It’s hard to believe that the Hay Festival is 25 years old; it feels as though the (very welcome) explosion of literary festivals is a far more recent phenomenon. But then Hay was the first major festival of its type – setting a precedent for the more-than-140 others that will take place in the UK this year – and is now one of the largest in the world. But its founder Peter Florence is not happy to settle at that – this year’s programme includes music, film, theatre and art, as well as the usual roster of the most prestigious writers, thinkers and poets alive today. And Hay is expanding outwards too – to Spain, Hungary, Lebanon, to India, Colombia and Bangladesh, to Mexico, to Kenya… Peter has seemingly limitless ambition and energy. Here he takes a quiet moment to answer our questions…
TT: Hay was the first in the modern breed of literary festivals and since it launched, hundreds of others have sprung up around you. What keeps people coming?
PF: However digitally connected we all are there’s always a keen human need to sit down together and talk. In a complex secular world we still need our feast days. Hay is far enough away from everywhere else to create its own orbit. It’s the only place you’ll find a B&B selling itself on ‘no wifi, no tv. BOOKS and CONVERSATION.’
TT: What was the impetus for starting the festival all that time ago?
PF: When I was five my father worked on a Shakespeare season with San Wanamaker in a big-top tent at Bankside – the site where The Globe now sits. It was mind-blowing. I think our whole festival adventure has been a desire to recapture that sense of wonder and event.
TT: Can you describe the very first Hay Festival to us?
PF: A bunch of us got together around my mother’s kitchen table and were figuring out how to do something together. My father was taking about poetry and ideas. I was dreaming about meeting heroes. My mother said “it’s got to be a party”. So we invited our friends and the people we most admired, and we lucked in with a rangy young amateur baritone called Bryn Terfel, a new poet called Carol Ann Duffy and a rather sweet cabaret artiste called Jenny Éclair. Betty and Vera sold tickets from a caravan by the town clock. People stayed up all night eating and talking and making friends. It felt like a lovely family party. I think we were amazed to sell 1,000 tickets.
TT: And this year’s festival?
PF: It’s pretty much the same in spirit, but bigger. Lots of the people who came the first year still come – with their children and grandchildren. The family’s just extended… The loveliest thing about Hay is that it’s always easy and relaxed, even when it’s heaving and in full festival colours. The word ‘browsing’ sums it up.
TT: Have people’s attitudes to Hay changed over the years, and if so, how?
PF: There was a massive change in 2001, the year Bill Clinton came to Hay. A week before the festival we’d just payed over a huge, bank-breaking and non-returnable fee to his agent when there was an outbreak of Foot and Mouth in Talgarth, six miles down the road. That was it for us. There was no way we could bring 30,000 people to an infected region. We called a meeting with the police and the NFU to tell them we were cancelling the festival. The local farmers said no. They said that their farms were already in quarantine and that if we closed the festival then the whole local economy would crash and their families who worked in the tourism industries would lose their jobs too. So the Young Farmers manned the footbaths in the carparks, and disinfected all the visitors’ boots and worked dawn ’til dusk and then some. That was the moment the festival went beyond being the arty thing people did and became owned by the whole community. And it was fun to see the big guy doing his stuff too. We all got why he came to lead the free world.
TT: The media (and oftentimes culture) is famously centralised in this country – sticking to big cities even when it moves beyond the capital – but Hay is a shining star in opposition to this. Do you think our regions need more active promotion?
PF: There’s an old joke that Hay thinks it’s Manhattan but with better landscape. The great gift that the visionary book-dealer Richard Booth bequeathed to the town was a delightful confidence. For us, it’s important that people here in rural Wales have cultural aspirations and expectations as high as anyone in London or Paris or Shanghai. Most of the festivals I love around the world are way outside any metropolitan beltway, and they play on the relationship between the local community and its international guests.
TT: How did the move into international festivals come about?
PF: The great Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes* took my wife Becky Shaw and me out for lunch fifteen years ago for her birthday. They’d been working together. He told us we’d never get Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Hay because he didn’t speak English and didn’t like the Northern Hemisphere climate and that if we wanted to work with him we’d have to go to him in Colombia. Then we got lucky again working on a kids project with this phenomenal Spanish woman called Cristina Fuentes (no relation) who picked those reins and went to Cartegena with Carlos for us whilst on maternity leave from her job in London. And then, and then… Latin America and India and the Middle East and Africa grew out of the joy of exploring other cultures and literatures.
*Carlos Fuentes died on 15th May. His astonishing Hay sessions in Spanish and English are available to all in the Hay Festival archive here.
TT: How Hay abroad different to the original festival in Hay-on-Wye?
PF: Hay Festival in Spanish translates as “Hooray! There’s a Festival!” The Hispano-Americans we work with in Colombia, Mexico, Argentina and Chile think it’s hilarious that there’s a place called Hay. They all have very distinctive flavours that are rooted in the communities and allow us to explore different ideas. The festival in Beirut looks East and West; Budapest beacons freedom of speech; the festival in The Maldives – now suspended following the coup against President Nasheed – was specifically about climate change and endangered communities…
TT: A difficult and controversial question – do you have a favourite of the international festivals?
PF: Don’t tell Cartagena, but I’ve fallen for Dhaka. Bangladesh is so troubled and so resilient and so thrilling. It’s an Islamic society where the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition are women, where the colours and sensations are overloading every second, where English is an oppressed minority language. We found the most astounding vibrant, fully engaged storytellers and writers and audiences.
TT: Is there one writer/performer/artist who has appeared on the Hay festival stage more than any other (apart from yourself, of course!)?
PF: Much of what we do is in homage to that contrarian spirit Christopher Hitchens, a man who loved language and argument and never took yes for an answer. The other free spirits who’ve been everywhere with us – our MVPs are Tahmima Anam, Owen Sheers, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Ian McEwan, Hanif Kureishi, Asne Seierstad.
TT: Is there a single anecdote from the past 25 years that stands out above the rest?
PF: Last year I walked out onstage in front of 1,000 people with Owen Sheers to discuss the first preview of his movie Resistance. In 1989 he’d won an all-Wales schools poetry competition at the age of thirteen. Since then he’s done our schools education projects, University masterclasses and our European emerging writers programmes. We’ve promoted his poetry, his travel writing and his fiction throughout his career. This year all his events are sold out a month ahead of Hay.
TT: Last but certainly not least, what are your personal picks from this year’s festival programme?
PF: Crazy passions for Peruvian Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa discussing his novel The Year of the Celt, dreamy you-heard-her-here-first singer-songwriter Mara Carlyle, the divine Bettany Hughes and her classical Greek series, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Obama’s heavy-hitting WMD negotiator Rose Gottemoeller – extraordinary woman.
For more about Hay, to see what’s on and to buy tickets, visit www.hayfestival.com
Our very own Jessica Seaton, Toast’s Co-Founder and Managing Director, will be appearing at the festival on Sunday 10th June at 10am. Find out more here.
Photograph: Main Square by Finn Beales.