Summer is here and there is the sound of marching feet. Those same feet who wore Dr Martins in the 60s and clashed with police are now shod in sandals and as the days lengthen make their way to Hay on Wye for the extremely well run Literary Festival. Which is where I was on Saturday. These festivals have sprung up like drug dealers and why they are successful is a source of discussion. Cheap show business, some kind of pilgrimage where the immortality of saints rubs off, just literate fan ship, something for the educated classes ,who are living too long ,to do? Some of these authors were attracting 1000 plus to their talks at a cost of £8 a go.
First up was Huw Lewis Jones flogging his book of “unpublished” photographs of that first conquest of Everest. This was based around the other Kiwi , George Low, who the author considered the third man after Hilary and Tensing on the first ascent. Maybe. Lewis Jones was very much a new man ,tough and as handsome as the mountains he had climbed, emancipated enough to bring up his three year child to the stage and in touch enough with his feminine side to describe those magnificent climbers as beautiful, loving, emotional etc.
However surely one of the worst one liners in the history of anything ,is Hilary’s,who when asked by Low as he descends “Did you get to the top?” Hilary replies “Sure we knocked the bastard off” Sorry, it doesn’t even match Tensing’s “Climbing up is optional ,climbing down is mandatory.”
So dusting the snow off our sandals we were off to see , the one all writers hate, Robert MacFarlane whose book Old Ways has followed his others into the best sellers. He is young, bright good looking, articulate and very interesting about the relationship between man, the paths taken and what might be called psycho geography. He was very funny about the ley lines which have a bit of local following around Hay. That is, however colourful the idea of walking in straight lines regardless of contour maybe ,its bonkers.
Then its off to hear Richard Holmes dragging himself away from the 18th century Romantic poets to write a wonderful book about ballooning. This guy is a real pro. Deep, funny, well paced ,a natural story teller. And his book about balloons both past and present involves a lot of wonderful stories. Many of them tragic. The lovers who go up and lose control and how the man throws himself out to save his girl. How Custer lay quaking in the bottom of the basket. And how those first balloonists took their lives in their hands as they flew into unconsciousness to find out where the stratosphere ends.
Now we go into kick about time. Roy Strong on his auto biography. Now the dwarf like Strong admits to reinventing himself. His hair and beard are Confederate general. His back ground veers from lower middle class to working class and back again while his accent remains oh so upper class. He unforgivably hates his parents. But he is delightfully right wing,he weeps for the grammar schools that gave him a chance, he admits that the arts should learn to pay their way. In his sequined jacket and his bejewelled ears he admits that in a different age he would have been full on gay rather than just outrageously camp. Still even this jack booted listener was won around by a man who has had several successful careers and loves the Church of England.
The next day we spot him at the service in Hereford Cathedral, the jacket then is more muted, a tie is worn and the trousers are loud check. At the cathedral he didn’t stop to sign autographs.
Then we are off the hear the big beast, William Dallrymple. He has researched the first Afghan war(we are now on our fourth) and the results of the first should have taught at least this country that Afghanistan, although its easy to conquer is impossible to pacify. Anyway it’s a tour de force, almost an hour of this rugby playing hero stomping about the stage and listing the eventual deaths of nearly all the 20,000 who took part in that first expedition in 1839. Then again we put a stooge on the throne, then again it was waste of time,blood and treasure.
Apparently when Home took over from Macmillan he asked for a tip on being Prime Minster. The story goes,Mac looked up from his paper and said,”You’ll be alright as long as you don’t invade Afghanistan”. If only Blair had listened.
By now the tea bells are ringing but we have one more round . To hear Antonia Fraser talk to Simon Jenkins about her book on the Great Reform Bill. Jenkins, one of my heroes was disappointing barely going through the motions, while Antonia Fraser was magnificent,still in a faded way beautiful, still articulate,still a fully fledged literary star. She seems to have got over the death of her Nobel prize winning husband. Or maybe she just hid the tears well. No reinvention here, born well she just keeps going.