Book Reviews

Wowed by Hay


It took me years to get to the Hay Literary Festival but the wait was definitely worth it. There was always a risk that my expectations were too high but my day proved better than anything I could have imagined.

Of course the sunshine helped enormously. Hay on Wye is a delightful town at the best of times but under an almost cloudless blue sky and bedecked with banners, it fizzed with festive spirit. Everywhere you looked there was something happening – a craft fair in the market square, pop up food stalls and music in the castle grounds and some earnest discussions in the parallel philosophy festival.

This sign caught my eye… you can understand the sentiment in a town which thrives on people buying real books.

hay photo

mattchairOn the festival site itself, the grassy areas were packed with picnic groups and families or people lounging and reading (not a Kindle in sight!) in one of the special deck chairs; a welcome break from all that queuing at the book shop to get a personally signed copy.

But the real highlights for me were the four sessions I attended. Not a dud among them though they were vastly different in topic and style. I ‘d never expected the audiences to be so big – 700 people for Edna O’Brien; about 500 for a discussion on the experience of women in Lebanon and Egypt. Every event was a sell out apparently.

I loved the low key conversational tone of the interview with John Banville who came on stage clutching a glass of wine rather than the pint of Guinness you’d have expected from a true born Irishman.  Edna O’Brien was in superb form, one moment teasing her editor who was conducting the interview; tantalising us with stories of parties involving copious amounts of champagne and film stars and the next, revealing the dark experience of her LSD therapy. And the discussion hosted by Dame Joan Bakewell introduced me to two truly remarkable women authors— Joanna Haddad from the Lebanon and Sereen El Feiki from Egypt who have both fought to be heard and to express the unthinkable in societies which place enormous pressures to conform on its women citizens.

I’ll be posting about these events separately since each speaker had so many interesting insights that I couldn’t possibly do justice to them in a general article.

Will I go back to Hay? Absolutely – and if you can’t get to this event, don’t feel too disappointed. The festival has spread its wings enormously since its first year in 1988 when it was a few people gathering in a local bookshop and a local school. Now it has events in places as far afield as Segovia, Mexico; Turkey, Bangladesh and Kenya. There’s sure to be one not too far away from you… get booking.



What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

10 thoughts on “Wowed by Hay

  • This festival sounds brilliant and I’m glad you got the opportunity to go! Love that No Kindles Allowed sign!

  • Great post! Me and the boyfriend spoke at length about organising going to Hay this year and, as we do every year, never quite got around to it. I shall strive to be more organised next time around as it looks (as always) well worth it!

  • I’m so jealous! I didn’t get the chance to get down to it when I was living in the UK, but I’ll come back for it at one point 🙂

    • But then I’m envious you get to live in Boston, one of my fav American cities. so we’re quits then really Geoff !

  • What a fantastic sounding festival – I’m definitely going to check it out! That bookshop is looks so charming. Glad to have stumbled into your blog this morning, going to take a peek through your archives.

    • Happy to have you stumble here Shannon. I took a peek at your blog too – love the photo of that TBR pile. thankfully mine doesn’t look too bad in comparison


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