When the Glastonbury music festival opened this week, inevitably there were storms and torrential rain (Dolly Parton even performed a song called ‘mud’, dedicated to Glastonbury). It also rained continuously for the week I spent in Hay a month ago. But we all know in this country that rain stimulates the brain! We love our festivals and rain never stops play!
In 1983, when the Edinburgh Book Festival was launched, there were only 3 literature festivals in Britain; today there are about 350. The ‘Big 4’ are still in Edinburgh, Oxford, Cheltenham and Hay (see the website links) but more pop up each year.
The UK’s literature festivals are unique. They prove beyond doubt that we are hungry for physical books, the written word, for ideas and shared experiences. Chairing festivals – which I do every year – are also the high-spot of my year. I’m thrilled to meet my favourite writers and to share stage-time with them, to act as their proxy with the audience. Festivals are all about up-close-and-personal engagement between writers and readers.
The Hay Festival began in 1988 and was the brainchild of Norman Florence and his son Peter, who is the Director today. Cultural visionaries, like Peter Florence, and the legendary Michael Eavis in Glastonbury, bestow character, values and direction on their festivals. The Hay Festival is my ‘Glastonbury of the mind.’
2014 was reportedly Hay’s best year. For, when it’s raining outside what better activity than to sit in a tent in your coat and wellies listening to Stephen Fry or Benedict Cumberbatch? Ticket sales were up 7 %, book sales up 20% over last year. In the 11 days of the festival there were 600 signings and ¼ million people attended 700 events in the festival tent city. Walking into the Artists’ Green Room, or the on-site bookshop, and seeing Ian McEwan alongside Siri Hustvedt, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Salman Rushdie, makes my heart leap with joy.
You can also trend-spot and pulse-take the nation at festivals. In addition to presenting literature, they are today the UK’s main public platforms for ideas and discussion on current affairs. Half of all the events I moderated at Hay this year were about Europe, World War One and Germany. It’s the centenary of WW1 and the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and there were countless books and historians at Hay to mark those events.
Then there’s the unique Hay audience. Confident and intelligent, they feel a sense of entitlement; they know their readers’ rights. They buy the tickets and the books so they have a right to question and challenge writers – and presenters! The reader dictates. Their Q&A sessions at the end of each event are as important as my Q&A with the authors. I once forgot to include Q&A and I was told off loudly by an irate audience member. She was right. I learned my lesson: no more elitism; no more ‘them and us’.
A new era of democracy and reader-writer equality has dawned. If authors trip over that fine-line between self-promotion and honest communication they will fail at festivals. Readers can sniff out a fake and a bore like hounds on heat. The writer-reader experience at Hay is also unique in placing LIVE experience over the media or social media interaction. Hay does indeed blog, Tweet and have a strong media presence (my alma mater the BBC is the official media partner) but these are support tools for the actual event. In this era of obsessive social media – we are world-experts in Britain – it’s refreshing that internet and phone reception at Hay are dodgy and unreliable. Hay is a holiday for my mind.
The BBC’s presence at Hay 2014 was a major ‘support tool’. Today we as journalists – and you as writers, programmers, directors and increasingly translators too! – are required to perform on several platforms. That means TV, radio, online, photography, print, blogs. I believe with all my heart in traditional journalism (the journalist as mediator, asking questions on behalf of the audience) but I personally love dancing on all platforms. As a journalist I have worked with audiences all my professional life. At the BBC, attracting audiences is their main aim. As the BBC market share has shrunk so they adopt even more creative, some would say desperate, measures, to attract them. Every day we face the challenge of – in my case – how to make the arts accessible or how to bring foreign stories to British ears.
Chairing and curating for events and festivals in the UK and abroad presents similar challenges; it cannot be just about our ‘performer vanity’ or our ‘creative visions’ but meeting audience expectations and giving them a great show. This cannot be an era of self-aggrandising writer-celebrities, or of dumbing down, but about providing greater ‘outreach’. That includes the Podcasts, Videos, author interviews online, Twitter and Facebook but above all it’s through face-to-face contact. Writers, readers and presenters have had to learn to engage, to remove the RP, the DJs and ball gowns and to get down in that mud and muck in.
And speaking of mud and ‘support tools’, here are some of my Hay photos on flickr: