In an age of digital downloads, e-books and podcasts, a small town nestled below the Black Mountains of Wales offers proof the traditional book is still very much alive.
The Hay Festival, which runs every spring, is held in a farmer’s field in the charming town of Hay-on-Wye. Now in its 32nd year, it’s grown to become the U.K.’s largest book festival, attracting thousands of people. This year, the festival sold 278,000 tickets. That’s not too shabby for the town of 1,500 that resides 240 km northwest of London.
Founder Peter Florence thought his hometown with 22 bookshops — more per capita than anywhere else in the world — was the perfect place to hold such an event. World leaders, award-winning novelists, musicians and the like have all made the journey along the windy road, hemmed in by hedgerows and past fields dotted with sheep, that leads to the little town, with old stone homes and a river flowing through it. “I remember dreaming about meeting heroes,” says Florence, who over the years has met several of them. Desmond Tutu, Paul McCartney and Margaret Atwood to name but a few.
Once there, they join thousands of others alternately braving torrential downpours in wellies and eating ice cream in the sun, while walking around the festival site and taking in various readings and panel discussions. The BBC films special segments, aspiring writers take workshops and kids let their imaginations run wild. There’s fresh asparagus and strawberries, Welsh blankets and pottery for sale and, of course, the book tent — where you can purchase all the books and get them signed by the authors.
Carole Cadwalladr, the Observer journalist who broke the Cambridge Analytica story, says it’s a beautiful setting — though as someone who grew up in a Welsh town by Cardiff she may be slightly biased. Speaking at this year’s festival, Cadwalladr explains how big data subverted the democratic process in 2016 in both the U.K.’s referendum to leave the European Union and in the American presidential election. And she warns that many countries with upcoming elections — such as Canada and possibly the U.K. — are still vulnerable to big data breaches.
Mary Robinson, the UN’s Special Envoy for Climate Change and the former president of Ireland, encourages people to take better care of the environment. She speaks passionately about global warming and simple actions people can take to create a healthier world. (She for one has become a pescatarian and aims to reduce, reuse and recycle more.)
And Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, speaks about the world’s growing population, biodiversity and the importance of using technology wisely.
Festival-goers also listen to the likes of the Gipsy Kings and comedians such as Dylan Moran to lighten things up.
“Hay Festival is a space to think, and to think again, and to put the great issues of the day in a context of global history,” Florence says, adding that it’s also a place to talk, dance and party.
This year, there were more than 600 speakers and 800 events during the 11-day festival.
The mix of readings, interviews and performances has been so successful that Florence has taken the concept beyond the Welsh borders and out into the world.
The Hay Festival now hosts events in Mexico, Spain, Peru and Colombia. And it’s behind initiatives such as Europa28, a project exploring the future of Europe through the eyes of 28 prominent women, Trans.MISSION II, a joint project with the Natural Environment Research Council that pairs leading climate scientists with award-winning artists, and the Living Knowledge Network, a partnership with the British Library, which live-streams Hay events to the Living Knowledge Network of libraries.
But at the heart of it all is the simple pleasure of the written word — which can be appreciated in Hay, or indeed anywhere in the world. “Bound paper is best for continuous 2-D prose,” Florence says. And with about 100,000 books expected to be sold at this year’s festival, he’s obviously not alone with that sentiment.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019