The King of Hay-on-Wye

Wonderful story in the San Francisco Chronicle this week about the small Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye. You have to love the town for its name alone. A name to conjure with: Why-oh-why in Hay-on-Wye? And who woulda thunk that in May, Hay was twinned with the Malian city of Timbuktu?

Why-oh-wye indeed.
Hay-on-Wye The town is a now famous destination for book lovers from around the world. The annual literary festival attracts the likes of Al Gore, Bob Geldof, Cate Blanchett, and Elvis Costello. Bill Clinton called it a “Woodstock of the Mind” (claiming, no doubt, that he browsed but did not inhale). It’s a quaint British market town with forty bookstores and as many pubs. Sounds wonderful.

While America boasts a variety of ‘destination towns’ such as “The Live Music Show Capital of the World” Branson, Missouri, B&B destination Mendocino, California and, of course Sin City itself, Las Vegas I’m not aware of any other UK destination town apart from Hay-on-Wye for books. “What’s read in Hay, stays in Hay?”.

Richard Booth Just as Vegas needed Mobster Bugsy Sigel to launch it, Hay-on-Wye needed its don — the improbable anarchist eccentric Richard Booth is the self-appointed King of Hay.

He set up the first bookshop in town in the 1960’s. The well-heeled Oxford graduate bought the 800-year-old Hay Castle and, seeing no apparent contradiction between a belief in anarchism and self-proclaimed monarchism, set himself up as the “King” of the town lording it over an Empire of books. Dusty books. Brown books. Books with broken spines and books of fine vellum. Paperback and hardback. Soft core and scientific. All became part of his kingdom which prospered mightily until it is as it has now become: a rural fastness for bibliophiles.

Expressing an opinion that would get him tarred and feathered in many towns in rural America, Booth states “I feel the right to read a cheap book is more important than the right to bear arms.”

Guardian Hay Festival

The festival is a marvelous smorgasbord of cross-cultural literary entertainment. Here, in no particular order, are some random snips from a small fraction of the events being held between 24 May and 3 June:

The causes and implications of our terrible war of attrition against the native mammals and birds of England and Wales from the middle ages to the present day….25 years of contemporary Turkish society….bilingual Welsh poet (Perfect Blemish) reads and talks with the Israeli poet, translator and publisher…the charismatic anatomist explores the vital organs and functions of the human body…how recent developments in cosmology and particle physics have led to the remarkable realization that our universe – rather than being unique – could be just one of many universes….traces her heroine’s options for losing her virginity from the Gambia to London, Boston and Mali …the significance of the Prophet for some of today’s most controversial issues…Rugby’s greatest full-back talks about his career with his biggest fan…Nigerian Nobel Laureate…the documentary about China’s building boom explores the idea that the concrete revolution has destroyed more than the cultural revolution…the Indian novelist…the great Welsh-Chinese short story writer…the Super Furry Animals singer-songwriter talks music, politics and the subtle art of being angry…the brilliant Syrian journalist…can Islam and democracy ever find common ground?…Bollocks, I wish I’d said that….the amazing tale of the brilliant and sexually voracious Welsh psychoanalyst…el rhan o ddathliadau penblwydd Radio Cymru yn drideg, bydd gohebydd gwleidyddol y BBC, Guto Harri, yn cadeirio trafodaeth fywiog ar hynt cyfrwng sydd yn parhau i oroesi ac addasu yn wyneb…the Australian polymath…a conversation with three of the greatest stars of contemporary Hispanic literature – Cercas (The Speed of Light), Grandes (The Wind From The East) and Abad Faciolince (Olvido Que Seremos)….the Sri-Lankan-born broadcaster and writer…Vivienne Westwood – The iconoclast fashion Dame…the editor of leading Israeli daily Haaretz discusses how to run a newspaper…the victory of shopping over politics, the collisions of government and people, and the resilience, comedy, cars and greatness of Britannia…the Castillian writers are joined by British actors…DUE TO CHANGES IN THE POLITICAL SITUATION IN PAKISTAN IMRAN KHAN HAS HAD TO POSTPONE HIS VISIT UNTIL 2008…the ancient tales of Prometheus and Pandora, Theseus and the Minotaur, Daedalus and son beg the eternal question: just because you can, does that mean you should?…a series of walks to local farms…Morris Dancers…egocentric writers…the origins of Christian anti-Semitism… The Ghostwriters Séance – The inside track on the great act of literary ventriloquism…he wry comedy of Rhodes’ Gold and the Nigerian-London-Cuban dislocations of Oyeyemi’s The Opposite House…the chaos, corruption and sexual depravity of the 1815 Congress of Vienna…Bob Geldof in Concert…a 100-day, 1500-mile journey with camels from Lake Chad to Tripoli accompanied by a Chinese scientist, a 77-year-old Kenyan rancher, warring tribesmen and Gaddafi’s secret police…Craswall farmers life under the Black Hill…Tamasin Day Lewis…Roy Hattersley…Adrian Tinniswood…Geraldine McCaughrean…Guillaume Canet…Karate princesses, seasick pirates and demon vacuum cleaners…subject to hygiene compliance, visitors may be able to help milk the cows and feed the calves…General Sir Michael Rose examines the parallels between the guerrilla tactics used by Washington against the British in 1775, and by the Sunni insurgents against the Allies in Iraq today…the only overweight gay Bengali GP working the comedy circuit…the Russian novelist…the Yiddish Policeman’s Union…Monty Don discusses his project to engage drug-addicted youngsters in a farming rehabilitation…after the final full-stop.

What other town with a resident population of 1,846 could boast such offerings?

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News that the Hay-on-Wye Festival of Literature and Arts is a winner in the International Trade category of the 2009 Queen’s Awards for Industry.

Emma Jacobs writes in the Financial Times that festival founder Peter Florence has replicated the event in Columbia (to allow Latin American writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez to participate) and Spain. Plans include expansion to Africa and Lebanon and even China.

Ticket sales around the globe now exceed 200,000.

The expansion is the result of “chance meetings in cafes” rather than a specific strategy.

There are 12 full-time employees working for the company.

I was delighted to be able to attend the 2019 Hay Festival a dozen years after writing this post. Here I am outside Richard Booth’s famous bookshop.

Richard Booths Bookshop



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