Needle in the Hay Stack

Just over seven months ago, on a drizzly summer day, I took this photo. The setting was Hay-on-Wye – a tiny town nestled between the foreboding valleys of the Powys-Herefordshire border; Welsh by a wisp with part of the town situated in England and the other in the land of St David. The Hay Festival of Literature and Arts has been an annual celebration of all aspects of creativity since 1998 and has remained a fixed point in the British calendar since then – being descended on by droves of authors, journalists, poets, lecturers, actors, musicians, artists, school children and tourists in Whitsun week.

Hay itself is a sleepy place, albeit one with a wonderfully sprawling collection of second-hand book shops. In fact, on entering Hay you are greeted with a sign beholding “Hay-on-Wye – Town of Books”! The very fact that such a town can survive and that this festival of the Arts continues to grow year on year, attracting some of the greatest authors, poets, comedians and thinkers of the 21st century is surely uplifting in our current climate of library closures and bookshop decline – a topic I mused on over a year ago in my post “The demise of the local bookshop”.

Ironically, my bemusement at the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts being sponsored by The Telegraph (for some reason it tickled me at the time) morphed into excitement when I had the great pleasure of meeting Lisa Armstrong; Telegraph Fashion Editor, ex Times Fashion Editor and Vogue contributor. I had half an hour to kill between Michael Morpurgo’s glorious Annual Hay Library Lecture and David Bellos’ fascinating talk on language in translation, humorously entitled “Is that a fish in your ear?”, and having been alerted to the fact that Lisa had given her own talk earlier in the day I was off on a hunt to find her.

To put it into context, Lisa Armstrong’s Times Magazine columns accompanied my Saturday afternoon lunch for as long as I can remember; I’d even go as far as to say that she was one of the reasons I became so interested in fashion because of her ability to make it appear accessible to me, a thirteen, fourteen, fifteen year old schoolgirl. I arrived, a little out of breath I might add, at The Telegraph tent only to spy her chatting with a festival-going couple. I hovered, debating whether to pluck up the courage to introduce myself. In short: I did. She was lovely, gave me advice about becoming a journalist and complemented me on my black felt hat. I was a very happy girl. What’s more, she very kindly agreed to have a photo with me and even snapped me for The Telegraph’s festival style blog!

Experiencing Hay was, without doubt, a true highlight of my year. Sitting in a huge tent, my pen poised above my favourite RSC notebook and surrounded by other fellow Morpurgo devotees I felt inexplicably at home. Even more so when Michael, as I like to think of him, boomed;“Cutting library funding is the stupidest thing this government has ever done”, amid cheers and applause from the delighted audience. A phrase which has stayed with me ever since the festival came from his lips too: “Reading is the oxygen of enlightenment”. A metaphor so strong and so true it doesn’t even feel like it should be granted metaphor status.

My favourite quote from the festival came courtesy of Twitter; “Only at Hay-on-Wye would a talk on fonts be so popular it has to move venues twice”. There is something so honest and uplifting about that sentence which embodies this festival in the accolades it deserves. I can’t wait to be returning this year. If you’ve never been – go. I dare you.

Hay 2

Hay 2

Hay 3

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I’ll stick with the old

Saturdays, for me, are always enjoyable – whether I’m out and about or staying in and relaxing. Last Saturday was a day of mixed fortunes weather-wise, charity shopping, book shopping and drinking milkshakes with my best friend. Call me ostentatious but the day consisted of not one but two outfits – not through vanity but due to rain. How glamorous. To cut a long story short, during the first of the day’s errands I was caught out in the bucketing rain and howling wind (ok, it wasn’t quite that Wuthering Heights but hey I’m trying to make this more interesting!) with only a shower-proof jacket for protection over my outfit.

I had gone for a look I’ve now labelled “French Utility” (i.e. khaki chinos, grey converse, black eighties blouse with huge gold buttons and all topped off with my black beret). Sadly my chinos and converse were soaked on my return and I didn’t fancy wearing my beret again considering it nearly blew off my head whilst walking home! It was one of those situations where you need to change in a hurry into a ‘fail-safe’ outfit that you already know will ‘work’. Thus I wore exactly the same thing I wore last Sunday (don’t worry – I won’t describe it for you again here) as I was anticipating another imminent rain fall.

Luckily my second outfit of the day survived the weather due to the foresight of my friend to bring an umbrella with us as we wandered around the shops (or rather as I dragged her round the charity shops!). The day was fruitful in that we found some old lps and eps going for £1 each in Cancer Research and I bought two – one because it is a fantastic song (‘Walk Like An Egyptian’ by the 80s girl power band ‘The Bangles’) and one because the cover artwork was fantastic (and it has some really iconic tunes on there such as ‘California Dreamin” by ‘The Mamas and The Papas’). I love vinyl records – even buying them 30 or 40 years after they were first released is exciting and gives me a completely different thrill to the one I get when buying a cd (that is, very little thrill as I’m usually stood in a queue in HMV).

I have heard it described by people of the lp generations that buying a record was something truly exciting – something you saved up your pocket-money for (if you were lucky enough to get it that is, birthday and Christmas money if not) for weeks and weeks for and had to choose so carefully as it would be constantly replayed until you had the money to buy another. Back in those days I think people appreciated music more – not in the sense of enjoyment, far from it, but in the sense of appreciating their access to it. Nowadays all you have to do to hear your favourite song is listen to it on YouTube or Spotify, and if you want to buy a copy it’ll cost you 89p on iTunes, which for most people is an insignificant amount of money.

Music is so accessible to us as a society that we don’t treasure it as we once did – like fashion we have become a ‘throwaway society’ in the sense of music too – and I know many people who update their iPods according to the weekly charts and then never listen to the songs again once they are no longer in the media limelight. This is why I don’t tend to download music – if I like an artist or a band enough I will buy a physical copy of their album to enjoy. Over time this has built up into a small cd collection for me, and though I obviously don’t listen to all of it all of the time I do go in and out of phases of listening to different music. For example, I somehow always seem to listen two my Regina Spektor albums around Christmastime (no idea why!) and my Miike Snow album when I’m stressed. My old stuff (ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Joni Mitchell) tends to come out of the woodwork in holiday time as it is more chilled out than some of my music.

I think the issue I’m trying to raise is whether music, like high street fashion, is becoming something we feel we need to keep up with, and that by racing through every song in the charts we feel that we have accomplished some great feat. Because of this constantly changing barrage of songs, people are led to believe that music is an easy career option, and that so long as you have auto-tune and look the part you can have all the fame and the glory without the raw talent. I often hear songs on the radio now and my first thought is “If you’d have given me the right software + auto-tune I could have made this record”. How depressing is that? The idea that music is drifting from being an art form to something that ‘anyone’ can do well? I’m not going to name any names, as everyone is different and has a different taste in music, but I just wanted to put the idea out there that nowadays it seems to have flipped from being “quality over quantity” to “quantity over quality”.

Adding a vintage effect with the black and white

The demise of the local bookshop

Sometimes modern society leaves me ashamed to be part of it. Ashamed and disappointed and really, really annoyed. Really annoyed because, like many people, it has sucked me in to its world of consumerism and mass-marketing. I’m talking about books – and if you want to see the article that sparked my fury click here. It is an article from the Book Blog of The Guardian which discusses the increasing pressure on publishing houses to settle for supermarket deals on formulaic books instead of seeking out and nurturing promising talent from undiscovered, unique writers who are telling a different story than everyone else.

It’s the same for independent book sellers – what with supermarkets now doing “two for £5” deals on books and Amazon consistently selling everything, particularly books, at the lowest possible prices it is impossible for anyone even attempting to sell books at their “recommended retail price” to find enough customers to keep them afloat. It’s a shame, because as a society we are disconnecting ourselves from the arts. I don’t mean that no one’s reading or listening to music any more – far from it – it is the way in which we are doing it….

We’re not going browsing in bookshops any more – savouring the distinctive smell only books can have or marvelling over the sheer number of books it stocks instead we’re wandering round Sainsbury’s or wherever and chucking “the latest bestseller” on top of our weekly shop or possibly worse, sitting at home and ordering books to be delivered to our front doors at the click of a mouse. I’m guilty of it, you’re probably guilty of it, we’re all guilty of it! Because it’s easy and lazy and doesn’t require the effort of leaving the house to go out and find a book shop that you’ll go into thinking “I guarantee I can get every single book in here cheaper on Amazon”.

I’m not going to lie – you probably can. But you know what you don’t get with Amazon? You don’t get to actually hold the book you want to buy, to inhale the fresh smell only a brilliant novel can have, to flick through the pages for no apparent reason other than the fact that you can. Because the book is physically there in front of you. If you’re lucky you might even get a really friendly bookseller who is happy to recommend books to you that they will have actually read because they are a bookseller and books are their passion. They’re not a robot recommending books to you based on books you’ve “previously bought” or because it’s what everyone else is reading. 

Phew. That was intense. But let’s just go back to books for just one more minute. Have you ever stopped to think what it would be like if you gathered together every single printed book that exists in the world right now – in every language and every edition – and how many words and stories and morals and struggles and people you would have there in that room with you? You wouldn’t be able to comprehend it. That is what is so wonderful about literature – whatever they do with it, however they market it, whatever form they put it in be it as printed copies or e-books or electronic messages programmed into our brains (give it a few years, I’m sure we’ll get there) people will never stop reading – because people will never stop writing. There, I’ve said all that I wanted to say.

The digital debate

Roz of Clothes, Cameras and Coffee

Roz of Clothes, Cameras and Coffee

If there’s one blog that I read religiously then it’s Clothes, Cameras and Coffee written by Roz Jana. Beautiful landscape photographs, such well-styled vintage that you feel like you’ve stepped back in time and a shot of literature and creative inspiration is the perfect combination for engaging and warm reading material. If you haven’t already then you must go over to her blog. She is rather inspiring! Roz wrote a post on Thursday called “Dedicated follower of fashion” of which the content displayed not only the usual dose of vintage Vogue-esque outfits, but also a mini-debate on the topic of whether the way the internet is evolving will mean that it will eventually replace all books and magazines, and that instead we will all download them onto kindles and portable reading devices. This post is something of a re-hashed version of the ridiculously long comment I wrote on her post (apologies Roz!), but it sparked off the issue in my own mind and I’m sure I’m not the only person who also has a view on the subject…

I don’t think that books will ever die out; after all it’s now come back round into fashion to have vintage editions of magazines such as Vogue and first editions of famous and/or classic books. It’s the same with records – I buy records at charity shops and play them on our old record player. Obviously the quality isn’t there but there’s something so retro about playing records that makes them so appealing – almost as if we are rebelling against the digitization of the world.

I’m not saying that the internet is wrongly stealing the limelight from books and papers because, after all, we all write and read blogs and shop online and keep in contact with people and so we would be lost without it. However, I think that regarding newspapers it is much quicker and easier to find particular news items that are up to date on the web, and it’s because of this that The Times are trying to cash in by making people pay to view the news on their website unless they already subscribe to receive the actual paper. This concept could potentially be successful in raising subscription levels, but only if every single other news-broadcasting website in the world did the same thing, and let’s face it that’s not going to be happening any time soon.

I had the debate re kindles the other day with my friend as she has one and loves it as she can take all her books everywhere, but you always run the risk of breaking it/losing it (a £100+ kindle is harder to replace than a £6 copy of Pride and Prejudice) and it just isn’t the same as concentrating on and curling up with a good book and feeling that sense of satisfaction and fulfilment when you finish it.

I like to smell my books when I open them and feel the pages and become one with the book. I don’t want to read it off a screen. This leads to the problem of independent and even big chain bookshops closing as people are either buying them much cheaper off Amazon or are simply downloading them onto kindles. I would hate to lose the feeling of wandering round an independent book shop and browsing the endless titles. I think that’s why I love charity shops so much!

I share Roz’s hope that both types of media – the digital kind and the ‘in the flesh’ kind will continue to exist side by side without one decimating the other. There will always be books I hope – I mean in a couple of decades time books will probably be considered ‘vintage’ so at least we know that someone will be reading them! But what do you think? Will books soon be considered a thing of the past which can only be found in charity shops much like cassette tapes? Or will we always have them?

Photograph copyrighted to Roz Jana of Clothes, Cameras and Coffee