June 1st Robert Macfarlane talks to Horatio Clare (11.30am) and to Artemis Cooper (5.30pm)
Hay-on-Wye and the Festival
Hay-on-Wye is one of those destinations that I think of as a treat. I like everything about the place. The drive when we take the little road that runs from Llandewi Skirrid to the edge of Hay Bluff is always a delight. Several times Anne has dropped me off as the road reaches its highest point and I hop out and walk cross-country into the town. Hay has all the right ingredients. No chain stores here, it’s little delicatessens, cafes, clothes (loads of fashion for the girls, 2 outdoor ones for the boys) and crafts shops all seem to be one-off places that are worth visiting and seldom disappoint on revisiting a few months later. It has bookshops, too. Not as many as it used to, but enough to satisfy most readers. I’m not a big reader so one or two of these would meet my needs but there is something uniquely pleasing about mooching around bookshops.
The main literary festival does not take place in the town but in a village on its outskirts which is re-created each year for the purpose of housing its hundreds of events and thousands of visitors. The festival village is always familiar, always slightly different from one year to the next. It, too, holds tiny shops containing up-market arts and crafts and posh items for the posh dog’s posh basket. There are no end of eating places and stalls selling fresh fruits, quality ice-creams- this year I noticed a tapas bar had been included.Very on trend is Hay.
It’s one main bookshop is a disaster area when the more popular performers at the festival are doing their post-talk signings. I joined a stationary queue after our first event but I gave up after 10 minutes of getting nowhere. Amazon will sell me the book more cheaply and conveniently and a signature or even a dictated dedication from an author is, ultimately, a somewhat vacuous thing. If you would like my book “Discovering Welsh Gardens” signed and dedicated you can buy it from me very conveniently on Ebay.
The one thing that the festival falls down on, at least as far as women is concerned, is their toilets. Which considering that women are, from casual observance, the majority of the festivals customers, this is quite simply a disgrace. I did not have to queue to pee; Anne had to wait nearly 10 minutes. Someone ought to raise a real protest about this discriminatory and contemptuous behaviour by its organisers.
Before I get to the events themselves I must declare a particular interest here. I have also been a performer at Hay. I was booked to talk about “Discovering Welsh Gardens” in 2009. Performers leave Hay with three things. Firstly, they become by virtue of their very attendance, an “Artist”. They get given a badge to say so. This allows them to lounge about in The Green Room with each other and mingle (or, if you are Jo Brand, smoke). Secondly, they receive a single long stemmed white rose (which is a horrible thing and any sensible artist would turn to one of the audience before leaving their tent and present their gift to them with a flourish). And thirdly, in lieu of a fee, they are given a half – case of decent Prosecco (or a red if they prefer). Having said that, I am quite certain that some artists must get a big fat cheque but I was not one of them.
Hay is really where the educated classes give full indulgence to their own form of celebratory worship. You get to be in the presence of the person whose book you have just read or that media personality you most lust after (Mariella Frostrop – yes, I know she’s a cliché but I can’t help myself. That voice!). If you are feeling really plucky you can even ask them a question.
The prejudice towards the Artist is, almost invariably, a positive one. People don’t tend to book tickets for people that they want to have an argument with. Having said that, half way through a panel discussion that I attended on a previous year I realised that I could only have booked to see Monty Don in order to pick a fight with him. Which I did, over some guff he came out with about Britain being a nation that loves their gardens.
Robert Macfarlane in discussion with Horatio Clare
Macfalane’s entry on wikipedia describes him as a travel writer and he seems to be comfortable with this epithet and he has been bracketed in with the best of those who mostly choose to write about travels on foot. I have not read his first book: “Mountains of the Mind” (2003). “The Wild Places” followed (2007), which I have read and enjoyed, where walking in the remote parts of the Cairngorms features prominently. In “The Old Ways” (2012) , which I have to date only dipped into, his paths are mostly closer to sea level. He has just published “Holloway” , which was really the reason he was booked today and this slim volume focuses on one of the labyrinth of sunken lanes in Somerset that was the subject of one of the chapters in “The Wild Places”. So in answer to one of Horatio Clare’s (such a dish!) first questions“What is your project?”, Macfarlane quipped “losing height”. His next book is entitled the “Underland”.
Macfarlane told us about the holloway that he had first visited with that extraordinary writer about nature, Roger Deakin, and about the lovingly put together limited edition of the book, which he has now had published for the less well-heeled. I discovered these holloways locally to us and indeed fought tooth and nail (and failed) to stop one from being concreted over on the back of a planning application. They are everywhere and yet really are very special places, worn deeply into the ground by their use over centuries. He had some photographs to show us (sadly washed out by the daylight in the tent – easily remedied if the organizers put some shading around the screens). It was not surprising but still shocking to hear that this lane has recently been filled in by the farmer of the land, though Macfarlane was remarkably sanguine about it.
Clare moved us on to his other books, referring Macfarlane to Anthony Gormley having talked about his “physical intelligence” , which obviously pleased him. “There are kinds of thinking that are specific to certain landscapes,” he said “This fascinates me” . Which might bear debate and sounded a little fey but he came across as someone not at all up in the clouds, later joking that “landscapes can bring blisters”.“My father was a doctor, I come from a very rationalist family”.
When I read “The Wild Places” I found myself writing some questions and comments in the margins. How did he walk on an iced over river without constantly sliding? Why had he wanted to spend the night on the top on Ben Hope in the Cairngorms, freezing cold and with no shelter? And for me, something was missing from his prose. A bit more balance, perhaps, between what his walks in remote places conjure up in his mind and what the impact has been on his feet. Under Clare’s gentle probing I did come away at least knowing that he carries a bivy bag on his nights out under the stars and takes a phone, apples, oatcakes, sardines (he is very partial to sardines) a hip flask and some raw chillies (which he finds invigorating).
The performance was enthusiastically received and I seized my opportunity to satisfy more of my curiosity. I asked him about whether he was concerned that by writing about wild places and thus encouraging us towards them he may paradoxically have an effect of making them less wild. He thought that Rannoch Moor could accommodate as many as would be likely to follow him without ill effect. Fair enough – I don’t meet that many people walking on National Trails so walking on ill -defined or non existent paths in remote places is not likely to attract that many to follow in his footsteps. And I asked him about what his family thought about what seems to be to be his undertaking of some quite risky adventures. I got the impression that he seems, perhaps, to lack some recognition of the risks that he does take.
What was most striking about Macfarlane for me was his ease of presence. He seemed comfortable in his own body and in himself. He has an easy manner, a perfect balance of confidence and modesty, and an enviable articulacy. I liked him and will return to “The Old Ways” with renewed interest.
In discussion with Artemis Cooper
I am embarrassed to admit to booking this session blind, without knowing that Cooper was the author of “Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure” – a biography of the WWII hero and writer published last year. Neither did I know that she is, in fact, The Hon. Alice Clare Antonia Opportune (“Opportune”- they must have smiled at the christening) Beevor. And true to type, ( from my experience of the upper classes) she spoke well had a nice voice and a pleasant manner and ran her hands through her hair a lot.
Apologies for the lack of her photographs – my vantage point was inadequate in this session. Here’s one of someone else’s.
Strangely enough I had made a start on Fermor’s “A Time of Gifts” last year which though Jan Morris considered it “nothing short of a masterpiece”. I found very hard going and have temporarily given up on it. Cooper and Macfarlane seem to be in Morris camp as to Fermor’s worth. I must ask my uncle Nigel , also a travel writer, and who had been a guest of Fermor’s once at his home in Crete, what he thought of him. It certainly sounds like he was a dreadful liar (“extravagant with the truth” was how Cooper put it) when it comes to some of his account of his travels (mostly on foot) from the Rhine to Constantinople in 1933. Perhaps that is being unkind. The book was written around 30 years after the event, so we should make allowances for unreliable memories, though I would take some persuading to forgive some shockingly tedious sections (the list, for instance, of every piece of poetry he had committed to memory).
We did not really learn that much about Fermor from Cooper other than that he was a very evasive interviewee and a bit of a slut in his office. She has edited the last (unfinished) part of his account of his journey to Constantinople, which is due out in September, extending to 80 years the time that will have elapsed between the writing and the publishing of the trip. I think I may pass on that. We didn’t really learn much about Cooper, either, other than she is also a great fan of Macfarlane’s who seemed happy to oblige with more about himself, occasionally trying to bring the conversation back to Cooper and her subject. It was a bit of a mess really.