(My outfit worn to Hay Festival on the third day comprised a vintage skirt and hat, second hand boots and a bell-boy's jacket from a Parisian market. The film camera was quite gratuitous considering that I was using my Canon 5D at the festival, but I thought it was a suitable prop.)
The feeling of Hay Book Festival on a sunny day is hugely exuberant. Colourful flags ruffle and flutter, the book shops are crammed and the stretch of pavement between the town and the festival site flows with a never-ending current of people. Over at the ‘How the Light Gets In’ festival, one can buy the best chai in Hay and listen to any number of philosophical debates and talks. For ten days, the whole town is soaked with thoughts and ideas.
I must mention however that for me, the scene described above was exclusive to the second Saturday. The previous two days threw down abysmal weather. I spent much of the Friday stomping across muddy walkways with a heavy bag, defending myself from car splashes with a half-broken umbrella as I wished for sun. My task during the time I spent there was to take street style photos for Oxfam (the results of which can be seen in Part 1 here and Part 2 here), which was made trickier by the fact that storms and fabulous outfits don’t mix well – as one guy quipped, the overall ‘look’ of Hay was “mud”. However, with a keen eye and a fair amount of lingering in book shops, I managed to snap some wonderful individuals. From an Oxfam volunteer who claimed she was 'just wearing her winter woolens' to a delightful pair of sisters whose outfits subtly reflected each other, the attendees of the festival proved that sideways rain and wind couldn’t quell the desire to dress up.
With the clouds tucked away on the last Saturday, the anoraks came off and the groups of book-readers emerged. These people were united by passions - for literature, for history, for philosophy, for art, for languages, for technology, for music – with the festival serving up a menu to suit all tastes. In the course of my three days there, I saw lectures, listened to debates, laughed throughout comic Dylan Moran’s set, and brought home several books signed by their creators. I was inspired, startled and challenged by the range of events. Here are some of the best.
Stefan Collini’s event, linked to his excellent and thought-provoking book ‘What are Universities For?’ felt like the most important talk I attended. I completely agree with his worries about the university-as-a-business model (something I will possibly expand into a post of its own over the summer), particularly in the path this paves for students to be treated as consumers, rather than individuals who want to take part in “unfettered intellectual inquiry”. Collini defined the purpose of University as being a place of “extending and deepening human understanding” – which goes some way to explaining my own desire to spend three years studying English literature. However, as I pointed out during a question I posed at the end, the way that University is ‘sold’ to us at Sixth Form is as a way to increase our employability and wages, to give us new experiences and ensure a sounder future. The issue of whether or not one is genuinely passionate about a subject barely figures – and woe betide anyone who decides that university is not the right choice for them! Such a decision goes completely against the expected norm and must be justified to all the careers advisors and teachers. Collini is a wonderful and persuasive writer, thinker and advocate of the need for universities, and I cannot recommend his book highly enough.
Another interesting event was a debate on authors in the digital age. Again, I could devote a whole article to this – and am tempted to do so at some point – but felt the questions about content, skill and readership to be very timely for someone interested in writing as a career. The Internet gives unprecedented global access to a huge audience (something that I’m fully aware of writing on my blog!), but perhaps lacks the editing or rigour of formal publishing. Writing needs to be accessible, but there were some disagreements on whether making content free was canny or counter-productive. Although no one pays to read my blog, and the only revenue generated is through an occasional item of clothing or in modeling/ writing for somewhere else, I'm of the opinion that professional writing deserves a fee. This blog is something personal to me, and pays dividends in the experience, motivation and training it has given me, and yet I still want to work as a paid freelance journalist in the future. We pay the plumber, the electrician and the carpenter for their carefully honed skills, so why should we expect to be given crafted writing for free?
I saw two lectures on Shakespeare – one by Michael Dobson and another by Germaine Greer – that were stimulating and, in the case of the latter, often amusing. Listening to Greer talk about Shakespeare was a most engaging experience. It’s a testament to the power of the playwright that his work yields new talks, productions and discussions year upon year. David Crystal’s talk on Dickens’ language similarly suggested the continuing importance of this great author, with an astonishing range of words and techniques celebrated.
A talk with Madeline Miller and Sjon on updated versions of epic tales left me with a huge desire to go home and write a book of my own. Miller’s re-imagining of the Illiad through the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles is a tender, lyrical story that still conveys the brutality of battle. It’s stunning. Both authors pinpointed the relevance of such huge, devastating narratives in times of instability. Whether the Greek gods are embodiments of forces of nature or human emotions, their resurgence in publishing – from Miller’s Orange Prize winning novel: The Song of Achilles, to Alice Oswald’s ‘Memorial’ – is very indicative of the times we live in.
I took plenty of photos while I was out 'style hunting' and below are a sample six - ranging from a tailor (David in the second image) to someone I thought looked rather like a young Jim Morrison. The full descriptions of each subject and their outfits can be found in the links to the Oxfam blog above.