Clemency Burtonhill

The view from Hay

The view from Hay
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As sun breaks through last night’s cloud and the beautiful Wye valley is once again bathed in dazzling sunshine, Tuesday morning seems a good moment to take stock of what was a triumphant, record-breaking bank holiday at the Hay Festival. As ever, the opening-weekend programme contained a plethora of luminaries from the worlds of books, politics, economics, history, music, science, film and art, but this year there was also a particularly rare visitor to the Brecon Beacons: the sun! In stark contrast to the storms and mud of recent years, giddy festival-goers (of whom there were more here this weekend alone than at the entire festival last year) swapped wellies for flip-flops and hot chocolate for ice-creams as they got sunburnt on the grass discussing events that ranged from Jane Birkin on her love affair with Serge Gainsbourg to astronomer royal Martin Rees on what’s going to happen to the human race.

High points were so abundant it’s hard to choose, but I have to single out our very own Matthew D’Ancona, who was not only succinct and brilliant (as you would expect) talking about Obama’s first hundred days with Adam Boulton, Bronwen Maddox and Nik Gowing; but engagingly humble and illuminating when discussing his latest novel Nothing to Fear alongside Sadie Jones, author of The Outcast. It was particularly disarming to hear him, of all people, say that to be a writer, journalist, or anything where you have to produce creative output, ‘fear and anxiety are part of the deal’. After paraphrasing Seamus Heaney to joke that ‘each word breathes like a forceps baby’, he went on to admit that, despite having written a Sunday broadsheet column for over a decade, every Friday morning he wakes up thinking ‘this will be the day that I can’t do anything...’ There is hope for all of us, if this is the case.

In addition, I enjoyed Clive James – who confessed that although Twitter may just be the pinnacle of democracy for our time he really doesn’t get it, and bemoaned the fact that ‘to be famous’ is now considered among young people to be something you can do; David Starkey, who, talking about Henry VIII and the ‘unimportance’ of his birth, reminded us of the historical paradox that big events are not triggered by big events; and Stephen Daldry, who spoke eloquently about his grief-driven approach to filmmaking in Billy Elliot, The Hours, and The Reader, shedding light on how he gets such superb performances from his actors including that ‘old tart’ Meryl Streep (by utilising late Stanislavsky and ‘actioning everything’, for those who are interested).

Despite clashing with Stephen Fry and Jonathan Sacks, I was delighted to have a full house at my event with two of the most interesting foreign fiction writers around, Amit Chaudhuri, author of The Immortals and Alaa Al-Aswany, who with The Yacoubian Building became the most successful Arab fiction writer ever.

Elsewhere, Dambisa Moyo gave a provocative talk with Jon Snow about the controversial approach to international aid that she promotes in her book Dead Aid (she thinks we should abolish it outright). Her findings angered a lot of the Hay audience, and somewhat exercised your blogger, but some of her points – e.g. that Britain spends far too much money on direct budgetary support to governments unable to deal with it, or that corrupt leaders are not being incentivised to, er, lead because of the steady inflow of ‘free money’ – are cogent and must enter the mainstream discourse on international development. There is no question that the young and elegant Moyo is clearly a giant brain, and an extremely polished advocate for her theory, but sometimes terrifyingly so. You dread to think what more retrogressive governments would do with her theories if they picked them up and ran with them. Her argument seems to boil down to the principle that: Africa got itself into this mess and it’s not the international community’s responsibility to help them get out of it by providing any kind of humanitarian assistance, education, infrastructure, healthcare, or service delivery. In other words, China’s approach = sensible (‘they are doing amazing things in Africa, they get a really bad rap’); Britain’s = dumb. Eek.

Traditionally, Tuesday morning at Hay marks the moment when things start to calm down a bit; when the pace relaxes ever so slightly, and those lucky folks left behind in this simply stunning part of Wales can luxuriate in a calmer atmosphere whilst still enjoying an extraordinary clutch of speakers and events. But today Hay is still a-buzz, as Sky Arts broadcast an exclusive announcement from Ruth Padel, who was supposed to be here to talk about her great-grandfather Charles Darwin and read from her new collection of poetry, but who last night announced her resignation as Oxford Professor of Poetry after a ‘grave error of judgement’ that saw her send emails to journalists to remind them of the claims of sexual harassment that had been made against her competitor Derek Walcott. The whole sorry affair has been a messy, scandal-riddled process that has regrettably dragged poetry into disrepute in a year in which its practitioners and supporters should have been triumphant and rejoicing.

But Hay still makes the heart rejoice, and now it’s time to run: I’m off to Simon Blackburn on Hume and religion, Boris Giltburg perfoming Bach, Grieg and Rachmaninov, Archie Brown on the fall of Communism, and later – one of my most anticipated events of the festival – the legendary Hugh Masekela in concert.

More soon from me...