The first Saturday of the Hay Festival is always a bit like the first day of term — bumping into people you’ve haven’t seen in months, sometimes for a whole year. Then there are the people down from London, dressed in mufti, sporting inappropriate sunglasses and crumpled linen jackets that haven’t been out of the wardrobe since the previous Hay Festival. I like to pick up my tickets, hang out in the green room and generally reacquaint myself with what is undoubtedly the greatest literary festival in the world.
I had planned to watch Hilary Mantel, Boris Johnson and Harry Belafonte, but a bout of food poisoning probably caused by a hastily consumed steak tartare the day before had thrown my schedule into turmoil. However the one thing I wasn’t going to miss was Francine Stock talking to Ed Victor and Gail Rebuck about her late husband Philip Gould’s extraordinary book When I Die: Lessons From the Death Zone. I read this in one sitting on a flight back from New York a few weeks ago, and found the whole thing extremely uplifting.
Books about serious illnesses usually work when they combine three strands: a self-deprecation bordering on humour (Americans are especially bad at this, as they can treat illness as something that has chosen them because of their specialness), helpful matter-of-fact guidance through the process, and some kind of spiritual resolution.
Gould’s book is a perfect example, and one that should be cherished. When you would bump into Philip in London, in the days when he was still fighting his illness, he would always be sitting in a corner, casually taking in everything around him. This often didn’t last for long, as he was so magnetic that he soon had a swarm of people surrounding him, heatedly asking for advice. I have to admit I was one of those asking for it.
At the talk in Hay there was also a screening of the eight-minute film that Philip had commissioned about his death, which in parts was even more powerful than the book. Although neither book nor film had the intensity of Gail Rebuck herself. Listening to her talk in such stoic terms about her husband was awe-inspiring. In his final illness, Philip Gould started to fully appreciate life, in a way that only the dying can.
As a family, we have seen so many great people talk here over the years. Once, en route from one event to another, Peter Florence collared me and told me about a secret talk Jimmy Carter was about to give at a nearby school. Having glibly thought that Carter was a Palestinian apologist, I went along with caution; however, his talk was inspirational, and we were all gripped (everyone apart from the snoring newspaper editor at the back, mind), even my — then — six-year-old daughter. When I asked her afterwards what she had thought of the talk, she looked up with a big, beaming smile and said, ‘Oh Daddy, I absolutely loved it. I didn’t understand a word of it, but I loved it.’
For the last three years, Nick Jones, Revel Guest and I have hosted a dinner at Revel’s beautiful house Cabalva, right down on the Wye. This year we entertained Salman Rushdie, Mariella Frostrup, Ian McEwan, Bruce Robinson, Harry Belafonte and more than 250 others. We’ve just interviewed Salman for a special GQ project, and I asked David Bailey to photograph him for it. ‘He’s taken my picture so many times over the years that Bailey says it’s almost like stop-frame photography,’ said Rushdie. As we were driven home that night to our house up in the Black Mountains, our driver, a Londoner, turned to me and said, ‘Do you really live round here? Wow man, you must be a Jedi.’
One of the great things about Peter Florence’s Hay — and about all great literary festivals — is the very obvious sensation of hearing books read aloud rather than reading them alone. Nick Coleman’s book The Train in the Night, a memoir concerning his loss of hearing, certainly came alive when he was reading it, while listening to Jung Chang paraphrase her books made it difficult to breathe: the crowd was so rapt that any noise was an interruption. I was also swept away by the charming inarticulate passion of Thomas Heatherwick, the near-legendary British designer. I wasn’t alone, and his book was sold out in the on-site bookstore within 20 minutes. Political gossip is always rife in Hay, and this year was no exception; I was told by two separate people about an alleged affair (very) close to Cabinet, and this kept us going for an entire night.
On the topic of voices, publisher Kathy Gilfillan and U2 manager Paul McGuinness were staying with us for the first weekend of Hay, and one night, after listening to Paul tell one of his many colourful anecdotes in his deep, sonorous tones, my youngest daughter, Georgia, whispered to me, ‘I love the sound of his voice. He sounds like God.’
Towards the end of the week, having had a tip-off from a friend who lives in Glasbury, six of us ventured into England and had lunch at Toi et Moi, a relatively new restaurant in Abbey Dore. The owner, Cédric, opened the kitchen especially for us (tending to usually open only in the evening), and we ate foie gras on brioche followed by cod and chorizo and then îles flottants in one of the most beautiful settings in Hereford. It also has a compact and highly reasonable wine list, one that makes you consider going all the way through and turning lunch into dinner. I warn you, though, this place is remote, so if you’re thinking of eating there during next year’s festival, I’d start driving now.
Dylan Jones is the editor of GQ and a vice president of the Hay Festival.