Hay-ho, hey-ho

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 and 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 experience 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 agree with 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. But in an iteration of Raphael’s word-weary character, a Cambridge University-educated friend of mine (English), with ambitions to write, grew to dislike bookshops and anywhere with squillions of books for sale on the grounds that enough books had been written already and there was no point in adding to them. So he writes for his own pleasure (or pain) without any intention of approaching an agent or a publisher. I think it’s the ultimate test of why one writes. Forget the need to ‘communicate’; it’s all about self-aggrandisement. Isn’t it? He thought even writing for one’s own pain (or pleasure) was self-aggrandisement. Almost before the Tata tent said Ta-ta to the Festival site along with all the other tarps, half of next year’s festival had been put together, give or take the odd signature or two. More words. More books. More self-aggrandisement. More pain. More pleasure.

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