Hay Festival

Jennifer Wallace took part in the Cambridge series at this year's Hay Festival and spoke on a panel on whether tragedy is the perfect form for the modern world. She gives her impressions of the event and of the Festival itself.

Even if we can read about or look at pictures of disasters in isolation, on TV or on computer screens, we still want to come together to mourn, to feel compassion for individuals picked out for particular attention or to try, as a community, to seek explanations for suffering and to stage rituals to mark loss.

Hay is a curious combination of glamour and grunge. It’s my first time here, and I’m struck by how different it feels from the Edinburgh Book Festival, my usual hangout, in the formal confines of Charlotte Square. Hay is more glitzy than Edinburgh, with theatrical stage lighting, huge bouquets in classical urns, and the giant single white rose presented to the speaker at the end of each event. But it’s much muddier too, with the cross-country tramp from the car park a sharp reminder that this is just a bunch of tents in a faraway field. A sort of Glastonbury, then, for writers. The seasoned festivalistas walk around in wellies; the rest of us slide around in city shoes.

Writers are the rock stars here . I join a thousand others to hear the pearls of wisdom from the lips of Mario Vargas Llosa, inspired to be in the presence of somebody who can speak so eloquently and authoritatively about the capacity of literature to generate freedom and political change in the world. “Literature should be without borders”, he says, his frequent pause to choose his words carefully actually lending them additional gravitas. “Literature makes us sensible to injustice. It heightens our awareness of the fraternity that should exist among human beings’. It’s heady stuff.

But later, I’m in a similarly packed auditorium to hear Andrew Miller, author of Ingenious Pain and the recent Pure, and Andrew Robinson, who’s written a new book on Champollion and the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone. They are two good writers but hardly conventional rock-star figures. So why do people go to literary festivals in greater and greater numbers? And why do writers turn up for the festival season, which is getting longer and longer?  “I like to meet my readers”, Andrew Miller says when asked this question by a brave member of the audience. “And I like chatting with my fellow writers in the Green Room [the artists-only common room]. It’s a social thing”.

Hay certainly is a social scene.  In my two days here, I’ve bumped into many old friends and caught the book launch (arresting poetry on Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition) of my old college roommate Samantha Wynne Rhydderch. I’ve also run into a large number of former students, some of whom are performing in debates, glamorously welly-booted, multiple times and another who is playing in a swing band for the alternative philosophy and music festival How the Light Gets In and camping out at night. (Yes, Hay, like Edinburgh, has its fringe festivals too).

But I think the attraction is more than simply rubbing shoulders with the Slebs and catching up on old times. In this age of the internet and instant access to news, views and e-books, there is conversely an allure inherent in the live performance.  This becomes the main focus of discussion at the event that I was invited to Hay to participate in, a panel discussion on “Is Tragedy the Perfect Form for the Modern World”? Reporters of disasters now still shape their narrative of terrible events in ways that echo the age-old dramatic traditions of the ancient Greeks or Shakespeare. And even if we can read about or look at pictures of disasters in isolation, on TV or on computer screens, we still want to come together to mourn, to feel compassion for individuals picked out for particular attention or to try, as a community, to seek explanations for suffering  and to stage rituals to mark loss.

As the debate opens up to the audience, my fellow panelist Adrian Poole warms to the theme: “This is the attraction of live performance, this is why we are all here. You never know, with live performance, what might happen”. There is time for one more question. A man rises to his feet out of the theatre darkness. “I’d like each of you three panelists to tell me in turn what is the most tragic experience of your life”.  My mind reels. What is the most tragic experience of my life? And am I going to confess it publicly to 200 strangers whom I can hardly see with the spotlights shining in my eyes? Adrian is similarly filibustering beside me. Does live performance mean that you have to reveal everything to your audience, that they can demand that kind of intimacy?   Careful what you wish for, the Greeks might have said. Call no man happy until the show is safely over. But the TV monitor, which lets speakers know when their allotted hour is up, is now steadily counting down the seconds. “I’m afraid that’s all, folks”, we say with the question unanswered, and Gemma, our festival minder, is coming on stage with white roses, while the Bee Gees’ song “Tragedy” strikes up to play the audience out.

Dr Jennifer Wallace is the author of The Cambridge Introduction to Tragedy.



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