Hay: over and out

So Sunday, the last day at Hay Festival was pretty idyllic.   A sunny afternoon relaxed into a glorious  evening and the final remnants of the sun-worshipping literati lay on the lawn reading or splayed out in one of the deckchairs.

Listening to Stephen Fry in the Barclays tent, a guttural bleating interrupted the proceedings and made me think “Hah. Some farmer’s phone with a comic sheep ring-tone. How apt.”

After a while, it dawned on me that the ‘mobile’ was standing proclaiming his woolly presence somewhere in the meadow at the back of the tent and didn’t have an ‘off’ switch.

On the whole, though, it was a big mistake going to Hay. I bought eight books and forgot to donate my Maeve Binchy’s to Oxfam. So a net gain of eight brand new books plus I have a list of second-hand Ishiguro’s I need.

I should not really have acquired any other books. I have thirty-five books, some read, some un-read, some half-read on my bedside table. The pile is not a single pile any more. Another has sprung up beside it. I have no idea when this occurred. It must have been when I put a book down for a moment as I was drying my hair or something. And a little later, another book landed on top of it. I should imagine that’s how it happened. I have no real idea. The thing just grows with roughly the same speed as the orchid flower stems on the kitchen windowsill. They pause, waiting for nightfall and extend by half an inch by dawn.

This thing with books;  it’s not a collector thing, it’s not even so much a reading thing as an interest thing. I have 38 books on my “to read” list. I own most of them. I don’t know when I am going to get time to read them. A week’s holiday hardly seems sufficient but I reckon I could nail three as long as I restrict the snorkelling or only sleep five hours per night.

On my desk alone I’m looking at a glossy, fresh uncracked copy of Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, on top of 1945 worn paperback of ‘Odd Man Out’ by F.L. Green with an image young James Mason on the cover looking gorgeously tense and sweaty, A Guide to the Cotswold Way and Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos plus four library books on aspects of the history of Cheltenham. It’s a serious addiction.

The Festival bookshop itself was full of new books. Ten minutes walk down the road, Hay town was bulging with second-hand books. I went on a two hour unsuccessful hunt for a copy of Arcadia and visited eight of the thirty or so bookshops.

I like the smell of old books. This Odd Man Out paperback – an original Pocketbook – smells lovely. It takes many years of rest to make books smell that good. These bookshops are full of similarly fragrant volumes down lining corridors and rooms that were once bedrooms and dining rooms and sitting rooms. They can be dingy, a little chaotic, or scrupulously organised.  Some, at first glance, may look like tat but it’s always a shock to the system picking up an ancient old Pelican book on Insect Behaviour – as I did – original price 1/3d and being charged nine quid for it. Of course, I had to have it. You never know when you might want to research the mating habits of the praying mantis.

The other thing is the remarkably encyclopaedic knowledge of the woman wearing the crocheted multi-coloured tank top sitting reading at the cash desk.

“Afternoon. Um.. Stoppard… Arcadia? I wonder if you might have a copy?”

She thinks for two seconds.

“If we have, it’ll be along the corridor to the left, mind you don’t trip on the step where we’ve duct-taped the carpet, up two flights of stairs, into the second room on the left and look on the shelves to the far right of the fireplace.”

Then, just as I’m checking my water rations, finding my emergency fragment of Kendal mint cake and taking a compass bearing from Gay/Bi/Lesbian Literature, she adds “They might not be very alphabetical, mind.”

No luck. No luck either in Richard Booth’s wonderfully spacious bookshop where some of the book corridors and corners are quiet enough and dark enough for clandestine assignations. No luck, even, in the Hay Cinema bookshop, another rambling, labyrinthine emporium (20,000 books, no kidding) with a hard-wearing and wondrous variety of flooring which varies from bits of old carpet, to lino, wood, concrete or simply tarmacadam.

I’m not one of those people who think the whole point of Literature Festivals is to get books signed but I can see that if you’re keen enough to pay 25 pounds to listen to Tom Stoppard for an hour, and you see him sitting there in the bookshop with pen in hand later, you might want to buy a few books and offer them up for signature or present him with a much-cherished volume to initial.

Some celebrities sign for hours to avoid any of their fans being disappointed. Stoppard’s people – to be fair it was one snotty publicist woman and an awfully English Pemberton’s chap – had very different ideas.

They patrolled the queue of book-clutching hopefuls waiting to approach Stoppard  like the Gestapo inspecting rail passengers. They sneered and peered at people’s expensively acquired books, telling them that Stoppard would only sign one book per person.

And they tried to insist that he wouldn’t sign any books that hadn’t been bought that day. The young chap in front of me – about nineteen at a guess – had one copy he’d obviously brought from home and they made it very plain it was highly doubtful that Stoppard would sign it. At any moment I expected they might poke us with pointed sticks.

Well, I had an armful of books plus one old book which I very particularly wanted signed in a particular place as a surprise for no2 son, so I rather thought they could just fuck off. I didn’t say that, obviously. I intended to be polite and try my luck.

I asked him to sign only three including son’s old GCSE copy of Arcadia – which he did with a smile as I explained the circumstances and how son had never forgotten what an impact Arcadia had made on him.

Just as well that authors are often much nicer than their officious managers and organisers.

Doris Lessing was the exception. When I offered her a humble paperback to sign when she was pushing a brand new £25 hardback novel, she gave me a stare that would have turned the milk. It made me think that if the writing talent and the ability to exude charm are in any way connected, it must be purely accidental.

Author: janh1

Part-time hedonist.

16 thoughts on “Hay: over and out”

  1. Jan – most enjoyable. The description of the mounting second pile of books is masterly and beautiful. You are definitley talented and deserve a wider audience. Love the sheep phone too! And congratulations on securing Stoppard’s signature – what a prize!

  2. Nice piece, Jan. I am impatiently waiting to get my hands on an iPad and I look forward to being able to take a bunch of books with me on my travels without the weight and the hassle of finding somewhere to put them in my hand luggage that is both convenient and accessible. I expect that things will be different for my grandchildren, but, for me, sinking into a comfortable chair with a book and a glass of something appropriate is still one of the best of the simple pleasures of life – especially in winter when you can add the friendly crackle of an open fire to the mix.

  3. Thanks folks. How brill, LW that you are in Wales!! Do blog and send pics 🙂

    Doris is still going as far as I know. But my run-in with her (signing really doesn’t cover it) was a couple of years ago at Hay.

  4. Thanks, janh1, for that great read. It’s dreadful how books pile themselves up. I’m forcing myself to use lending libraries more now, though secondhand bookshops with all the memories of times past are a great temptation.

  5. Hi Bravo. Oh yes. I love shiny new things and the iPad looks gorgeous but I’d be terrified of dropping it. Also it will never get to smell as good as an old book. The lovely thing about Hay is the freedom to sit anywhere and read uninterrupted, for hours if you like. Reading during the day is usually a guilty pleasure for me but at Hay it’s just expected.

    Wilde said you should resist everything except temptation, Sheona! 😀 But yes it is dreadful, the expanding piles and there’s no ointment for them. I am half way through Wolf Hall and horribly distracted by these other good books. It will take an effort of will to return.

  6. Good read janh.

    Doris Lessing ought to be dead!

    LW say hello to Wales for me!

  7. Great blog, Jan! I visited Hay many years ago and hope to again this year. I’ll bring you some books!

  8. Yes, I am. Running around like normal. Trying to get prepared for a possible move to the UK in the fall. It looks like that might happen. We’ll see.

  9. About the book piles… I have them too. All the books I have read should be on the shelves in alphabetical order (except when they have been removed for loans or reference) and on the top there is a collection of books awaiting attention… and in the basket at the side of my bed, and on the chest of drawers in the bedroom and in the office. And I’ve not even been to Hay. The latest accumulation is from the WI sales in the village. Every paperback 50p and every hardback £1. How could one resist? I’m hoping for a lovely long holiday one day…
    Wouldn’t it be loverly if one could absorb it through osmosis?

    I really enjoyed this piece Jan.

    Is it really a year since the last time?

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