Hay Festival at 30

Dylan Moore talks to Hay director Peter Florence about the festival’s audience, its thirtieth year, and how to ‘reboot liberalism’


This article first appeared in the welsh agenda, Spring 2017. 

‘What have we got in Wales that’s truly world class?’ asks Peter Florence. He lets the question hang just long enough to imply the exercise won’t take us long before making some tentative suggestions. ‘The rugby stadium… Bryn…’

‘Hay Festival,’ I say. Like the IWA, Hay Festival enters its fourth decade this year, and there is no doubt that what Florence calls ‘one of the biggest liberal platforms in the world’ belongs on our paper napkin list.

Quickly outgrowing its humble origins in the tiny mid Wales border town of Hay-on-Wye, the festival is now an established international brand, guaranteeing high quality events, intellectual rigour and no small amount of joie de vivre.

What shines through my conversation with Florence is the degree to which the Hay audience are esteemed. It would be easy for the festival to simply pin its ‘world class’ credentials to the stellar list of speakers it attracts to the ten-day early summer extravaganza in the Black Mountains or its year-round programme of events from Aarhus in Denmark to Arequipa in Peru and from Kells in Ireland to Kerala in south India.

Toni Morrison, Arthur Miller, Jimmy Carter, Salman Rushdie, Mario Vargas Llosa and, of course, Bill Clinton, have all received the famous white rose given to Hay’s guests at the end of each event. But Florence is not a namedropper. Instead he points me to a tweet in which a visitor to Hay described the festival as ‘where I get my fix of things to think about for the next year’. It is in these things that Florence takes pride, and comfort that the event is doing its job. He tells me that much work has been done on finding out just who the Hay crowd are.

Astonished, he tells me that fourth on the list of publications read by the Hay audience – after The Economist, The Spectator and another publication he deems ‘too embarrassing’ to reveal – is Nursing Times. Medicine is first on the list of professions. Higher education is second. What Florence wants me to understand is that ‘our audience are influencers, they are activists of various kinds; they have their own audiences – and are out there having an impact on the world.’ Hay, by implication, is where these people charge their batteries. ‘They come not for answers but for questions… how to keep moving forward.’ And, of course, to read books, drink wine, and talk long into the night.

Among lots of other things, of course, Hay has always been a party. Famously conceived around the Florence kitchen table, despite its exponential growth the festival has never lost that feeling of being a fantasy dinner party, with the smartest and most charming guests you can imagine. But this year, Florence sounds a note of caution. ‘We were getting ready to have a party,’ he says of the 30th anniversary. ‘But with what’s going on in the world, it’s going to be really important to ask ourselves the question of how we reboot liberalism.’

‘It’s not just Trump,’ he says. ‘It’s about how we engage with the 100 million people who voted for him. Even if you can dismiss a half of them as just too stupid to understand what they were doing, there are an awful lot of smart people who voted for him, and when you look – just at his character – you have to ask yourself, was there really nothing that set the alarm bells ringing? Really? Nothing?’

So, how will this year’s Hay programme reflect these concerns, and begin to ‘reboot liberalism’? ‘Well, there’ll be a very European flavour this year,’ promises Florence, ‘so you can take that as you will.’ To mark the thirtieth anniversary, Hay will release a number of lists, fun exercises in celebrating ‘things like the best thirty books from the last thirty years.’

Hay’s shared birthday with the IWA also coincides with a massive anniversary in the history of Western thought. It is 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenburg cathedral, sparking the Protestant Reformation. ‘We thought 95 was quite a lot,’ Florence laughs, ‘so we’ve just stuck to the 30, and have commissioned 30 thinkers to come up with theses to reform aspects of culture.’

Each thinker will be allowed a 30-minute lecture to deliver their reforming ideas to an audience before having a 30-minute interlocution. This fairly familiar Hay format will then be followed by a further 30 minutes during which a panel of four – a writer, a scientist, a philosopher and a lawyer – will be allowed to discuss, and pick apart, the ideas put forward. Like all Hay events, it is an unfussy format that promises much simply because it provides a platform for some of the world’s sharpest minds to collide, clash and cohere in a public forum.

The anniversary has also prompted Florence to reflect on changes in the wider world over the three decades that Hay has been running. Quite apart from world events, some developments were ‘inconceivable’ in 1987. ‘Someone showed me a photograph of myself the other day,’ says Florence, ‘holding one of those giant brick mobile phones. It was a different world.’ Given Hay’s propensity to keep moving forward, it comes as no surprise to learn that Florence’s ‘favourite statistic’ is this: ‘70% of this year’s university graduates will end up doing jobs that don’t exist yet. I mean, in 1987, who would have thought that a web designer was a thing?

Talk of the past brings us to an inevitable final question: ‘Will you still be doing this in another thirty years? What does the future hold for Hay?’ Florence admits to being ‘exhausted – and it’s only February’. He can only think of the next three years, not thirty, but there seems no danger of Wales losing one of its world-class jewels any time soon. ‘Someone with more energy and a greater range of skills than me will take it on,’ says Florence, self-deprecatingly, ‘so if you know anyone, let me know.’



Dylan Moore is Editor of the welsh agenda

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