A Day in Hay

As I mentioned earlier, I spent yesterday at the Hay Festival. It was the first time I have been, mainly because you need a car to get there and until recently I haven’t had one. Of course having a car means that there are other distractions.

The shortest route to Hay from where I am is over the Severn Bridge, turn left at Newport and from Abergaveny head up through the Brecon Beacons via Crickhowell and Talgarth. It is beautiful country, and I wish I had had time to stop and take lots of pictures.


I will say, though, that it would have been much easier if I had a SatNav system. Hay is not well signposted. In fact as far as the road system goes it seems that the only acceptable way to get to and from the town is via Hereford. That way the signs are HUGE! Any other route and they are practically non-existent.

Part of this may be due to the fact that Hay is very much a border town. Indeed, there is a Welcome to England sign within the town boundary. There may be some confusion in highways departments as to whether the Festival is an English thing or a Welsh one. Thankfully that confusion was not reflected inside the Festival where evidence of its Welshness could be found everywhere.

Beulah Devaney wrote an article for The Independent this year about how elitist Hay is. She’s right, most of the programme was of little or no interest to me. I can’t imagine Hay having someone like me involved the way Cheltenham did. Then again, Hay is necessarily elitist. You can’t even get there by train, and to enjoy it properly you really need to stay in the area for several days. I’m willing to bet that the cost of accommodation goes through the roof during the Festival. People do actually camp, which doubtless helps with the cost, but personally I am allergic to camping.

So no, Beulah, if we want accessible literary festivals, the first thing to do is to not have them in Hay. There are plenty of others we can target. Hay, I think, can be safely left to go its own way.

The Festival site, with the Brecon Beacons in the background.

Why was I there, then? Well to start with I wanted to see the famous Town of Books. That was a complete failure because the main Festival site is in a field on the outskirts of town. I never got into the town itself, except driving through on my way home.

I also went to see Kate Adair. I hadn’t seen her since Trans Pride in Brighton last year and it was good to catch up. I’m really pleased to see her career in TV taking off. It is amazing that BBC Scotland has given her the ability to make shows about trans people herself. They seem to be only available on social media and in community TV in Scotland, but they still have that BBC tag on them which makes a world of difference. Sadly I’ll be a bit too old by the time Kate gets to be a big name BBC producer, so she won’t be able to help me make my trans history documentary series, but hopefully she’ll do it with someone else.

The other reason I was there was because it was archaeology day. There were actually two talks I was interested in seeing. The first was Paul G. Bahn, who is an expert in prehistoric art. That’s primarily cave paintings to you and me, but is also much more as I discovered. To start with ice age people did a lot of art outside. The reason that we only know their cave paintings is that paintings on rocks outside of caves tend not to last as well.

Of course there are people creating rock art today, and one of the reasons why we know so much about how cave paintings were done is that we can go to Australia and ask people how they do it. This is a tradition with a history of tens of thousands of years, and by some miracle European colonialism hasn’t wiped it out.

Probably this most spectacular thing in Paul’s talk was this:

tuc-daudoubert-bisonClay sculptures of bison from the Tuc d’Audoubert cave in France, made around 13,500 BCE.

After Paul it was on to the main event, a talk by Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe, who is the foremost archaeologist in Britain. I have been reading his books, and watching him on TV, for decades. His new book is about the history of Eurasia and looks at how civilization developed in that vast land mass. This is very much history on a grand scale, but it is also of interest to me because the narrative touches briefly on things relevant to my world.

Sir Barry’s primary thesis is that Eurasia developed civilization rapidly because the major transport routes (the Silk Roads, the Mediterranean) run within regions that are ecologically similar (i.e. east-west, rather than north-south as is the case in the Americas or Africa). That wasn’t quite what I wanted to hear, because I’m actually looking for links between Mesopotamia and India, but I was delighted to find right in the first chapter mention of trading links between the civilizations of the Fertile Crescent and those of the Indus Valley. Sir Barry’s book also contains mention of this:

buddahA statue of the Buddah found in Kabul, which is remarkable because he is wearing clothing that looks distinctly Greek or Roman in style.

I should note, by the way, that I am not specifically looking for evidence of cultural diffusion. When I do talks about trans history people tend to ask me about links between people like the galli of ancient Rome and modern day hijra. There are a lot of similarities. It is possible that the Indus civilization picked up religious ideas from Mesopotamia. But then there are the quariwarmi of the Inca empire, and to claim they got the idea from Sumer takes us totally into von Daniken territory. I want to be able to talk about what is known, not make some imperialist point.

I wish I could have stayed longer. The Michael Palin talk was, of course, sold out. Billy Bragg, on the other hand, was a definite possibility. Fortunately for me I have the memories of the Concrete Castle gig in Bridgwater years ago, when I got close to a personal Billy Bragg concert, so I’m OK about missing him.

The locals are unfazed by all of the bookish excitement.

One thought on “A Day in Hay

  1. I’ve been to Hay a couple of times without the Festival, staying in Hay for one of them, and three times with the Festival, two of them staying in Hay (which turned out to be a lot more fun than driving out to Hereford each night). IIRC, the accommodation didn’t increase in price at Festival time – it just required a longer lead time for booking (I booked on one visit for the next year). I attended with a disabled person, about which the Festival was not at all helpful. We had to buy Friends memberships just to sit somewhere where she could see, and even then there was palpable resentment of our front row seats despite us having paid to be in them plus legitimately queuing for them. Also, the only phone signal at the Festival was at the top of a very steep hill, which given we were waiting to hear from someone producing our TV script was extremely inconvenient. Nevertheless, the range of guests made it them great Festivals and I would try to get there again if I were in Hay at the right time and was suitably fundy.

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