Waking at 4:40 am, the journey from Surrey to Wales is a blur. A noisey rush along empty motorways, some hair-raising buffeting on the Severn bridge, and then a drawn out, madcap dash down a warren of country roads to reach Hay-on-Wye. While the blue sky made a brief appearance just after leaving England, it is quickly replaced by a playful wind, light rain and some dark, imposing clouds. Just as I’m about the chrottle the SatNav for sending me to the middle on nowhere, Hay-on-Wye appears out of the morning mist and I give the SatNav a reprieve.
Walking around the festival ground an hour before it officially opens, the place is pristinely empty which makes me feel like an imposter. I keep on expecting to get asked for a pass or to explain what I’m doing, but I’m glad I’m not stopped as I don’t have a clue what I’m doing here so early in the morning. I’m a peeping Tom, getting an eyeful of the naked festival ground before the neat composition of walkways and stalls are dressed with people. A few grisly faces peep out from stalls, trying to work out how to shake off last night’s hangovers. I find a dingey refreshment tent serving coffee. The server looks at me accusingly as I place my order: just because they’re open it doesn’t mean she wants to start serving yet. It’s probably not in her contract, assuming she has one, of course.
Sitting with a strong coffee I notice a few more people traipsing in, bringing with them a hopeful, morning excitement. The emptiness ebbs away, and I’m no longer an imposter, just another punter awaiting the day with anticipation. I finish my coffee, and make my way to the theatre tent to watch journalist Alice Jones interviewing Magnus Mills.
When Alice and Magnus take to the stage I’m initially surprised at Magnus’ height and graceful composure, but the surprise is only momentary before I notice Alice Jones’ legs. She has incredible, long legs, and even though the chill air is eating exposed flesh, she’s brazenly not wearing tights. I suspect the air is scared of her legs, as they look perfect for kicking at things viciously. I pull my attention away from her legs, and listen as Magnus tells the audience about his craft. How he structured his first novel, the Restraint of Beasts, like a fence; how structure and style are more important to him than plot; how writer’s block is just an excuse for not writing; how he never edits his work; and how none of his colleagues read books. My eyes hone in on Alice’s legs again. They’re wonderful.
Leaving Magnus and the legs behind, I walk round the festival. Although busier than before, it still feels like it hasn’t bloomed. Perhaps it’s because it’s a Sunday or perhaps it’s the boisterous wind, but the gaggle of visitors still aren’t thronging with much enthusiasm. It’s as though everyone’s witholding their excitement, and noone is willing to really relish the day. I visit Hay Fever, the area set aside for families, but still I don’t find the ebullience I’m searching for. Maybe it’s just the weather, but I wonder if the Hay festival is perhaps just a mecca for the windswept middle-aged?
I busy myself with more coffee and then step into the bookshop to watch Magnus Mills signing books. I wait patiently in queue with everyone else, clutching an unread copy of Screwtop Thompson for him to sign. People ask for specific messages, sometimes for a birthday present, or for a loved one back home. Magnus looks harried, and I start to wonder if signing books is a highpoint of the day for authors, or a chore they stomache solely for the chance to sell more books. The queue is unending, and while I really want to ask Magnus what he think’s about book signing, I decide against it and leave with my book untouched by his fair hand.
Stepping out into the whipping wind, I realise something extraordinary has happened. The quiet restraint of the festival has disappeared and has been replaced by a noisey buzz of people. Everywhere I look people are squeezing past other people, books clutched in claws and the wind blowing conversations up and down the covered walkways. I struggle for ten minutes to get away from the bookshop and then have to brawl my way into the Oxfam tent for a lecture by V.S. Naipaul. Squeezing into a dark corner of the full tent, I watch the legendary author for all of ten minutes before the soothing spell of his voice sends me to sleep. I dream of Alice’s amazingly long legs and wake just in time to applaud at the end of the lecture. I fight the crowd once more until I finally make it to the festival exit.
Next year I might or might not bring a heavy duty walking stick and some chainmail to fight the crowds, but next year I certainly won’t book tickets for the Sunday brekfast performances. Those early morning starts are not only undignified, but they’re a beastly preparation for a day fighting the crowds at Hay.