Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Dispatches from the Hedges : Hay Festival Part I

We packed sneakers (they should have been wellies), we drove a Vauxhall (it should have been a Range Rover) and we had tongue-in-cheek nicknames (Kiki and Bunty). The Hay-On-Wye Literary Festival was never going to know what hit it (and it didn’t because they couldn’t tell what our accent was!).

The Great Escape

It took us six hours to get from Kingston to our Farmhouse B&B, including a tense 45 minutes around midnight winding our way through Herefordshire lanes one car wide with hedges so tall they seemed to close over our heads. I always love the journey out of London, from the smell of the grey prison of London to the smell of the green grass of England. We drove over the Severn Bridge, painted a luminescent baby blue, its struts fanning out in your peripheral vision like a peacocks’ tail as we drove over it. Jen was duly impressed with the Welsh hills, the hills of South Wales just as clean-cut and handsome as those around Snowdonia.

Setting the Scene

We had to wear sexy day-glo yellow jackets a la road workers. We had to be on our feet from 10 to 10 Saturday, 11 to 6 on Sunday. I was really pushy and tried my hardest to get to the sessions I wanted to see, if they needed me there or not. The free food was awful so we were quite glad we had bought our own. The Festival was held in a field with huge canvas venues wrapped around trees and holding gardens and restaurants and lots and lots of literary luvvies. The weather was nowhere near as bad as it could have been.

Dave Eggers

Dave was just the kind of humor that I liked, deadpan delivery of straight faced absurdity. Jen was singularly unimpressed with my ‘Dave Eggers’ routine that I memorized for her since she didn’t get to see it, so maybe it will be funnier in print.

Claire’s ‘Dave Eggers’ Routine
Our magazine (McSweeneys) is run out of an office in San Francisco above our Pirate Supplies store. We stock eye patches, peg legs made to order, planks by the yard and lard. You don’t pay money for the lard. You just give us a lock of hair. Once a month we take all the locks of hair and mate them, picking those we think look like likely pairs.

We started the Pirate Supplies store because our first one in Brooklyn didn’t do so well. We stocked supplies for the amateur taxidermist to keep trophies of the animals that they had run over or slain themselves. You know that you don’t stuff animals anymore? You just put the skin over a mould and so we had mole moulds, rat moulds. The other half of our stock was for Competition Ferrets. Our best selling product was Ferret Shine.

We have just set up a Superhero Supplies shop in Los Angeles, we have things like invisibility cream which is really just water in a jar with a label. We also have a Capery from which you can purchase you superhero cape. First we establish whether you fight crime in rain or in sun, at night or during the day. We decided the color, material and cut of the cape accordingly. Once the cape is on there are three steps that you pose on to check the drag on the cape, and then industrial fans are turned on and we check the aerodynamics of your cape.

Our next shop will be in Chicago, one side all chrome and glass to sell CIA spy materials, the other side floored with woodchips and stocked with flannel shirts and flannel based materials for Lumberjacks.
End of Claire’s ‘Dave Eggers’ Routine

Dave then went on to talk about his latest book which was the story of two young men from Sudan who had been driven out of their villages by the civil war, sent to Ethiopia to be trained as soldiers and were eventually sent to America as refugees.

One member of the audience asked Dave what his cape was and he confided that it was synthetic plaid. Nice.

John Carey

I must admit I walked out of John Carey’s talk on the importance of the Arts because it was six hours since I had had a drink and I was almost dead. I did enjoy the first few minutes however when he said that people owned famous paintings because to own art that means something to you separates you from those who don’t understand art at all. Yes, THAT is being an intellectual snob!

Simon Singh

Simon Singh gave a brilliant talk about the Big Bang for dummies, including electrocuting a gherkin to illustrate the Doppler Shift and playing Led Zeppelin backwards to illustrate the leaps of deduction the mind can make under suggestion (and I did hear the word Satan when he played Stairway to Heaven!). Question time arrived though and the microphone was handed to a ten-year-old lad who proceeded to ask two astute and complicated questions, what was there before the Big Bang and what is the universe made of? Simon spluttered and declared ‘No more kids please …’

Joseph Fiennes

The heart-throb of the weekend was Joseph Fiennes giving a very exclusive performance of a one man play that was still in production. The play was being produced by a tight three person production team of the actor, a successful young producer and a young poet and writer. Jen and I simply left our respective posts to sneak in, much to the venue manager’s disapproval. Once Joe got on stage the back of the venue filled up with female Festival staff and I saw women old and young smiling slightly and twirling their hair around their fingers. Joe gave a great performance of the war poet Keith Douglas, and although I too must have been smiling approvingly at him, I was struck by the extraordinary text the actor was working with. By the end of the performance I had transferred my allegiance to the playwright, one of the most famous of young welsh poets, the very attractive Owen Sheers. I was passing the microphone around the audience for questions and was called up the front of the venue and, standing three meters from Mr Fiennes and Mr Sheer, I was all too impressed by their star-power. Yum.

Jonathan Safran Foer

Jen and I stayed on in our new venue for the young American author whose second book had missed out on the rapturous reception his first book had garnered. After a dismissive review we had both read in the Festival sponsor, the Guardian, we were not expecting the excellent session that ensued. Jonathan was supposed to have been interviewed by the festival director, but at the last moment a young and extremely pretty blonde girl walked on stage with him. She was doing a reasonable job of interviewing but the author seemed a little cool until about ten minutes in a member of the audience delivered a fantastic heckle to the young woman and things turned interesting.

The woman in the audience asked her to stop asking silly questions and let Jonathan just talk. The interviewer was speechless with embarrassment and her guest rose to the occasion magnificently, deftly deflecting the heckle from his host to himself and taking control of the entire situation, warming up fast and delivering a crowd pleasing reading of his book interspersed by some amazing insights into his writing process and the art of creating his unique narrative voice.

Jen and I were both impressed with the smidgen of the book we heard and with his graciousness and obvious intelligence. Definitely an author that is as fluent at observation and recording in real life as in prose.

Saturday sightings

The Jonathon Safron Foer interview was a bit of a star studded event, with the luminous literary couple of Zadie Smith and Nick Laird in the first row, Zadie looking like a glamorous fashion muse and Nick looking every inch his publicity photo (I have seen that brown leather jacket he was wearing in at least three publicity shots). I was even lucky enough to hand the microphone at the same event to the comedian David Baddiel, a man with permanent five-o’clock shadow that he leaves to grow to an unkempt and uneven beard.

My favorite sighting for Saturday was the marvelously dressed Paul Blezard, who had entered my life at the Oxford Literary Festival when I saw him striding around Oxford in splendidly eccentric tweed suits that made his silver hair and strikingly tall frame a beacon for every eye. The same selection of loud suits was in evidence at Hay, and while they gave him the unmistakable air of camp, everywhere he went he drew the coy glances of women and was almost always engaged in booming literary discussions with stunning Sloane Rangers.


No comments: