When I learned I was coming to “the Woodstock of the mind” – as some people call the Hay Festival – they told me magic things happen here. That sounded like a fun idea, but I never imagined it could have been meant so literally. On Monday night, after leaving the last event, I stopped by the green room – the place where the artists have a rest and a drink. You find all the festival organisers hanging around there, the participants, and all the journalists who are after an interview. It’s a privileged space, to which not everybody has access, where you might bump into J.K. Rowling, Sting or Benedict Cumberbatch.
The atmosphere there at the end of the day is very relaxed. People drink white wine and hold lively conversations. I sit on one of the sofas to watch. In the opposite corner, I see a man wearing a dark suit, white shirt and tie, and a black hat. He’s nearly two metres tall, his eyes are blue and his hair white. He could easily be a character out of a James Bond or Kingsman movie. Suddenly he gets up and walks over to a woman who has asked him about his work. And there, standing in the middle of the room, he starts to do magic tricks: he makes coins appear and disappear while he talks about the way we perceive the passage of time. The coins come and go while the magician talks about perception. More people join in and watch his improvised show. It turns out that the man is Clive Wilkins, a painter and writer, currently Artist in Residence in the Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge. According to his online profile, “He is a performer and magician and particularly interested in the nature of illusion and the psychology of perception, and the methods we adopt to make sense of a strange world.”
The festival’s other spectacular moments take place when the sun appears between the clouds. The bookshops, restaurants and tents near to the venues fill with visitors searching for a pleasant atmosphere. Most of them are families taking a few days’ break at the festival. In one of the play areas, I ask a father, a man of about forty, why he has brought his children. He tells me they live in Cwmbran, a town 45 minutes from Hay. In Cwmbran, he says, there aren’t many cultural events, and his two children, aged twelve and eight, love reading. So once a year they come to see their favourite authors. They camp out close to the site and see two or three events a day.
It’s surprising how many events there are relating to children’s and young people’s literature. In the main festival bookshop, I ask one of the booksellers about this. He tells me that the signatures of these writers tend to be much more sought after: children stand in endless queues for a signing. In addition to this, there are all kinds of workshops on subjects ranging from gardening to poetry.
Perhaps the comparison with Woodstock isn’t the closest. On the sunny afternoons in the gardens, this feels like an amusement park of the mind.
It’s also a festival for those who want to get into writing. There’s a space in which literature fans can test out their talent. I approach a small tent where there are readings of unpublished texts. Various authors read the pieces they’ve written during the festival inspired by their contact with hallowed authors. The audience comments and applauds spontaneously. A musician plays guitar between the readings.
* * *
“Your most recent books happen in different places – are you tempted to write about India again?” asks Tishani Doshi.
“I grew up in a little town on a hill in Bombay,” answers Salman Rushdie. “I like to think that all the books I’ve written are about the conflicts in that small community.”
Rushdie is one of the most celebrated authors on the planet. His fame precedes him wherever he goes. He is also always accompanied by a group of bodyguards who keep an eye on his surroundings. Ever since he published The Satanic Verses in 1988, there has been a death threat hanging over him. Rushdie is a regular at the Hay Festival, and this year he has come to talk about The Golden House, his most recent novel, which some believe to be a satire on the government of Donald Trump.
“Were you thinking about him when you wrote the book?”
“Not at all. I imagined a very rich, repulsive character long before Trump became president. And then it happened, when the novel was already written.”
“Do you feel guilty?”
“I feel terribly guilty. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night terrified at the possibility that everything that’s happening is my fault,” replies Rushdie, laughing.
“But did you ever meet him before you wrote the novel?”
“I’ve seen him three times in my life. I’m going to make a terrible confession: Trump was always very nice to me. Once he even invited me to his box at the U.S. Open. He said ‘You’ve got to see my box, it’s the best box in the world.’”
Rushdie has a reputation in literary circles for being a difficult man. But for the hour he’s on stage he is charming and in a very good mood. The audience applauds delightedly at each of his clever remarks. He describes, for example, how his intentions of making a sci-fi television series were a failure:
“Every time I sent them a draft, they would say: ‘This is the best thing we have ever seen, ever in the history of television . . . it is original and startling and mind-blowing, we are so totally with it!’”
“And what happened?”
“This happened for a year and at the end of the year I got a text message saying: ‘We’ve decided not to go with it.’”
And so his advice to any writers who want to see their books adapted into a Netflix or HBO series was “Don’t believe anything, nothing at all.”
“In your writing there’s always a clear influence of the Greek tragedies.”
“Certainly. What I like about them is that destiny is unavoidable. You know, right from the start, that Clytemnestra has to murder Agamemnon. It’s inevitable and that feels very powerful to me.”
– Translated by Daniel Hahn