Just money? I thought books were more important than that.
Richard Lewis Davies is a publisher and writer. He is the publishing director of Parthian and the Library of Wales. This article was originally published in an extended version on nation.cymru.