From Heaney’s poetry to Rushdie’s surprise appearance: inside Hay’s 30-year archive

As the Hay festival prepares to donate its records to the British Library, the Observer is given exclusive access to the documents that chart its rise

Umberto Eco regrets that he is too busy. “I cannot accept any new commitments for at least two years,” states the typed letter, dated Milan, 10 February 1989, above an expansive rolling signature in thick black ink.

Seamus Heaney, by 1988, had decided that the “famous Seamus” tag was getting too much. “I’m hoping to go into hiding,” he wrote, “or at least out of circulation; and try to knit ‘thoughts into a single thought’.”

Alec Guinness was more succinct: “I have a cataract operation looming and that takes precedence,” he wrote, on “15 III 97”.

But others said yes to Hay Festival director Peter Florence’s missives of “devotion, not harassment”, his persistent invitations to literary and cultural figures grand and not so grand to attend the annual event that this year marks its 30th anniversary. To celebrate and cement the festival’s legacy it has donated its archive of correspondence, audio and video recordings, photographs, floppy discs, mini discs, DVCs, DVDs, CDs and the other detritus of the digital age to the British Library, in what is being heralded as the largest single donation of literary recordings in the library’s history.

“It’s a sleeping giant,” proclaims Richard Price, the library’s head of contemporary British collections. “There are 5,000 audio recordings and 2,000 films and 120 folders of manuscripts, all the admin of the festival. People hadn’t really thought of it as an archive. The festival is about every year being fresh and suddenly it’s 30 years you’re celebrating.”

Descend a rickety wooden staircase in the festival’s offices on the edge of the Welsh border town and the giant really does seem to be asleep, if not obscured by a morass of cardboard boxes, plastic crates, box files, bunting, posters and all manner of festival paraphernalia, all doused in a musty aroma. It is much like any other damp office basement.

Delve into the boxes, however, and the extraordinary begins to emerge, the account not only of how a small town’s arts festival, which opened to fabric painting and shadow play workshops, became a cultural powerhouse spanning continents and decades, but also of how the intellectual life of this country in the past 30 years has been played out in public.

Here is Margaret Atwood, scrawling across two sides of paper in purple ink: “Not sure about this ink,” she writes. “Does it make me look neurasthenic?”

A line of blue DVC cases sits on a shelf, their subjects spelt out in felt pen on white labels: Tony Benn and Alexander Waugh from 2003, Jane Fonda in 2005, Maya Angelou in 2002.

Angelou’s appearance can be seen today, via a series of YouTube videos or on the “Hay Player” on the festival’s website. It is both moving and humbling.

“When it looked like the sun wasn’t going to shine any more,” the author sings as she leans, statuesque, against the lectern, “God put a rainbow in the clouds.” The lines, she explains to the Hay audience, are a shred of a negro spiritual, which in turn draws upon the lines in Genesis that tell how the rainbow, at a time of unrelenting rain, was put in the sky to put the people at ease.

But in the spiritual, Angelou explains, the rainbow is placed right in the clouds, “so at the worst of times, in the meanest, the bleakest, the most miserable of times, there’s a possibility of seeing hope… I suggest that poetry is a rainbow in the clouds”.

Bill Clinton was reputedly paid £100,000 for his speech at Hay.
Bill Clinton was reputedly paid £100,000 for his speech at Hay. Photograph: Tim Ockenden/PA

It is an astounding piece of theatre, and underlines that for the product of a literary festival, the Hay archive is as much about performance as it is about text. Jeanette Winterson, another prominent figure in the story of Hay, is also a notable performer, although sometimes she has been reluctant to take the stage. “It has puzzled me rather,” she writes to Florence on 22 February 1989, “that a discussion called ‘How far can we go?’ will have a panel of people who, whatever their merits, write very traditionally (sleights of hand excluded). I don’t fit with them at all and so I think I must decline your offer.”

Whether “How far can we go?” ever went anywhere is obscure, but public discussion has been the lifeblood of the festival.

“It favours the talkers,” says Florence, “but the scale is interesting. Sometimes you get real nuggets when people get beyond their stump speech comfort zone. That often happens between 26 and 35 minutes – way beyond what you’d get in the media.

“I love it that people from such diverse disciplines meet here, and exchange perspectives on similar problems. I think the creative writers seem to have absorbed and re-imagined so much of the political and scientific and social discourse they encounter in Hay.”

“It’s about these works by these writers going out into society,” says the British Library’s Price, “because it’s not just manuscripts, it’s panels and discussions. There’s nothing quite like this.

“These are writers and public intellectuals talking in public and being asked questions by the public. That’s pretty special. They have to think on their feet. It’s part of completing that strange circle whereby creative work goes through all sorts of processes and stages before it reaches a public. This completes that circle by bringing the writer together with the reader.”

The international reach of the festival adds to what Price calls “an embarrassment of riches”. The festival has travelled to 30 locations in its 30 years, with iterations in six countries this year. “The British Library isn’t a Little England sort of place,” he says, “and our collections are incredibly international, as is this archive. To have Nobel prize winners, writers of the stature of Orhan Pamuk and Carlos Fuentes, is incredible.”

Wole Soyinka, the 1986 Nobel prize winner for literature, was compelled to decline the festival’s offer in 1988: “The timing, alas, is impossible for me,” he said.

Nadine Gordimer, who was awarded the prize in 1991, fretted over the travel arrangements before her trip to the festival, insisting that she should be paid in cash, not by cheque. Kazuo Ishiguro was similarly preoccupied, writing on 5 November 1988: “1/ Will the festival pay a fee? 2/ Will the festival pay my travel and accommodation expenses? 3/ Will the format of the discussion entail my delivering a paper to the audience? 4/ Will I be accommodated in a hotel or private accommodation?”

Jeanette Winterson appeared at the festival in 2012.
Jeanette Winterson appeared at the festival in 2012. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

Bill Clinton was reputedly paid £100,000 for his contribution, and his speech can be seen on the Hay website, the former president hamming it up before delivering his “Woodstock of the mind” utterance, a moment that Florence has said was pivotal in turning the festival from a literary to a cultural phenomenon, joining the dots of politics, economics, science, philosophy and culture. An equally famous moment comes with the surprise appearance of Salman Rushdie at the festival in 1992 – a rumble of discontent coming from the audience as it is told that David Grossman would not be appearing before the news is delivered that Rushdie will take his place – making one of his first public appearances since the announcement of the fatwa against him in 1989.

The British Library aims to catalogue the archive as soon as possible, making it available in its reading rooms for researchers, before moving to place the recorded archive online, once rights have been cleared. “The main thing is that we preserve these recordings,” says Price, “some of which are frail.”

For Florence, the connection with the British Library serves to bring the festival full circle. “My dad was a librarian in Cape Town, before he came here and started putting up his tents at Bankside for Sam Wanamaker’s Shakespeare seasons in the late 1960s. He taught us all about libraries being the palaces of ideas and stories. We have this amazing resource and we just want it held for everyone by people who know about conservation, and the British Library is the place. Some of the material will be invaluable to scholars, some of it is just fabulously entertaining.

“The archive is largely documentary. I wish we could somehow record all the friendships, the collaborations, the adventures started at Hay, the sheer human creativity. Any which way, we’d love to find a way of sharing what we’ve had the privilege of hearing here in our field.”


Dan Glaister

The GuardianTramp

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