Make Hay Indeed - and Forget about Literature

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The Week in Arts

I was until this week a Hay-on-Wye virgin. Attending the world's most famous literary festival for the first time, I found I had to learn the literary festival routine. On the first day it was at least easy to see the rain through the thunder and lightning as it came at you horizontally. On the third day, the rain was even heavier, but this time vertical. As the deckchairs on the central lawn were tossed in the gale, and the Pimm's signs battered the wall, I wondered if it might not be an idea to hold this tent-based festival later in the summer.

If that was a naive thought, then it was probably even more naive of me to be startled when a household name interviewer in one session said he could not see if anyone wanted to ask a question at the back as he did not wish to put his glasses on. Of such stuff are riots made.

I did enjoy something I have not seen before, the literary festival heckle. This is very different from a stand-up comedy show, when a member of the audience dishes it out. At literary festivals, the listeners are refined, sophisticated and patient, and, it seems, the comments fly in the opposite direction. At Hay I witnessed this being executed with great skill from the stage by Christopher Hitchens. When a lady asked politely if some of the conclusions in his book might not be thought to veer towards the racist, he exclaimed: "If you want to call me a racist, then do it directly. Don't beat about the bush." She refused to rise to it. But he would not let up. "Come on. Come on. Do it!"

It was as expert a piece of heckling the audience as you will see. No one dared to heckle Gore Vidal in his session. To me the octogenarian wit in his wheelchair seemed monosyllabic, hard of hearing and probably in a little pain. He did not seem to be enjoying himself. Yet the audience hung on his every word, few as those words may have been. When his interviewer, Sky News's Adam Boulton, reminded him that he once said that Bill Clinton would be America's last president, Vidal, after a lengthy pause, eventually replied: "Yes..." The audience fell about. It reminded me of nothing so much as Peter Sellers's character of Chance the gardener, uttering the odd banality, and it always being greeted as a profound insight.

But, watching the new literary celebrities such as Cherie Blair, Jamie Oliver and Jeremy Clarkson, and the film directors who happened to have filmed novels, all supplying headlines, sound bites and gossip of a sort, I did begin to ponder on the purpose of a literary festival, and what bibliophiles hope to get out of them. That is not to say that they are not interesting. It is fascinating to see one's literary heroes perform, and to see literary celebrities under interrogation. …