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Hay Festival 2016: Friday

A photograph of one of the garden tents at the Hay Festival

I don’t think I’ve ever tweeted as much as I did last week. I spent three days at the Hay Festival and it was fantastic; the atmosphere is amazing, it’s one of those places you can sit down to read and know absolutely no one will bother you unless with good reason, comedians walk about in sunglasses fooling no one (this was Ben Miller) and it’s casual, colourful, and full of a general camaraderie. Hay-On-Wye itself is gorgeous and has bookshops enough that you could say it makes up for all those closing. When it pours with rain you know it – the site may be all tents and tented walkways but rain on a large stretch of canvas? Just a bit loud. One night at 10:30 there was a good hundred or so people huddled by the entrance, donning bin bags as raincoats and splashing through the mud. There were about 10 event tents, more food kiosks than you could count and a few grassy courtyards. Some of the photographs I’ll be using were taken with my phone – excuse the quality.

My first event on Friday was Barbara Erskine talking to Peter Florence (the director of the festival).

A photograph of

Erskine’s new book, Sleeper’s Castle (out 30th June) is set, appropriately, in Hay-On-Wye. It’s about the a famous historical Welshman, Owain Glyndwr, who battled against the English in their bid to rule Wales. Erskine had always liked the idea of dismantling a castle, at least in fiction, and writing about Glyndwr allowed her to do so. She said, “It was irresistible to try and knock [it] down”. She had to fit Glyndwr into her fictional characters’ lives rather than the other way round, hanging her story onto his, and create an imaginary valley so her characters could live near Hay.

Erskine doesn’t research old dialects but does try to avoid modern slang. She moved on to her other books, talking about basing one on a house she had wanted to own (I’m yet to read her work, so if you recognise this, let me know!). Peter Florence said that one of the golden rules is not to write about dreams. “I’ve not heard that!” said Erskine.

Erskine has always been interested in the past; history is her great love. There’s a bit of her in every character. She spent 10 years researching Lady Of Hay; it was a hobby – she didn’t think anyone would publish it. She researches what she really needs to know, then fills in as and when needed; she’ll spend several months researching before starting to write and said that research makes up 1/3 of her working time. She mind maps her stories and by the time she’s ready to begin writing she has a 10 page synopsis, though she doesn’t usually refer back to it.

Erskine is fascinated by religion and it works its way into her books. She thinks most people are creative, it’s just a case of wanting to externalise it. She said that writing doesn’t get easier but that you take short cuts. She loves long books, joking, “you’re getting two novels for the price of one!”

Does Du Maurier use drugs? she asked, when The House On The Strand came up during question time. Yes, we all said. “I haven’t used that yet…”

A photograph of Ursula Martin

Next up was Ursula Martin, of Oxford University, talking about Ada Lovelace, a Victorian ‘computer programmer’ – I’ve put it in quotes because a computer wasn’t made at that time but Lovelace effectively wrote a program out on paper.

Lovelace came from a Unitarian family, which aided her thinking; they encouraged her work. She was Lord Byron’s daughter and wrote papers in her mid 20s, finding herself a distance-learning tutor. One of the reasons we know so much about her is that her mother kept everything, all her letters. One of those letters discusses the making of a flying horse – Lovelace was 12 years old at the time.

Martin said that Lovelace wrote most of the paper for which she’s only credited at the end as A.L. – instead people said she did the translating. One Charles Babbage came up with the idea to make a machine to create tables and logs. He drew some of them and Lovelace wrote the documentation for them, explaining how they would be programmed. Martin showed us quotations from Lovelace’s work; they demonstrate how well she would have fit in today and Martin said she’d recognise our modern computers. Even back then there were thoughts of artificial intelligence – Lovelace pondered whether machines could think, deciding that they couldn’t. Many years later Alan Turing discussed this thought, said that computers could in fact think, but he was respectful of Lovelace’s work where others weren’t.

Lovelace was dismissed in 1980s and 90s journals. The work wasn’t good, she was a woman, and so on. But she was photographed for being herself whereas other women in her era were photographed for being a wife or a daughter.

Following this was the BBC’s Front Row Radio Four recording, which you can listen to here. It was recorded in two ‘sets’ – first on stage with presenter John Wilson were Charlotte Church, Lionel Shriver, and Tracy Chevalier.

A photograph of John Wilson, Charlotte Church, Lionel Shriver, and Tracy Chevalier

Speaking of Reader, I Married Him (a collection of short stories based on the line in Jane Eyre), Chevalier said she invited the included authors. Wilson noted that the line used was revolutionary and Chevalier responded with how the reader becomes part of the reason it all happens, Brontë’s ending happens; no author had really reached towards the reader like that before. Shriver said that the line changes the way you read the stories and talked about hers – “It’s very British; I’ve finally gone native”.

Charlotte Church was there to discuss her new musical, The Last Mermaid. There is no dialogue in it, it’s all song, and is about eco issues in a dystopian setting. She’d wanted to stay away from the idea of evil humans so she added an evil whale instead.

A quick switch – off went the three guests, on came another three: Patrick Ness, Holly Smale, and Juno Dawson.

A photograph of Patrick Ness

Ness started, speaking about how it was only slightly different writing for children than writing for adults. Dawson noted that teen sections of bookshops aren’t limited by genre.

Smale said that because there is no sex or drugs in her books, they find their way to readers who are younger than the age she writes for. She spoke of how her books echo her upbringing – innocent – a narrative that’s true to herself. “The voice we’re representing happens to be our own.” She doesn’t like the word ‘issue’.

“We’re haunted by the idea of issue books,” said Dawson. “No one ever said, ‘oh, I’m anorexic but I’m fine in every other way’.”

A photograph of Phil Grabsky, Tracy Chevalier, and David Bickerstaff

My last event of the day was a film about the painting Girl With A Pearl Earring. Tracy Chevalier introduced the piece, created by film makers Phil Grabsky and David Bickerstaff, saying that she’d seen the picture at her sister’s house and saw it as representative of a relationship. People didn’t know who the sitter was or much about the artist – ‘hoorah!’ she thought, did some thinking, and came up with the plot in three days. Since then the painting’s become famous.

Some points made in the film:

  • Tracy Chevalier: The pearl’s a symbol of virtue. It’s a painting of a virtuous person. It might be a painting of virtue in itself rather than a real person.
  • It was lost for 200 years and dirty when found and auctioned.
  • The artist, Vemeer, adds white patches to draw our attention to them and uses primary colours over and over again.
  • Even bakers could buy paintings in 17th century Holland.
  • The turban shows that it’s imaginative; it’s exotic.
  • Paintings wherein the sitter doesn’t have a serious expression tended to be imaginative.

I left after the film finished, missing the discussion; it was getting late and I had to navigate pouring rain in summery clothes.



June 6, 2016, 10:37 am

I’m so jealous of your time at Hay. It sounds – minus the rain – like it was absolutely wonderful.


June 6, 2016, 1:32 pm

It sounds as though you had a great time – apart from the weather! I would have been interested to hear Barbara Erskine speak as I have a review copy of Sleeper’s Castle to read.

Tracy Terry

June 7, 2016, 3:15 pm

A new Barbara Erskine? How did I miss this?

Sounds like an amazing event and one I’d love to attend some day.


June 7, 2016, 6:19 pm

Shame about the rain but sounds like you had a really good time. I would love to go one year.



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