x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Bookish delights

The Hay Festival's eclectic and passionate atmosphere leaves no one wanting to burst its literary bubble and return to the world.

The Hay Festival offers a retreat for city folks, where the literary atmosphere overflows onto the streets and into the neighbouring towns.
The Hay Festival offers a retreat for city folks, where the literary atmosphere overflows onto the streets and into the neighbouring towns.

The Hay Festival, which drew to a close on Sunday, is one of the highlights of the book lover's calendar. Located in the eponymous border town between Wales and England and featuring talks by authors, politicians, actors and celebrities, it is a rural retreat for haggard city folk and a place where people talk - over coffee, after lectures, in the street. Strangers unite over shared ideologies and words like "possibility" and "change" are bandied around.

More than anything, visitors to Hay want to have a go, get involved and feel excited about literature and about ideas and to be entertained by acts including the British Group Asian Dub Foundation, the stand-up comedian Dylan Moran and the legendary South African musician Hugh Masekela. Lacking the glamour of an art fair and the cold professionalism of a book fair, Hay, though well organised, retains a bohemian quality that is key to its allure. This year the crowds were noticeably younger, helped by a programme of more live music and comedy, but age proved irrelevant at Asian Dub Foundation's evening concert. Elderly couples confidently mingled with young ravers, tapping their feet to the beats.

As this suggests, although its roots are literary, the festival's scope is broad. The event that was once memorably described by Bill Clinton as "the Woodstock of the mind" concerns itself with all manner of intellectual areas and speakers run the gamut from poets to economists. Talks this year were dominated by the credit crunch. Danny Quah, a professor of economics at the London School of Economics, said: "If we don't now uproot this problem of global imbalances, we will every few years undergo yet another global economic crisis, and each time the world's economic centre of gravity will lurch another 1,000km eastward."

Powerful economies that are running large deficits today will be "reduced to smaller, less powerful economies", he says. "And of those countries a future International Monetary Fund will be mouthing 'structural reform' and demanding changes in their financial systems and profligate borrowing habits." The Financial Times writer Gillian Tett said: "Banking is too important to be left in the hands of bankers."

And the BBC's Robert Peston criticised "lousy governance" and "catastrophically incompetent regulation". Discussions were punctuated with appeals to reason and speakers called for more accountability among financial institutions. Down the road at The Globe, a gallery that concurrently hosted the UK's first philosophy and music festival, the director of the Adam Smith Institute Will Hutton and the economic commentator Eamonn Butler debated whether more market regulation would lead to a world with less freedom, and if so, whether that would necessarily be a bad thing.

Butler, a distinctive right-wing minority in the liberal world of Hay, said of the free market: "You need a fire basket to contain a fire, but the trouble is that there is absolutely no shortage of people who want to turn that fire basket into something more restrictive that smothers the flame itself. The market does not need regulation. It works pretty well under its own steam." Back on site, the chef Anthony Worrall Thompson said: "Just because we're in one of the worst recessions in living memory doesn't mean we can forget our morals, especially when it comes to food. Don't buy the £1.99 (Dh12) chicken. We still need to think about where food comes from, while sustaining a healthy body and world at the same time."

The environment also featured heavily in discussions. Anthony Giddens, the sociologist and inventor of the Third Way favoured by the former prime minister Tony Blair, used Edward Munch's The Scream to represent how bad things will get if we don't act to halt climate change. He claimed that governments needed to "reverse the spotlight" and focus on the emissions and targets of developed countries. "They must lead," he said. "Otherwise, why should others follow?"

Motivating people to respond to the threat of climate change is a growing challenge, he said, particularly when the public perceive the issue to be abstract and long-term. When the effect becomes visible, however, it is paradoxically too late to act. Giddens said the disasters most people see through the media are not close enough to home to fully enter their consciousness and have the necessary impact.

"We need to treat the threat as real, not remote," he said, labelling the problem "Giddens" paradox and branding it as "the fundamental political issue of our time". The only way to make a difference, he argued, is to advocate the politics of the long-term and to limit the political polarisation of climate change. "We need a progressive and positive vision of what society is trying to achieve," he said. "Our civilisation is not sustainable. We are at the end of history, so let's start all over again."

Elsewhere, poetry enjoyed a particularly strong year, with talks given by Carol Ann Duffy (the newly appointed poet laureate), Lavinia Greenlaw and Roger McGough. Ruth Padel's appearance at Hay transformed the quiet town into a site of literary scandal. She was due to give a talk on Darwin, but also called a press conference after taking the decision to resign from her newly elected post as Oxford professor of poetry. In light of revelations that she had sent an e-mail alerting two journalists to alleged indiscretions by Derek Walcott, her rival for the position, Padel claimed to be guilty of a "grave error of judgement", saying that her actions had been "naive and stupid".

She was evidently worried about the public reaction: an announcement was made before her Darwin lecture that she would not be taking any questions about the scandal and she was accompanied by security guards at all times. Visitors enthusiastically discussed potential candidates for the now empty post, mentioning Simon Armitage, Alice Oswald, Don Patterson and even the singer Morrissey. Other voices, including that of Jeanette Winterson, claimed that Padel's only crime was falling victim to what they saw as Oxford's inherent misogyny.

There was excitement, too, around the launch of Beirut39, a project to select and celebrate 39 of the best Arab writers under the age of 39. The judging panel, which includes the Egyptian writer Alaa al Aswany and the Lebanese poet and cultural editor in chief of Al Hayat newspaper, Abdo Wazen, will study each nominee's body of work and look for development potential. The project aims to increase access to, and the reach of, contemporary Arabic literature by publishing an anthology of short stories by the selected writers. It will be available in Arabic, English and Spanish, and will be promoted internationally.

"England has always struggled to get interested in any literature not written in English," said Cristina Fuentes La Roche, the Hay Festival's project director. "They translate less literature than other countries in Europe. At the moment there are some terrific Arab authors succeeding in the western world, but they all write in English or in French. This project will give Arabic writers a real boost."

The experience of Hay overflows onto the bustling streets and into neighbouring towns. Theatre groups revel in the opportunity to perform to swelling crowds. Writers, celebrities and readers mingle freely, and locals peddle their wares. Other festival highlights included Jake and Dinos Chapman irreverently discussing their success in the world of contemporary art, the legendary chanteuse and Serge Gainsbourg muse Jane Birkin in concert, and Stephen Fry indulgently and eloquently articulating the power of literature: "I simply did not know that language could do this - that language could do what music does or what painting does. That it could address not the intellectual, the cold part of one's mind, but could address the heart - could make something inside one resonate, vibrate with sheer joy, absolute pleasure."

It's easy to get carried away in this literary bubble. The bookishness befits the landscape, and tents are enthroned amid a score of Arcadian slopes and hills green as croquet lawns. In Hay, the rhythms of life are at one with the rhythms of nature. This is a place where ideas are not just discussed but lived, until time runs out, and the festival is finished for another year.