Hay Festival preview 2010
Hay's once stuffy reputation has changed radically since it began 22 years ago. Jo Caird explains why it's a great cultural event for people of all ages and interests
The Hay Festival began life back in 1988 as the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival, a fairly niche event attended mainly by those in the publishing industry and devoted bookworms. But in the early Noughties things began to change.
The festival’s programme began to expand to welcome non-writers as speakers. High-profile politicians, musicians and comedians, including Bill Clinton and Paul McCartney began gracing Hay’s events. The word ‘literary’ was dropped from the festival’s title and all the events were moved onto one site just outside the town, making the experience a great deal more convenient for visitors.
All these changes have broadened the profile of festival-goers, and the organisers are proud of the fact that visitors to Hay have very little socially, economically or politically in common other than the festival. But for some reason it’s still known largely as an event that appeals to older people. It’s time to set the record straight: Hay is fantastic for young people too.
Among the personalities appearing at this year’s festival are the writers Tom Stoppard, Jeanette Winterson, Kazuo Ishiguro and Hilary Mantel, the comedians Tim Minchin, Jo Brand, Marcus Brigstocke and Rob Brydon, the poet Simon Armitage, the children’s writer Jaqueline Wilson, the soprano Elizabeth Watts, and Peter Lord of Aardman Animations, the creators of Wallace and Gromit.
If you’re interested in graphic novels, environmentalism, short film-making, journalism or cookery, there’s something there for you, and events take place in all sorts of different formats: from conversations and readings to film screenings and full-on stand-up gigs. There’s music too, by the likes of the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club and RIO ROX Sound System.
But what sets all these events apart is the atmosphere in which they take place. Many of the festival’s spaces are fairly small, which means you can get up close to your favourite comedians, novelists and journalists. Hay’s focus on conversation and debate ensures that the question and answer sessions at the end of every event are allotted a decent amount of time, so you’ve got a good chance of getting your burning questions answered.
Lots of events are followed by book signings, giving you further opportunity to chat to the stars of the show. And although some of the big names dash off to engagements elsewhere, a large number of the festival’s speakers hang around to catch other events so it’s quite likely you’ll find yourself queuing behind the documentary film-maker or up-and-coming poet you heard speak earlier that day.
Unlike other arts-heavy festivals, such as Latitude, where you buy a weekend or day pass, Hay is ticketed per event, so you can structure your time there according to your budget. Tickets cost from £5 to £19 and there are plenty of free goings-on too (40 of the 530 events), plus students with NUS cards are entitled to up to five free tickets each (these must be booked after 13 May and a £10 deposit is payable in advance).
Bed and breakfast accommodation tends to book-up early, but there are lots of camping options in the spectacular countryside around the town and dorm beds at the Baskerville Hall Hotel cost just £19 per night with breakfast.
So if you have a craving for some culture or just want to get up close and personal with your literary, cinematic or comedic idols, then perhaps it’s time to give the Hay Festival a try.