The inspirational Hay Festival has been a highlight in our calendar for the last 11 years now. Six girlfriends go together and stay in a B&B near the event, generally for two nights and it’s always a simply glorious few days.
You become immersed in a different world – that of brilliantly clever thinkers and writers who are magnificent for one reason or another – humbling, inspiring, uplifting, shocking, emotional….it’s always an intense couple of days with a lot of laughter, but often also tears during the talks and it’s pretty normal to come out of the tent to regroup, all red eyed and blotchy. They’ve introduced “Thinkers In Residence” this year – I’d like to be one of those – although my thoughts definitely won’t be of the right calibre I’m sure.
Margaret Drabble was staying in the same place as us…that’s the beauty of the event – we can walk amongst the stars. She was one of my favourite authors back in the day – I wanted to ask her if she’s made up with her sister, but we didn’t want to interrupt her:-
and Margaret Atwood between talks:-
This year, if I had to sum up everything we saw in one word, the word would have to be BRAVERY. So I’m allocating Bravery Awards to virtually everyone we saw, starting with Tracey Emin.
TRACEY EMIN TALKS TO DYLAN JONES
We saw her talking to Dylan Jones back in 2017, before her cancer diagnosis and she was just as refreshingly honest and humble. But six years later and here she was again, looking stronger and happier than ever. She walked onto the stage wearing a fabulous t-shirt and carrying a Fortnum and Mason’s bag – where you can clearly see she carries her stoma around in it. No apologies, no embarrassment. She’s a marvel I think, given that she’s been through an unbelievably gruelling time after being diagnosed with bladder cancer. She told us what happened before, during and after the operation, sparing us none of the detail. She was basically just millimetres from death apparently – if she’d chosen to get a second opinion, it might have been too late for her. They had to act quickly – she had a 7 hour operation involving 12 people – they were due to remove her bladder, urethra, ovaries, womb, part of the walls of her vagina “and I said to my doctor, please, please just save my clitoris and when I came round from the operation, in a huge amount of pain – he told me the good news! He had saved my clitoris. Yay.”
Strange that her focus was always on vaginas in the past and became something of her brand – she says she feels so much lighter now she’s had her bladder removed as it was always causing her problems – “like being born again”. She’s now stopped drinking (3 years ago) and smoking and she loves the feeling of not having hangovers anymore “it means I no longer tell my best friend she looks like a troll or kiss a stranger.”
She’s in love now and has a calmness about her that she’s using to help support others.
As a woman and an artist she feels she has to stick her head above the parapet “what’s the point if not?” so what she’s promoting now is that we should all just take what we need in life and then help others. Realistically there’s only one bed you can sleep in (although she has two, but you wouldn’t want to sleep in one of them). She’s realised the government isn’t going to help, so she’s doing it herself with some others and set up a new art school in Margate. She loves Margate, talked a lot about it’s regeneration and how she’s helping to promote it – also she’s set up a cookery school – and she invited us all down to take a look, so we’re going to go and do that next month.
When she was asked by a member of the audience what advice she would give her younger self she said the following:-
“Don’t get fucked up the wrong hole too often”
“If you smoke, look in the mirror with a cigarette in your mouth and say ‘YOU’RE A TWAT’ – smoking has been the biggest regret of my life and no doubt caused my cancer.”
“Have faith in yourself – if someone says you can’t do it – go and do it”
He was meant to be talking to Safraz Manzoor, but he was nowhere to be seen. Instead Ranulph sat behind the lecturn and talked to us for an hour, but I kind of get why, as his Parkinson’s was evident and both his legs and hands were pretty shaky and I’m sure he felt more comfortable in that position. He also has described memory loss in the past, so perhaps it’s easier to read from a script. It was interesting to watch though as sometimes both hands were shaking profusely and other times they were calm and still. He seems to know how to keep it under reasonable control.
Known as “The World’s Greatest Living Explorer”, his talk was absolutely brilliant. Despite looking more like the BFG these days, rather than the incredibly hot explorer we know and love, we got an hour long romp through his life, using possibly the driest humour I’ve ever heard and it was very funny and moving. He talked with great love and humour about his first wife Ginny (who sadly died of stomach cancer twenty years ago) for being the one responsible for all his adventures – “the whole damn thing” and it was a captivating, incredible journey he took us on. My father was also brought up in Africa – so I was drawn to his shoes – the very same ones my father often wore – desert boots. Very cool.
He told us about his childhood and how his father was killed in the war, just 4 months before he was born and why his mother moved them to Cape Town and his struggles to get into any decent schools after coming back from South Africa when he was 11, when “the only people who took kids that unintelligent was Eton College.” Then he told us about his 8 years in the British army with a period of counter-insurgency service while attached to the Army of the Sultanate of Oman – lots of funny stories there and then the details as to how he got into the world of adventuring.
The main focus was on his journey from the North to South Pole by surface means and how long it took them to raise the money, work out the route and actually do it – all the while not getting paid (ten years).
Anyway, his life story was captivating, but I was just as interested in the things he didn’t tell us – he made no reference to the fact that the tops of all the fingers on his left hand have gone owing to frost bite (apparently he cut them off himself with an electric fretsaw and keeps them in a Kodak tin so the mice don’t get them). Nor did he make any apology for the fact that he couldn’t hold the laser pen still when he was showing us the route on the bigger screen. No reason why he should of course – but I admire him for just getting on with it and not making a point of it or asking someone else to hold the remote – that to me is just as brave as climbing Everest (another thing he didn’t tell us about) or running 7 marathons in 7 days, 4 months after having a heart attack.
You can clearly see his lack of fingertips in this photo:-
MARGARET ATWOOD AND ROB DELANEY
What an absolutely brilliant coupling for what was a very moving session on how they each dealt with the loss of someone very close to them. In Margaret’s case it was her husband of 50 years Graham Dixon and in Rob’s case it was his three year old son Henry, who died of a brain tumour. Both however have a great sense of humour and dealt with the subject with warmth and poise.
“It’s much more of a tragedy when a young person dies” Margaret noted, “Graham’s death was not a tragedy – he had vascular dementia and we were expecting it.
Rob described how he ended up writing his book about Henry and grief in general and about how angry he was initially ” I literally wanted to hurt people” but how that anger boiled away over the months and years and now there’s so much love.
Margaret is very funny and engaging and fully able to talk about any subject you want to throw at her with wit and intelligence – Rob’s humour worked well alongside hers – I loved him in Catastrophist and am hoping he’s got something else up his sleeve soon.
YEVA SKALIETSKA TALKING WITH JENNY VALENTINE
Yeva, understandably comes across as a very mature 12 year old, having written a diary entitled “You Don’t Know What War Is” about how she and her grandmother had to flee the conflict in Ukraine. It’s a very moving, terrifying story about how one minute she was at the bowling alley and the next minute she was in a bunker. She speaks three languages (so far) – English, Ukranian and Russian, which definitely helped them on their way. She’s currently living in Ireland and thriving but obviously would love to go home. Her message was that we had to all value our lives no matter what – because at the end of the day, everything else was replaceable and you could leave your home and your belongings and rebuild. Life was what was important and that was that.
DOUGLAS STUART TALKING TO DUA LIPA
“Shuggie Bain” was Dua Lipa’s first choice for her new book club designed to get young people away from social media and back to reading and it was a special Podcast version that we were privileged to join. “A tough read with the alcoholism and addiction element, but ultimately it was a story about unconditional love.” Douglas Stuart was a joy to listen to – very humble and grateful to find himself in the position he’s in. He had a fractured childhood growing up in Glasgow with a single mother and dealing with the queer community and then a move to the USA for a successful career in fashion, but he always felt like two broken parts and quite clearly, despite the book taking him 10 years to write, you can see he is exactly where he should be now.
MARINA HYDE TALKS TO ALAN RUSBRIDGER
The wonderful satirical columnist who writes for The Guardian made an appearance. I love her columns – always so insightful and cutting. She’s brought a book about called “What Just Happened?! Dispatches from Turbulent Times” which include many of her hilarious columns on the days happenings from Westminster. She successfully mixes politics with sport and celebrity gossip and has found a truly original funny voice in the process. She isn’t afraid of criticism – she’s been sued by Elton John – “if you dish it out, you’ve got to be able to take it” she said. Good for her.
MARY BERRY TALKS TO GABY HUDDART
Despite this mainly being a talk about all things baking, we did get a significant glimpse into her world and life and what she considered to be the secrets to a successful marriage – keep on laughing, respect each other and never go to bed on an argument because it will just fester. She believes that variety is the key to life – she clearly values family and friends (and touched briefly on the tragic death of her son William at the age of 19 and how that affected them all as a family), but she likes getting out and about and feels very lucky to still have her health. “Get up and go” is her motto – and at the age of 88 it’s clearly still working for her. You can see that her hands are sore – she’s clearly nursing a very arthritic thumb, but she’s not going to let that stop her getting up and out. Her husband was back stage apparently – she told us she loved having him by her side, but she didn’t think he had much of clue about what she did!
MARIELLA FROSTRUP AND ALICE SMELLIE
(Pronounced Smilie apparently…).
They’ve got a new book out on “Cracking The Menopause” which is pretty timely for all of us. I’ve bought the book. I’ll give you a summary of it when I’ve read it.
We heard about how she put together her latest book called “Someone Else’s Shoes” and how her life has changed significantly since the pandemic, when she’s moved back to London and got divorced. A lot for anyone to deal with. She talks about the absolute joy of finding solidarity in other women after the age of 40 and how much she loves the empathy, support and kindness you get. No time for small talk anymore – cut right to the quick. She discussed her ongoing themes of social inequality, class, money and how nothing means anything if you don’t have the people you love in your life. She told us about how she had 3 books rejected and then another 8 published before she became a bestseller. So never give up!
He wrote “Grief Is The Thing With Feathers” and now has another book on the market. He was extraordinary to listen to – super clever and great at reading excerpts from the book with passion.
Sadly we had to return our tickets to see Stormzy as he had to delay his visit by 24 hours. Such a shame, would have loved to see him there and hear all about his #Merky Books five years on.
We got front row seats to see one of our collective favourite bands from back in the day when we were all still at uni. It was a little disconcerting to be honest because we just had a direct view of their pelvic regions….but oh well. I’m not sure they were as thrilled to be there as we were to have them there – the twin brothers Craig and Charlie Reid were pretty nonchalant – rocking the Van Morrison style of performance maybe, with just a brief “hello Hay Festival” as they arrived on stage. But we didn’t mind – lovely to see that they’re still together performing and haven’t fallen out like other brothers we know. I hope it shocked and delighted them to see the literary world of Hay go wild for their last song (no points for guessing which one that would have been).
So just some other photos of the village, the gorgeous castle and the restaurant we ate in one night:-
Would highly recommend this restaurant called Foyles – great food and wine and service was good too! You can stay there too:-
This rosé was delicious:-