I went to Hay last week-end as I do every year. I tend to prefer going the second week-end as the weather is usually better and I seemed to have got it right once again when we arrived on Friday. The festival looked bigger than ever, with more seats in the tents. Peter Florence, the director, was beaming and confirmed the festival was more successful than ever.
New this year was having to pay £1 for a programme. This is not a bad idea. If you are on the festival’s database you will have received one in the post, you just have to remember to bring it with you. You could still pick up a free programme around town but that meant you would be more responsible and not throw it away. I know for one how much waste there is.
The biggest session I went to was “The 2 Jews” with Simon Sebag Montefiore and Simon Schama. Their session had been moved to the biggest tent with an audience of 1500, at the same time as Julian Assange on Wilileaks, Marcus Brigstocke on God and a panel on the Arab spring. Nor surprisingly this was obviously a bit too much for the balance of the planet and the skies opened with torrential rain, putting an end to the gorgeous weather. I was nevertheless delighted to see the 2 Jews getting such a largely non-Jewish audience, most encouraging when I think of our own move to Kings Place.
The 2 Simons were as funny and intelligent as expected. Amazingly they both sat down (they usually pace the stage and don’t stay still, exhausting the cameramen trying to follow them) and interviewed each other. They started with jokes, setting the tone for the hour. Schama talked about his family, from Izmir on his father’s side, Lithuania on his mother’s, and the obvious quarrel over food at Pesach. He called Montefiore the “sour creme de la creme”. The Montefiores came from Italy and the Sebags from Essaouira -Abdullah becoming Albert- but Simon’s mother is a Litvak too. Her family thought they were going to New York but discovered they’d been sold a ticket to New Cork instead when they got off the ship.
They talked about their very different relationship to religion. Schama went to heder, and the Bible was his first history book. The Montefiores rarely went to shul and kept falling out with their rabbis, moving from one synagogue to another.
They also talked about their relationship to the Holocaust. Schama was born 14 years after his sister in 45 (an accident). Some of his mother’s family died in the Holocaust. Montefiore was born 20 years later and was amazed to discover one day that, in 1940, his family had decided to drown all the children in the swimming pool had the Germans landed in England. They both agreed that the UK would not have been that different from continental Europe had it been invaded.
They also talked about antisemitism, particularly the latent insidious one Montefiore encountered among his mostly non Jewish friends. But they both stressed their love of Britain and how happy they were this is where their family emigrated to.
They both share a strong connection to Israel, Montefiore reflecting on the importance of zionism when he was growing up, Schama remembering how the whole world shut the gates to the Jews when they needed to escape. He also made the point that the emblem of the Jews should be a suitcase rather than the star of David. Yet, Israel should be criticised like any other country.
I asked them how different it was for them to work on very Jewish projects like the biography of Jerusalem for Montefiore and the History of the Jews for Schama. It is undoubtedly much more difficult, an act of troubled honour for Schama, a huge challenge when 3000 years are looking down on you. But great history is designed to keep you up at night and Jewish history the victory of the word over force.
A fun event was Gary Shteyngart receiving the Everyman Bollinger Wodehouse Prize. Apart from the Jeroboam of Champagne, the winner is supposed to have a pig named after the name of his book. I guess The Mighty Waltzer has long been turned into ham and sausages. Showing a total lack of humour, the pig refusing to be named Super Sad True Love Story refused to get into the van and be taken to the festival. So Jim Naughtie had to make do with presenting our author with a ceramic pig’s head instead!
I also went to listen to Philip Sand interviewing Louis Begley. Formerly a partner in one of New York’s most prestigious law firms, he’s also a novelist and historian (Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters?). He talked about his first novel, Wartime Lies, mainly inspired by his experience of the war.
The session between David Bezmozgis and David Vann was a case in point of how festivals can bring together writers. Although very different, you could see how genuinely interested in each other they were. Bezmozgis draws his inspiration from his own family. His new novel, The Free World, is about Russian Jewish emigres in Rome, on the way to the place where they will eventually settle. It is moving and comic at the same time because they don’t know their new world and make all sorts of mistakes. He made the difference between the personal and the individual: fiction enables the writer to depart from the individual by putting something of oneself in every character.
An interesting effect of the huge success of the festival is the development of an other festival on the other side of town. How the Light Gets In has an unfortunate tendency to copy the main festival sign to lure its audience and I’m not sure all its speakers had realised they were going to a different festival. It’s a pity because it’s a lovely venture and they don’t need to be dishonest. It reminded me of Hay in its early days. Because it’s smaller and not trying to draw huge audiences it can take more risks. Sometimes the result is catastrophic but at other times, they provide really thought provoking discussions.
It made me think that moving to Kings Place, a smaller venue than the Royal National Hotel but so much more beautiful, was a good idea and would allow us to do more than pay tribute to celebrity culture.
I will end this much too long blog post with my delight at seeing David Grossman receive the Jewish Quarterly Wingate Prize. The event was once again in David Stern’s beautiful gallery in Piccadilly. When I saw Grossman walk in, I guessed he had come from Israel for a good reason. His acceptance speech was short and moving. Edmund de Waal, even though he knew he was not the winner, was there and congratulated him warmly. He had read To the End of the Land and Grossman promised him he would read The Hare with Amber Eyes due to come out in Hebrew shortly. I just wish the Wingate still had a fiction and non fiction awards so they could have both be winners.