Why Hay is different

It isn’t just the Book Festival that makes Hay so great. it’s because it is decidedly uncommercial, in a good way. There are no supermarkets; just Spar and the Co-op. No shop chains. No familiar pub or restaurant names. Just small independent businesses. Even the petrol stations seem to be independent. I wonder how they keep out the big boys and for how long? It reminds me of town centres as they used to be. Of course there are lots of book shops. General and specialist. But no Waterstones or WH Smith. There’s a crime book shop, a children’s book shop, map books, cook books and so on. And they are all full, at least they are this week. Taking part in the Book Festival is all very egalitarian. A bit like camping. There is no hierarchy in the seating to listen to authors. Everyone queues together. And because of the unpredictable weather people dress down. Raincoats and wellies are the order of the day. You wouldn’t know whether you were speaking to a brain surgeon or a plumber. Generally strangers do chat. Asking one another whom they have heard and how engaging they were. Today I listened to the author and cook, Claudia Roden, talking about the cooking of Spain. She was knowledgeable and entertaining. She described her travels through Spain, the people she met and how she managed to persuade primary Spaniards to disclose their family recipes. My ‘neighbour’ had done the same Santiago pilgrimage that we’d done and we talked food rather than walking.

Not all authors are engaging. Just because someone can write doesn’t mean they can present. Stewart heard a writer talking about the psychology and interrogations of Hitler. He made it boring, like an old lecturer talking to a room of undergraduates. And stood at a lectern, a clue, I suppose.

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