Phil Parry tells of his visit to this week’s Hay Festival
The Hay on Wye festival this week has been dogged by two controversies. That it was incredibly wet and that it is an appallingly middle-class venture. To both charges it must plead guilty.
When I went, the main car park was out of action because of the mud and an emergency parking area was opened up, with shuttle buses taking festival-goers to the main site. Stupidly, I decided to park the car in an empty spot in the field they had opened up and promptly got it stuck. It took two attendants to push me out.
Tiny buses were laid on to take people to the festival area and a vast queue built up of impatient families, with children called Dominic or Harriet.
We had set off to get to Hay, as we thought, in good time to attend the first event, but in fact we arrived with just minutes to go – everything was running a quarter of an hour late thank goodness – and we were chasing our tails from then on. There was very little time to sit down in one of the alluring deck chairs.
Huge crowds of people thronged the covered areas between events and there was virtual grid-lock at certain points where you could barely move. After grabbing a sandwich, we arrived late for some events and had to be ushered in quietly to sit in the few remaining seats to hear the speaker.
But we were rewarded, for example, with a fascinating talk about Europe from Anthony Giddens (he of the ‘Third Way’). It could not have been at a better time, coming so soon after UKIP’s anti-EU triumph. Professor (or Lord) Giddens told how he was the son of working class parents in north London who only went abroad once – to Ostend on their honeymoon.
He also made the case strongly for the need for a supra-national body to tackle today’s frontier-crossing issues like climate change and the global economy. Interestingly, he also welcomed the promised referendum onEurope- as long as it was correctly presented and the British people knew exactly what they were voting for.
The interviewer, as with all of them, was slightly fawning and rambling.
How I longed for a bit more aggression with the interviewer asking, for example: “Rightly or wrongly UKIP have captured a national feeling that Europe is too big, too bureaucratic, fundamentally corrupt, and taking away Britain’s sovereignty. As a staunch pro-European how do you respond to that?”
This would have got the best out of Professor Giddens too. In the event, many of the best questions came from the audience. For all that, the talk was illuminating and it was great to hear the case for Europe put so passionately.
There was obvious passion, too, from Tom Holland in another talk – about the man dubbed ‘the father of history’, Herodotus. He explained how, perhaps above everything else, Herodotus wrote incredible stories of giant ants digging out gold and Xerxes of the Persians.
“Herodotus was a wonderful, wonderful man,” he said. But then Mr Holland started reading Herodotus when he was 12. How weird is that? How many 12 year olds would abandon their X-box for Herodotus?
A third talk was by Francisco Bethencourt on the history of racism. Professor Bethencourt spoke with less passion but his academic research shone through as he explained how racism had a long history and had to fit certain key characteristics to be categorised in that way.
Crucially, for me, he showed how racism has changed. It is no longer “the perverted science” as Churchill called it, but now can be viewed in the wholesale attacks on migration or of allowing Romanians to settle in Britain. The free movement of people has been with us since the dawn of time and societies that are closed and not open to new cultures and ideas ossify (this last bit did not come from Professor Bethencourt I must admit).
He was put on the spot (again by a member of the audience not the interviewer) about whether UKIP were racist.
They were not, he said, racist because they did not fit the key characteristics. Others may disagree with him on that.
The second charge that the Hay festival is middle-class is as true as the rain that affected it.
The organisers proclaim: “Hay on Earth is our ongoing (hate that word) sustainability project.”
But hey (or Hay) who cares?
We have come a long way, thankfully, from the days when “middle-class” was used as a term to attack people and it was spat out by extreme left wing party members. If it is viewed as middle class to enjoy talks by interesting people then so be it.
Hay was wet but wonderful.