A470 Articles and Debates
Peter Florence, Director of The Guardian Hay Festival, talks to A470
What’s the purpose of the Hay Festival?
Hay is a market place. For 51 weeks of the year it trades livestock, books, and furniture. In Festival week we trade and share stories and ideas with 70,000 people. Festivals need to celebrate the best of what there is in whatever medium they choose, recover what might have been lost, and discover what’s new and exciting. And they should add to the gaiety of nations. In a secular world Festivals are pretexts for families to gather, kill the fatted calf, and have fun.
What medium are you exploring? It doesn’t seem to be literature.
The live event needs energy and inspiration. It’s a circus. It’s a hybrid of art, critical introduction to art, and entertainment. We take a pretty promiscuous trawl of great writing in many media – novels, films, poetry, stand-up comedy, songs, television and theatre. Over the past few years of intense global conflicts, I’ve admired some fabulous journalism and history from all over the world that has changed my mind, and opened new ideas. Great writers articulate truths that you recognise with new understanding. Great literature, great art, is rare. We have to programme 250 events in ten days. There was a good line of Joseph Heller’s when someone pitched at him - "You haven’t written anything as good as Catch 22 since then". "No" he replied, "No, I haven’t. But then, neither has anybody else". He was right.
Do you see Hay as a Welsh event?
It’s an international event in Wales run by Welsh people. We also run the huge Glamlit teenagers writing days in Pontypridd. We have seven-and-a-half thousand Welsh postcodes on our database of Hay customers. That’s twice the whole of the South-East of England and the entire US customer base. We’ve promoted all the best Welsh writers over the last 17 years, and have had a hand in nurturing and promoting a number of the emerging talents.
We found Owen Sheers with the Schools Competition at 14 and put him through the Beacons Project and Masterclass Programmes; started Stephen Knight on Mr Schnitzel through the Josef Brodsky Masterclass in 1990; gave Sarah Waters the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award in 1996; encouraged Cape to publish Des Barry when Peter Carey introduced him to us as one of his grad students from New York; supported what seems like half the successful screenwriters in Wales through the years of the Carlton series with Andrew Davies et al; have hosted and funded hundreds of young students through the Beacons; Interns and Writers Squads projects; have commissioned new work from Daniel Morden and Cat Weatherill from their first beginnings as storytellers; and got Rachel Trezise published in Europe as our Scritture Giovani nomination last year, and on… wherever we can find real quality, we’ll try and work with the writers or performers.
What’s your relationship with the Welsh language in Hay?
We were initially funded by the Arts Council as an Anglophone partner to the National Eisteddfod writers’ programme, without the competitive emphasis, and we run simultaneously with the Urdd, which draws Cymraeg audiences and attention. The intention of having Welsh-language literature at Hay is to find new audiences who don’t speak Welsh. We’ve experimented with both running whole days in Welsh, and with integrating Cymraeg writers with other international writers from the UK and around the world. I - and many others - felt that the ghetto/niche was racist and patronising, and against the grain of the spirit of diversity. And it didn’t work. Integration seems to work best with poets, where the audience can appreciate the sounds of the language whilst looking at a transliteration for (a degree of) sense. The problem with prose is usually that however brilliant the original versions of say, Wil Owen Roberts or Robin Llywelyn, the English-language translations just read poorly. They’re not good books. Our UK nomination for Scritture Giovani this year is Angharad Price.
How do you select who appears at Hay?
I read a lot, watch movies, listen to music - and am widely advised, lobbied, and helped. We dig around. We get 5 new books a day in proof from publishers who are pitching ideas. I guess we pursue about 1 in every 10 submissions and try to develop events that will balance and complement each other. I get about 30 emails a day about potential participants. Ultimately it’s a subjective choice, but if I know many people value something about which I just don’t know or care, then I go with their instinct. The ambition is to give all the people in the room - in the audience and on the stage - an encounter that will enrich their lives, change their minds, pleasure them.
Who are your favourite writers?
Christopher Hitchens, Wole Soyinka, Paul Simon, Robert McLiam Wilson, Margaret Atwood, Robert Towne, Leslie Norris, Marquez, Don DeLillo, Yehuda Amichai, Bill Hicks, Henning Mankell, Hanif Kureishi, Tawara Machi, Javier Cercas, Troy Kennedy Martin, Ryszard Kapucinski, Van Morrison.. I think Germaine Greer and Maya Angelou are probably the most thrilling speakers I’ve heard.
Is there anyone you wouldn’t invite?
Anyone who wouldn’t enjoy it here, or who would be boring. It’s pretty informal in Hay. The Festival cultivates a kind of libertarian hedonism. It’s not really a good place for any kind of orthodoxy or prejudice. You have to embrace the contradictions.
Are Nestle sponsoring Hay this year?
No. It would distract from the programme.
Hay is the most successful Festival of its kind in Britian. How are you going to grow it?
We’re close to capacity in the tents, and we want to maintain the intimacy and ease of the Festival week. But we got ten million hits to the website archive last year, so we’re building that library of texts and recordings. I wish we had the money to pursue the education programmes that have helped young writers, but we get about a third of the grant from the ACW that the Edinburgh Book festival gets from the Scottish Arts Council and we’re fighting for stability. The training and development of young writers that we have done works. Having got Berlin, and Mantova up and running, and turned around The Orange Word in London, we’re starting new Festivals this year in Brazil in August and Connecticut in September.