Earlier this summer, as mentioned in a previous post, I had the opportunity to attend the yearly Hay-on-Wye literary festival for the first time. I was there on behalf of Gomer Press to help one of our authors, Daniel Morden, launch a new short story collection, Secret Tales from Wales. The briefest, most honest review I can give you is this: Go. Just go. If you love books – if you read them, write them, collect them, or just really like talking about books – go. Hay-on-Wye is a weird, jumbled wonderland of ideas and art and people and…well, books. No matter what you read or how you like to read it, you will almost certainly find someone there to connect with over it.
Right! Glowing plaudits aside, here’s a bit of what I actually got up to in my three (lamentably short!) days in Hay:
As introductions go, my first event at Hay couldn’t have gotten much more magical than an evening with Neil Gaiman, Stephen Fry, & Chris Riddell. Neil was discussing his new book Norse Mythology, and Stephen his upcoming collection of re-tellings of Greek myths.
It was such a fascinating experience to hear Neil, in particular, read live; being good at writing words doesn’t automatically translate to being good at presenting them, but Neil’s reading of the story of Fenris showed him to be as captivating a storyteller in performance as he is on paper.
Chris Riddell, who was until recently the UK Children’s Laureate, was on hand live-drawing during the event – which is staggeringly impressive enough in its own right! But he also managed to add a sense of profundity and gentle humour that framed the evening’s events beautifully, without ever speaking a word.
The real treat, though, was an accidental discovery. Tickets to the Gaiman/Fry/Riddell event had been sold out for ages; I’d only gotten one through sheer luck, and was so over the moon from managing to snag one that I didn’t see until I arrived the event that followed: Amanda Palmer and Edward Ka-Spel, previewing their up-coming collaboration ‘I Can Spin a Rainbow’, and performing a few fan favourites from both their careers. I’m a long-time fan of Amanda Palmer’s work, and I’ve never had the opportunity to see her perform; stumbling upon the opportunity by sheer accident was pretty special. All the best nights end with unexpected “Half Jack” sing-a-longs.
On the way back to my b&b, I misjudged the bus time and spent an hour getting to know a fellow festival attendee while we waited. She was down from Manchester just for the day, and travelling all the way back to Hereford that night. Somehow in that hour+ we spent together, we didn’t exchange emails or social media handles, and probably we won’t ever see each other again – but I went to bed that night with a list of scribbled book recommendations and the feeling that I’d both met an old friend and made a new one. Festival magic.
The next morning was an early one – Daniel Morden’s book launch and live storytelling event were at the top of the schedule at 10am. Daniel is a brilliant storyteller – every time I get to watch him engage with an audience is a treat, and that day was no exception. The house was packed, the crowd was lively, and everyone left smiling. If you get a chance, pick up a copy of Secret Tales from Wales, or any of Daniel’s collections; you won’t regret it. And then go see him live!
After that, I had my first chance to properly explore the town since arriving – and to do all the book shopping that a walk through Hay inevitably entails! Here are a few highlights (click on the photos for a gallery display, with full image and information):
I spent my final day and a half in a whirlwind of booths, stalls, events, and occasional aimless wandering. Hay at festival time is a place you gulp down and savour by turns. I arrived just in time on my last day to snag a ticket to a morning event as it started; it turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip. Alan Lee, illustrator and creator of the visual world of Tolkien, isn’t the most engaging speaker. His voice has a professorial quality, soft and a bit soporific, the sort that might set you to drowsing in an early-morning lecture hall – but you’ll find yourself still hanging on his every word. His passion for his craft, and genuine love for the worlds he helps to create, pulls your attention like a magnet. It was the only panel I attended at Hay that ran over its allotted time – ostensibly we were all there for the long-awaited launch of Beren and Lúthien, which Lee illustrated, but the whole audience sat happily enraptured while Lee talked about his early Tolkien illustrations, working with Peter Jackson, and rendering his vision for the silver screen. We could have asked for no better guide through Middle Earth.
Leaving at the end of the day was bittersweet; I had a long journey ahead of me and a lot of work to get back to, but my trip had been a nice oasis.
Part of the beauty of books, though, is that they are uniquely portable worlds – I have brought much about what I loved about Hay home with me.
Now that I’m back, aforementioned work, among other things, has kept me busy, but look for a return to twice-monthly book reviews next week – starting with the long-awaited Caraval!