At Hay with the authors

There’s a character in Frederic Raphael’s TV play The Glittering Prizes, who after studying English at Cambridge then writing, declares herself to be physically sick at the sight of the written word. A milder version of the complaint is likely to be picked up at the Hay Festival, the annual cavalcade of book promotion and opinion. The expression ‘booked out’, meaning to be enervated by the printed (and spoken) word, might reasonably be employed. This year there was a Writers At Work tent, in which young hopefuls waited to introduce the curious to their scribblings. Someone has ‘trolled’ them on Twitter, and they’re not amused. The idea of being ensconced in a marquee for the benefit of onlookers seems fit to be lampooned, though trollers are a despicable breed, except when they’re poking UKIP and Jim Davison with a pointed stick.

Words everywhere, then, like pollen on the wind. If you are a writer who hasn’t made it to Hay, either because you forge million-selling brick-size tomes, or thin poetry ‘pamphlets’ with a readership of thirteen, the experience of all that wordery and éclat can be daunting. Envy is a not uncommon feeling. The political atmosphere is almost invariably centre-Left, as witness appearances this year by Senator Bernie Sanders and Michael Sheen. Bernie trotted out most of what he’d covered on the stump this year, Sheen gave the Aneurin Bevan lecture. Sheen’s was a performance in the best sense, the son of Port Talbot getting worked up before an audience of like minds and therefore low on potential converts to what he was saying, an activity that can border on the patronising. Was there anyone present who didn’t believe in the NHS or think that it needed to be mended with more public money? One was tempted to quote that Labour-supporting consultant who blamed the NHS’s ills on the self-inflicted sickness of so many of its patients. But one might have been beaten to death on the floor of the Tata tent – Tata, the Indian multinational, owner of Port Talbot steelworks, and paradigm of global capitalism, just in case one thought everything was of a piece here.

Howard Jacobson, talking among other curmudgeonly things about his Trump novel, Pussy, was a hoot; and A C Grayling, the lion-maned philosopher, was in good, pro-Europe form on the nature and evolution of war, gracious enough to applaud a questioner that AI-powered drones with missiles aboard might use their wit to decide that war was wrong and to send themselves back to base. Artemis Cooper spoke eloquently of Elizabeth Jane Howard, her latest biographical subject, and demonstrated how the author enabled her characters to wriggle out of situations with a series of men when real life similarities left her floundering. She flagged that well-known photo of EJH, Kingsley Amis and their son Martin, a triple whammy of intellect. Sadly, my only purchase all week was in that alley beside Addyman’s shop in the town, where there are shelves of books for £1 each. I bought Paul Auster’s Report From The Interior, an autobiography told for no accountable reason in the third person. I’m not sure about Auster. I think he might be an over-rated talent. We’ll see. As one does with all those Hay luminaries, I’ll give him an audience.


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