Friday, May 19, 2006

Hay Fever

Talking about the Sondheim musical made me think of the old Abe Lincoln joke: ‘apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, what did you think of the show’? Although very conscious of the twin spectres facing our respective families, we withdraw into football and shows rather than brood over disasters we seem helpless to avoid.
Next week we hope to be withdrawing on our annual pilgrimage to The Land of my Fathers, Wales – for the 8th year in succession. It's the Hay-on-Wye Book Festival.
When Arthur Miller was invited to speak there, he asked what kind of sandwich it was. In fact it’s one of the biggest literary festivals in the world, and is held every spring in Hay-on-Wye, a market town on the Welsh border with England.
The town is called Hay and the river's named Wye. It sits at the edge the Brecon Beacons National Park. Offa’s Dyke, the watery ditch that divides England from Wales, runs through the middle of it, so you’re never quite sure which country you’re in - but it likes to think of itself as Welsh and natives call it Y Gelli. And it’s one of the most beautiful spots in Britain.
They call it a market town, but its main market is second-hand books. Hay is one big bookshop, with books occupying any available space: the former castle; a cinema: a chapel; a Victorian military drill hall. Bookshelves line the main street, with honesty boxes labelled ‘Hard backs 50p’. You pay what you like for paperbacks.
Hay has a population of 1300 people and 39 bookshops - that's one shop for every 34 inhabitants. You’ll find bookshops that specialise in anything: books about bee-keeping, about British birds, about WWII medals. One shop sells only new books at £1. Marijana Dworski sells books in Polish,
Over 80,000 attenders choose from 500 presentations in seven different venues in the town. There’s a broad mix of nationalities and ages, (there's even a kids' section) but there’s a predominance of gray: middle-aged, middle-class, middle-British broadsheet readers with leather-elbowed tweed jackets (pashminas are optional). The only newspaper on sale within the grounds is The Guardian.
Presenters include politicians: presidents (we met Slick Willie there and it didn’t cost us a bean) and prime ministers by the dozen. There are so many BBC presenters that we suspect the Beeb must close down for the duration of the festival. Chefs, war correspondents, mountaineers, explorers, entertainers, scientists and of course the professional writers: biographers, novelists, academics and historians.
We love lots of other things about Hay: beautiful countryside, excellent pubs and that Welsh lamb – it’s just the right season. But our main pursuit is book shopping. If you go, take a car with a big boot/trunk – oh yes, and an umbrella.

Hey, don’t miss it - - it’s the ultimate in denial.

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