Well I have finally achieved an ambition that I have had for many years – my first visit to the Hay festival; however it will not be my last visit I am sure. For those who have never attended, I hope I can give you just a small flavour of this quite extraordinary and very unique event.
It takes place over two weekends (from 25th May to 1st June in 2017) and is a melting pot of events covering adult and children’s, non-fiction and fiction. there are politicians, artists, reporters, authors and illustrators all expressing a wide range of views, so that almost everyone will find something to their liking. Everything that I know about the Festival has been learnt from friends who have appeared or attended in past years. Hay itself is a small town with the reputation of being the second-hand bookshop capital of the country (if not the world). During the festival period it becomes overwhelmed by the number of visitors and accommodation is extremely difficult to find. For those who are young enough and have the energy there is always the option of camping or glamping; however hotels and B&B s need to be booked a long time ahead if you want to be anywhere near the town.
This year I only attended for one day so my main concern was in finding parking. Luckily this is extremely well organized with a large off site car park several miles away at Clyro Court. the cost was £6.00 for the day but this also covered the bus to and from the venue. The buses are every 10 minutes and run until after all of the events have finished, so quite late in the evening. However I also found that there are several large “Charity” car parks just outside the entrance to the site, so this is something that I need to investigate for the future.
The day that I chose to attend was Monday 29th, mainly because Neil Gaiman was going to be ‘in conversation’ with Stephen Fry. As my friends know I was lucky enough to be chair of judges in 2010 when Neil won the Carnegie Medal for “The Graveyard Book” (illustrated by Chris Riddell). I also discovered that Sarah McIntyre was talking about her new picture book “Prince of Pants” (author Alan MacDonald) and Philip Reeve was discussing “Black Light Express” the follow up to “Railhead”. I booked all of my tickets, including the parking many weeks before the date and was ready for the two hour journey when the big day arrived.
I knew that it was going to be good when I saw three people that I know within five minutes of arrival at the site; there is nothing like the feeling of belonging this can give you and the children’s book community is so open and friendly that it feels like seeing members of your family . The Festival site is like a miniature city under canvas with a variety of tents connected by wide covered walkways. This means that even in the rain it is a very usable space. The first thing that really hit me was just how crowded the venue was. With other Festivals such as Bath and Cheltenham they are widely spread out, but this is something totally different. However it gives Hay a really sense of energy and excitement and you gradually get used to the crowds.
The tent city is well signposted and there are plenty of places to chill out, get something to eat and drink and generally enjoy the ambiance. My first stop was the Festival Bookshop where all the signings were taking place. there were several queues and it took a while to understand what was going on; however there is a board which tells you that each doorway is allocated to a specific signing queue, but some of them were very long and things became confusing.
My first event was Sarah McIntyre who was sporting another one of her fabulous outfits, both dress and hats; however it was the beautiful handmade bead necklace that had me drooling, the maker is obviously extremely talented. As always Sarah got her audience to draw some of the characters from the book and also explained the whole process of creating the illustrations. I think many were in awe of the skill that goes into interpreting the words that are given to an illustrator and it reminds us that the illustrators are of equal importance (Hence Sarah’s work on http://www.jabberworks.co.uk/pictures-mean-business/. I then wandered over to the tent where Philip Reeve was talking about his new book. He had some great digital book trailers which had been manipulated to give the feel of being in space. Philip is an amazing speaker and he had his audience totally enthralled. Just before the talk started I discovered that the lovely M G Leonard was sitting directly in front of me, so we were able to renew our acquaintance. You really must read her two books “Beetle Boy” and “Beetle Queen” if you have not done so already. After the event had finished I was able to spend some time talking to Sarah and M G before going in for the Neil Gaiman event.
Stephen Fry and Neil Gaiman were discussing his new work “Norse Mythology” and making links to Greek Mythology, as Stephen Fry is currently working on this theme. This was a highly motivated audience of hard-core fans and they were even more ecstatic when Chris Riddell joined the others on stage and spent the entire session creating wonderful and very humorous sketches based on the conversation. The event was a masterclass in illustration, interviewing and also the depth of knowledge that both speakers had about their subjects. Although I had taken several books to get them signed the queue was far too long and I still had a two hour drive. Still I hope that I will be able to hear Neil Gaiman speak at another event in the future.
Hay Festival turned out to be a real delight and I am hoping that in future years I will be able to go for several days and totally wallow in the experience. It also shows that reading is still alive and well in this country and the range of material is absolutely huge. I really do encourage people to go to this if they can, however it does require a fair amount of planning to maximize the benefits and see as many people as you want to. I am sure that many of the events were sold out, so it is important to book tickets as soon as you can; trying to get tickets on the day will probably not work. Thank you to everyone involved with the Festival, you are fantastic.