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


The Joys of Spring (Reading)

Decline and Fall

What I wouldn't give for an original penguin copy

Today is the 1st of March and it has been a glorious one at that; mild and sunny with blue skies and a beautiful sunrise. It is days like today which make me forget all about the dismal weather we Brits experience for 90% of the year and have a positive effect on me. There has to be some sort of scientific link between good weather and optimism! For me, 2012 has been a year for reading. There is nothing I like better than to arrange myself on my bed, head propped up by two pillows with a hot chocolate in one hand and a novel in the other, but more often than not this isn’t a reality for me. Reading, although a joy, is unfortunately not my top priority and always seems to get pushed down the day’s agenda until I’m far too tired to be able to enjoy anything I might read and all I want to do is sleep.

This year, it will be different. Reading is educational, enjoyable and an escape into as many different worlds as there are novels in the world. In 2008 I began keeping a record of every single book I read – the title, the author and my starting and finishing dates and when I totted up the total number of works I had completed in the course of four years I was actually a little disappointed to see that I had actually only managed to finish a rather measly total of 56 books. That’s an average of 14 books per year – just over one per month. It’s true that I go through periods that are more fruitful reading-wise than others – I can guarantee I’ll have gotten through one book per week in the summer when I have little else to worry about other than whether I’ve lathered myself with enough sunblock or when high tide is – but that isn’t an excuse for me to neglect my bookshelf. After all; reading is something I gain such pleasure from and learn so much from.

My current favourite author is the brilliant Evelyn Waugh. I was recommended and leant A Handful of Dust in the last week of December, and the next time I saw the lender (mid-January) I returned the novel having completed it and with a fulfilment that can only be felt when one has experienced a novel of such clever writing, intriguing sentences and subtle humour as Waugh’s chapters exude. The novel, set between the wars in Belgravia and a Stately Home in Warwickshire is the story of social graces (or lack of) in a time when the people you associated with mattered more than your own character, and acquaintances were forged merely out of a lack of need or inclination to do anything except hold parties or host country weekends.

It is Waugh’s clever irony that leaves readers such as myself eager to learn the outcome of such a tale without caring about the situation of any of the novel’s characters and feeling an intense dislike for the meaningless nature of their lives. Fickle is the word I would use to describe the lives of those persons of the upper classes depicted in what has to be one of the most intelligently written novels of the 20th century. I can heartily recommend it. My second Waugh novel, the rather lighter and far more humorous Decline and Fall is just as sophisticated without being arrogant and contains such comic moments that I have found myself garnering disparaging looks if I am guilty of a sudden outburst of laughter upon reading one of Waugh’s hilarious, one line sentences.

The upshot of this post is that I want to make myself make time to read more often. After all, I hope one day to be writing articles or novels which other people take time out of their busy lives from to sit down and enjoy. Reading is such a simple pleasure and one which I do not feel I have been alone in side-lining from my schedule in favour of other tasks which are deemed ‘more important’. The text on the right hand side of this post reads “I pledge to read the printed word”. And I do. And I will always.