June 1, 2018
Don’t judge the Hay Festival by its tedious controversy-mongers
by Tom Clayton
Another year at the Hay Festival, the UK’s annual “Woodstock of the mind,” another controversial lecture by a leading academic. Indeed, Germaine Greer has been at it again, this time attempting to redefine rape as “an annoyance” rather than the serious crime it obviously is. Her lecture, jauntily titled “On Rape,” was especially jarring as, on the same day of the festival, Margaret Atwood led a team of Handmaid’s Tale-inspired Offreds through Hay-On-Wye, in striking fashion, to highlight the physical and psychological oppression faced globally by women on a daily basis. Greer has trampled over this territory before, and her remarks have predictably dominated much of the media coverage of Hay — and the ensuing social media conversation. Let’s be clear on this: Greer represents a patently (wilfully?) wrong-headed, generalist, and irresponsible attitude from a certain generation of writers towards a violent, criminal, and sickeningly common behavior. She’s also ensured that, once again, the festival is remembered for one attention-grabbing guest — a shame, because this year’s programme was especially invigorating.
But let’s leave others to pick over Greer, and focus on the good stuff. Here’s a run-down of events that should have made the headlines…
“Peep Show” star Robert Webb spoke movingly and eloquently on masculinity and his experience growing up as a sensitive, artistically-inclined boy in working-class Lincolnshire, before reading a funny and sweet passage from his book How Not To Be A Boy; David Graeber, superstar commentator (and author of the magnificent Debt and The Utopia of Rules), spoke up on the tyranny of “bullshit jobs”; Dolly Alderton issued a defiant and fortifying call to stop dismissing women’s memoirs as “fluff” when they often cover exactly the same issues as men’s (with a special shout-out to brilliant host Clemency Burton-Hill, who fed her adorable baby on stage during the interview); Bettany Hughes nimbly guided a sold-out audience through several centuries’ worth of Istanbul history; Javier Cercas and Juan Gabriel Vasquez discussed, powerfully, the nature of truth, storytelling, and democracy in their respective new novels (with ample mention of Cervantes, of course); Dylan Thomas Prize-winner Kayo Chingonyi presented poems from his sensational debut collection Kumukanda and discussed the influence of rap and internal rhyme on his work; the formidable Emily Wilson spoke about being the first woman to translate the Odyssey into English, and her departures from previous versions; and David France presented his Baillie Gifford Prize-winning account of the terrifying rise and spread of HIV in 1980s New York — and the activists who fought for safe medication.
And that’s just a taste.
Hay is often pigeonholed as pale, stale, and male. To a certain extent, that’s true: inevitably, for every progressive voice, it seemed, there was a regrettable Michael Gove sighting. But, as a festival, it does what it is supposed to — gives equal platforms to diverse and differing views, appealing to all ages, classes, races, and religions.
The festival still has a way to go in terms of balance, and some of the traditional problems still exist (the event tickets may be cheap, but travel to the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye is prohibitively expensive). But there is a sense that it is at least striving for balance; that each edition is an attempt at improving and balancing the last year’s programme. And despite appearances, the festival’s about more than just bunting and pricey falafel.
In his talk, Javier Cercas defined democracy as “a place where multiple narratives can coexist peacefully.” For the most part, Hay achieves something like that. Long may it run. Oh, and if they could sort the weather out for next year, that’d be great, thanks.
Tom Clayton is publishing executive at Melville House UK.