Thirty years ago, the Hay Festival was born around a kitchen table. Norman, Rhoda and Peter Florence conceived the idea of holding a literary festival in the beautiful, bookshop-filled Welsh market town of Hay-on-Wye — rumour has it the original funding was £100 won in a game of poker — in 1987. That first whim launched a festival which, over the past three decades, has expanded to several countries, featured Nobel prize-winners, global leaders and Hollywood stars, and produced moments of live magic which have swiftly been canonised as festival legend. In 1988, the American playwright Arthur Miller — despite originally asking Peter whether Hay-on-Wye was ‘some kind of sandwich’ — was persuaded to attend, in a mighty coup for the fledgling festival; his conversation ranged from his world-famous plays (including The Crucible and Death of a Salesman) to his relationship with Marilyn Monroe. In 1996, amid fierce gales which whistled through the precarious tent, Ted Hughes mesmerised an audience with readings of his coruscating poetry, the stormy weather outside perfectly complementing the rawness of his language. Harold Pinter celebrated the fortieth anniversary of his first premiere with a rare reading; in 2002, Maya Angelou chose Hay to launch what would be her final memoir, reminiscing to entranced crowds about her friendships with James Baldwin and Martin Luther King. History continues to be made at Hay every year: below are some 2017 events which future generations may look back on with as much excitement as the late politician Tony Benn, who neatly summed up the thrill of the festival: ‘In my mind it’s replaced Christmas.’
Hay has long been a harbinger of unconventional politics — since 1 April 1977, when renowned local bookseller Richard Booth declared the town an independent kingdom, himself its king and his horse its Prime Minister. Two US presidents have addressed the festival: Bill Clinton in 2001 (who famously declared Hay ‘the Woodstock of the mind’) and Jimmy Carter in 2008. Appearing this year is Senator Bernie Sanders, who will provide a unique insight into his extraordinary election campaign which engaged a new generation. Prominent names from UK politics include Nick Clegg and Strictly star Ed Balls, but influential women take centre stage, from Catherine Mayer, co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party, to Harriet Harman and Jess Phillips, Labour MPs and authors of recent memoirs, who will discuss gender inequality, internet trolls, and breaking the glass ceiling.
2016 Costa Book of the Year winner Sebastian Barry will discuss Days Without End, his beautifully lyrical depiction of love across borders amid the chaos of the American Civil Wars. Paul Beatty talks about his hilarious and biting Booker Prize-winning novel The Sellout, while Rose Tremain returns to Hay to reflect on her 2007 Orange Prize-winning masterpiece The Road Home, a rich and moving depiction of economic migration.
Irish writer Sally Rooney’s debut novel Conversations with Friends — a poised and powerful contemporary love-story about friendship and identity — is among the most anticipated releases of 2017. She appears, as part of the festival’s focus on younger voices, in conversation with Ottessa Moshfegh, whose novel Eileen was shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize, and whose new collection of short stories, Homesick for Another World, is a cool interrogation of human deficiency shot through with a strange and powerful energy.
Hay on Earth
Climate change is firmly on the Hay agenda, with a dedicated series of talks analysing the ways in which we can minimise our negative effects on the natural world. Subjects range from underground farms built in disused air raid shelters to innovative and sustainable forms of transport being developed by tech entrepreneurs; from whether literature can affect our response to global warming, to a fashion brand creating modern accessories from landfill waste.
Since 2014 the Letters Live series has been a strong Hay favourite, with a star-studded line-up of actors and writers reading from fascinating letters, offering intimate glimpses into the minds of remarkable people from all places and periods. This year’s readers haven’t yet been announced, but since previous participants have included Jude Law, Olivia Colman and Benedict Cumberbatch, it’s safe to assume they will offer an experience to be savoured and remembered.
Words by Francesca Wade
Image by Natalie Coe (winner of last years Hay Festival competition).
To celebrate its 30th anniversary we are giving you the chance to win a trip to Hay Festival. The prize includes tickets for two people to four events of your choice, tickets to our co-founder Jessica Seaton’s talk, plus a two-night stay and meal in a nearby boutique hotel and £500 to spend at TOAST. Find out how to enter here.