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Hay Festival: queer places, writing as flying & monstrous plants

Updated: Jun 24

Just outside of the world’s first ‘book town’ Hay-on-Wye, the Hay Festival takes place each year. The green landscape is broken up by white tents and visitors flock.


I spent the first weekend of the festival there, seeing as much as I could, taking it all in.



Friday


Vanessa Walters and Alex Wheatles have known each other a long time but they are at Hay to talk about Vanessa’s debut adult fiction novel A Lagos Wife. “Writing was really my thing,” said Vanessa, who at 8 years old was selling her own newspaper for 2p at school and pulling her classmates into plays she’d written. At 15 she realised that the books she wanted to be reading weren’t on the shelf, and it was out of this that her first YA novel Rude Girls was born. Part literary fiction, part crime & thriller, Vanessa’s new book explores the community of Niger wives that she had herself been part of, touching on isolation, patriarchy and marriage as “a social security system”. Without giving too much away she delves into the book, and discusses her own creative process: place as her creative starting point, and how it feels to hand over the reins as the book is developed into a HBO TV series. 



The rest of the afternoon was marvellously queer. Queer writer and academic Diarmuid Hester, who is also known for the queer audio trails he has crafted across the UK, shares some of the seven stories he discusses in his new book Nothing Ever Just Disappears. The book offers a radical new queer art and literary history by looking at queer spaces in the 20th century. “Through 7 stories it tries to uncover the meaning of place for a number of artists and writers,” Diarmuid says of the book. He begins (and ends) at Prospect Cottage, where filmmaker and artist Derek Jarman lived his last years, and created a blooming garden in impossible shingle. He goes on to traverse the lives (and places) of E M Forster, James Baldwin, a group of queer suffragettes, Josephine Baker and Claude Cahun.

He describes the process, which included a foray into scale model building of queer clubs, as a project of understanding how these people have been formed by, and have formed, the landscapes that they loved. As he talks, Diarmuid touches on the relationship between creativity and place, the tension of exploring queer place as so many queer nightlife places are being closed down and lost, attachment to spaces and displacement. Queer people, Diarmuid says, have to “make a world that feels hospitable to us. We’ve got to make them (queer spaces) over and over and over until everyone has a place.” His book sets out to find proof that queerness has a place in the world, and in its pages, and on the Hay Festival stage, he finds it for us. It is a pleasure to listen to him speak, to consider place so queerly and to revel in the abundance of queer history. 



That evening photographer Billy Charity and drag queen, hairdresser and farmer Boo de La Croux speak about their new collaborative photo book, Queen from No Scene. To create the book Billy - who says her camera turns her from shy to “fearless” - has followed Boo around for a year and a half, taking photos of her at gigs, onstage and backstage, and at her farm. The photos range from sparkles-out fabulous to movingly vulnerable, and show the transition from Dean to Boo, and her life as both a drag queen and a farmer. Boo talks about this transition. Boo “completes me,” she says. “Boo is an expression of Dean, and Dean is an expression of Boo.” Dean didn’t start experimenting with drag until he was 30, and loves the space it gives him to express himself through the costume he makes and his performances as Boo.

Dean discusses the damaging impact of being schooled under Section 28 and voices concern about the frighteningly similar new legislation around discussing gender in primary schools. It’s not always easy: “The three most spoken words to me are WTF,” says Boo, but despite this she has also encountered so much acceptance, has been advocating for LGBTQ services in Hereford and has even been part of founding Prides in Hay and Hereford. 

The book is beautifully collaborative and full with thoughtful, moving and unforgettable images, and the warmth and generosity between Billy and Boo is ever present as they talk. 


Saturday


“Family makes a great stage,” says prolific Irish novelist Anne Enwright as she talks to Julia Wheeler. Despite this, and despite the media’s insistence on saying her books are about family, this is never what Anne thinks she is writing about. But whether or not her new book ‘The Wren’ is about family, it certainly centres around one. Each family member has their own mini-book, explains Anne, their own way of talking. 

Anne speaks deliciously about her writing, and reads to loud laughter from the audience. When Julia asks her about the humour in her writing, Anne says, “I don’t set out to do it, but I certainly don’t set out to take it out.” 

Anne was a reader from a young age: her and her siblings had their own personally curated bookshelves and she was performatively reading Ulysses by the age of 14 in the hope it would attract boys. “It didn’t,” she smiles. She was tutored by Angela Carter at UEA and as a writer myself, it is especially interesting to hear Anne’s advice for early career writers. “Look down. Look at your page,” she says. Don’t think about writing a book, think about the detail that is on the page from the punctuation - “punctuation is how a writer dances” - to the minutiae of the language. “Language plays and you can’t stop it playing, and if you do, you’re suppressing something in the text.” Asking ‘how do you write?’ is like asking ‘how do you fly?’ she says. “You build an aeroplane.”



Later Jeanette Winterson interviews debut novelist and one to watch Rose Wilding whose new novel Speak of the Devil starts with seven angry women and a severed head in a hotel room. What more could you want from the opening of a book? “Each woman is a facet of what the patriarchy does to women,” says Rose. Rose and Jeanette talk about flawed women, intergenerational trauma or as Jeanette puts it: “the way we pass on dreadful lives”, and the difference between what is right and what the law is. They talk warmly about their experience of working together - Jeanette tutored Rose at Manchester University and has been a champion of Rose’s work ever since. I’m already excited to see what Rose writes next. 


In between I catch the public philosopher Michael Sandel in the BBC4 tent which is free to enter and runs a programme of talks throughout the day. Michael prompted the audience to examine their thoughts on AI, navigating the conversation through the Beatles’ new album featuring the voice of the long dead John Lenon, digital de-ageing in film, marriage prediction apps and companion robots for the elderly. He concludes by identifying a general unease with some of the possibilities of AI, especially when it becomes impossible for us to distinguish between what is real and what is fake. 



Sunday


I start my last morning at the festival to the dulcet tones of Michael Morpurgo, a world class storyteller both on the page and on stage. He talks about the practice of retelling stories, how all writing is “filching”, and the importance of making the great stories accessible to people of all ages. He arrives with a bag of books and reads from his Shakespeare retellings - his favourite of which is King Lear for what it is says about old age - from retellings of history and music, from a retelling of Beowulf which he describes as “the best horror story ever written.”

Towards the end of the session he throws his jacket over the countdown clock, takes questions from children in the audience and gifts the paper rose he is given at the end of his talk to a girl with his latest book on her lap. 


Chris Thorogood joined the carnivorous plant society when he was 12, and he is on a mission to get people to think differently about plants. His book is about trying to save a plant called Rafflesia, “a floppy great starfish of a flower” that can grow 1m across, “a monstrous bloom on the forest floor.” It is a biological enigma, explains Chris, a plant with no roots, one that grows inside another plant the same way fungi does. 

He speaks lyrically of his journeys “off the map” to see as many Rafflesia’s as he can. Working with indigenous foresters, they have already successfully grafted a Rafflesia in the Philippines. The book contains Chris’s own illustrations of this “arrogant looking thing” as well as a call to arms to engage people in the botanical world, to remind people that plants are living. From botanical gardens to car parks and pavements, he says: “Look closely. Look at plain things in wonder.” And we trip out of the tent to take in the rolling green that surrounds the festival site.


Caroline Lucas begins her talk, in which she is being interviewed by the inimitable Lady Hale, by congratulating activists and Hay for severing sponsorship ties with Bailie Gifford for their links to fossil fuel and the supplying of arms to Israel. It is an announcement that comes on the first day of the festival and a conversation that has been on everyone’s lips throughout the weekend. 

“Storytelling helps us make sense of the world,” says Caroline when Lady Hale asks the former English Literature student why she references literature so much in her latest book about Englishness and how we can reclaim it from the right. The left, says Caroline, need to get better at telling stories, at challenging the stories of the right and at finding our own. The two political heavyweights discuss different approaches to the devolution they both favour and talk about access to both housing and nature when 1% of the population own 50% of the land.





The talk concludes my weekend at the festival, although it’s far from the end of the brilliant programme Hay has put together. On the train home, once I've figured out how to put down my neon pink pop-up tent and as I make my way through a bag of homemade Welsh cakes made by one of Hay’s residents, I think about all the ways I have been inspired, challenged and informed, about the breadth of conversations I have been able to listen to, about the things that will stay with me. I am already looking forward to next year.


Photo Credits: Adam Tatton-Reid, Billie Charity and Sam Hardwick



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