Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Dispatches from the Bookshops : Hay Festival Part II


Gloriously Normal

Our B&B was a working Hereford farm called The Grove Farm run by Lynne Lloyd and her husband (we never caught his name so he became Farmer John). Our fellow guests were two Yummy Mummies from Kingston and they were such caricatures, with their white linen trousers, primary colored designer leather handbags and condescension to Lynne. We had a fascinating conversation on politics on Sunday morning in which these two women were racist, hypocritical and snobbish with complete aplomb and without a trace of irony.

I was particularly conscious of their particular brand of Londonitis because I had gone for a little trek around the farm earlier in the morning with Farmer John and had had a fabulously earthy conversation about animal husbandry and cropping in our two different countries. It is so frightfully nice to talk to someone who is not from London …

Michael Buerk

Jen and I were assigned to the largest venue for Sunday’s penultimate sessions, consisting of mainly political heavy hitters. Michael Buerk was the early morning session, talking about his career as a BBC Foreign correspondent, then BBC newsreader. He managed to get himself drawn into a rather derogatory commentary on newsreaders without journalistic training and was quite clear in his disregard for them. He went on to give the BBC a bit of a going over, so at the time I thought that his comments on newsreaders would be the least newsworthy of his comments, but they got out and the last two weeks has seen a storm in a teacup blow up around the journalist / non-journalist divide.

Robert McNamara and Jon Snow

The next session easily rates as one of the most interesting hours of my life. Robert McNamara, 89, US Secretary of Defense during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Six Day War and the man who sent the troops into Vietnam was sitting with an eminent Cambridge Professor and the highly respected political interviewer Jon Snow to discuss Weapons of Mass Destruction. McNamara was short and sprightly and took control of the discussion from his very first address, which was an incredibly sobering few sentences on the number of nuclear warheads currently on 15 minute alert in the USA. From there on in the audience was almost motionless in its concentration on Snow’s astute interviewing and McNamara’s emphatic replies.

I am not going to reproduce the 60 minute discussion, or even summarize it, because the points raised deserve far more learned reporting than I can cover here. I stood at the back of the venue, microphone in hand to mic for the question session and had wave after wave of shivers ran down my back as I watched McNamara on stage. Here was a man who helped shape the century I was born in and that my parent’s generation grew up in. Not only was I in the presence of such a figure of living history, but he was giving us the benefit of his over 40 years of international diplomatic experience by charting the direction the world should take in the future. Whether I agreed with his views or not, I was simply captivated by the time I got to spend with the little American who had made decisions that shaped the world.

Jen and I had to mic an extremely large tent, with Jon Snow directing us to the audience members he wanted to speak and an audience that were so desperate to air their views they would try to hijack us on our way around. I was quite jealous when Jen got her mic to a punter in record time and discretion and was thanked by Snow from the stage. Certainly bets me getting to be in the same room as him and John Humphries behind the scenes at the Oxford Festival.

Jane Fonda

The well-preserved Jane Fonda was on next and the audience was suspiciously weighty with men of a certain age group. Jen and I left for lunch not long after she got on stage, but I was glad that I heard the first few moments. What I hadn’t known until Jen told me a few minutes before she got on stage was that she had been very involved in opposing the Vietnam War. Thus I was able to appreciate the interviewer’s first question to Fonda, which was whether she had been able to talk to McNamara backstage. She had been able to talk to him, and she told us that she had asked him if he would have sent those troops in again, and his answer was no. The audience started to clap and she shushed them to qualify what she thought of the comment. She said she had just seen The Fog of War, the film on McNamara, and a film on Henry Kissinger. She asked the audience who we thought of the two would have ever said they were wrong and admitted that she had new respect for McNamara being able to admit that he had changed his mind.

I too found that the most interesting characteristic of the man, that for one of the original hawks in Washington, his one message on WMDs was the desperate need for a stop to military intervention and an absolute reliance on diplomatic solutions.

Nick Sherrin

The rest of the day was taken up with smaller and far less interesting sessions, but we were able to sit down in a chair for the first time in two days of stewarding to listen to Nick Sherrin spend 50 minutes reading out his favorite quotes ahead of his new collection of quotes. I have long been a collector of quotes, updating and revising them each year since I was about 12. What can I say? I have an all encompassing love of the written word. Almost an hour of non-stop classic quotes was good exercise for the lungs as you tried to stifle giggles so you could hear the next one. Despite the fact that he recounted quotes from great literary favorites of mine including Stephen Fry and Alan Coren, it was a quote from David Beckham that chose to stick in my mind – ‘We definitely want to have Brooklyn christened, but we are not sure into which religion yet.’

Sunday Sightings

We shot through on that note, grabbing our bags, saying our goodbyes and exiting the canvas city for a real pub meal and some sleep ahead of our shopping trip through the famous selection of Hay on Wye bookshops on Monday.

My celebrity moments on Sunday consisted of Zadie Smith again (she was following me), some of the lovely old Professors I had seen on various panels through out the two days and a moment of standing next to Princess Diana’s brother Charles Spencer. Jen and I had been taking tickets at the VIP entrance for the McNamara talk and she had been making eyes at me whilst I was oblivious to the posh accents next to me conducting a conversation about whether there was time to get a coffee before the show. Once they were safely drinking coffee a few feet away Jen and the other guests hissed that I had been right next to Earl Spencer. I made sure I had a good gander and he really was an impressively tall man – comes from all those generations of armor-wearing I suspect.


Hay on Wye is on the border between Wales and England, and each night we drove 20 minutes into England to our B&B. Sunday night we drove that in the early evening and were able to fully appreciate the view. Our road ran along the edge of a hilly range, and to our left the hills dropped away in three lush green waves into the blue of the sky. The richness of the colors that weekend was intoxicating; the sky was luxurious in its light blue, its evening purple and its midnight black; the endless green forests, fields, hedges and hills were broken by only the grey slate of the towns and the white fluff of the sheep. We stopped by the road on the way home and ventured a little way into the forest, walking on black loam covered in moss so it felt that we were walking on a mattress.

Once home, I was absolutely determined to stand in a field surrounded with only animals, so we set off up the hill behind the farmhouse just as dusk was creeping across the valleys. We trekked through wet shin-high grass, stomped indiscriminately on sheep droppings, got a whiff of a decaying corpse on the way up, and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed the escape from all things city. Once at the top of the hill we were surveying a valley that seemed so familiar because it was just so British, isolated farmhouses in the valley, fingers of fog reaching over the hills and the silence muffling the soft noises of the animals around us. Two ponies headed over to us for a pat, and I stood in mindless pleasure with fresh air in my lungs, a warm equine breath in my ear, my hand on her soft coat and the dark gradually hiding our view to leave all well with the world.


Hay On Wye is best known for having the most bookshops ever, so Jen and I spent the morning lusting after seriously old editions of favorite authors. I bought a ninety-six-year-old edition of Villette, primarily because it came with a bookmark that was a scrap of 1949 newspaper dated just two days further into June. Jen, being a discerning buyer of old books, took home a few more than I did. Once again the drive home was long and involved endless traffic horrors and I owe Jen for her stress-free driving demeanor under trying conditions - the weekend would never have happened without her.

Getting home was a bit like waking up from an exotic dream, everyone was talking about mundane topics, no brilliant authors were meeting and chatting in small islands in the crowds on the tube and there was no endless program of fascinating lectures to tempt and amaze you during the day at work. From pirate supplies and dead poets to Pentagon hawks and aristocrats, it was a weekend that you just wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else but this fabulous little island.

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