By Razeshta Sethna
The Hay Literary Festival is more a festival of ideas than simply literature. It is about world issues and helps stimulate intellectual curiosity to enjoy what’s new on offer and what’s perhaps old but packaged with ingenuity. Bright sunshine and green grass strewn with wild flowers, tents, candy-striped deckchairs and book readers, and hundreds of discussions, is what is on offer. Discussions on everything from the future of maps, and discoveries in neuroscience to the story of the Cavendish family, sex in the Arab world and Hans Blix on the outlook for peace and disarmament, Hay is about reading for pleasure, listening for ideas and absorbing for change. For 11 days ending June 2nd, the modest book town of Hay-on-Wye in Wales played hosts to the absolute rock stars of the intellectual world — it was their time to shine.
In its 26th year, the festival, sponsored by well-known corporate and media giants (The Telegraph, Sky Arts, Google, Barclays, Pen International, Waterstones, and more) takes place in the Black Mountains of the Brecon Beacons National Park, where literature mingled with virtually all other worldly genres attracts a quarter of a million festival-goers. Other Hay Festivals happen in ten other cities around the world, including Cartagena, Dhaka, Beirut, and Nairobi.
On the tenth anniversary of the Iraq war, Swedish diplomat and politician Hans Blix with veteran Channel 4 News reporter Jon Snow spoke on the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In his Hay lecture, part of a series of commemorative talks in memory of his friend and physicist, Sir Joseph Rotblat, and titled ‘The Outlook for Peace and Disarmament,’ Blix pointed out that critical and constructive thinking that is the “fundamental requirement of science in its search for truth must also be used in our assessment of international threats and in search of peace.”
Briefly looking at the various conflict regions in the world, he reminded the audience of the risk of nuclear warfare if governments of “big countries allowed themselves to throw away critical thinking.” Mutual economic dependence has led more states towards restraint than sabre rattling, he said. Blix outlined the lessons of the Iraq war as a turning point in certain respects: the need for governments to act on fact and not fiction; the limits on what can be achieved by military means (lesson for the war in Afghanistan); and a growing awareness of legal restrictions on the use of armed force. Explaining that we need more diplomacy, more détente, more disarmament and more development of international institutions, he said that diplomacy must be ingenious.
Disputing Blix’s version of events, former British foreign secretary Jack Straw insisted that the UN Security Council Resolution 1441 provided a legal basis for the Iraq war, and denied that Blair had misled parliamentarians in the run-up to the vote to support sending troops to overthrow Saddam Hussein. He said, “Hans Blix himself thought that Saddam did have an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Whatever he says now, that is what he thought. One of the things that Hans has never dealt with is not what he subsequently thought but what he thought at the time.”
The American writer George Saunders explained that the art of writing a short story as opposed to a novel was like doing stand-up — where you are expected to speak and act to convince. Festivals like Hay, which bring hundreds of writers and the world’s greatest thinkers together in a magnificently literary locale, will ensure that they are reasonable actors on stage for audiences to connect with and eventually that would market them some more. Well, not all speakers needed that popularity boost this year. Spy novelist John le Carré, Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt, Blix and the Watergate legend Carl Bernstein, all spoke to packed audiences, noting issues high on global agendas.
Schmidt, who has also co-authored, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, reminded that the indiscretions of teenagers are recorded on the internet and we have a younger generation with a full photographic and digital record online. He said that Google did not plan to censor offensive videos or messages on the internet, despite calls to restrict access to extremist material.
Veteran investigative journalist Bernstein discussed threats to US security and said that people who sign oaths not to reveal information should realise the risk of prosecution when they do so. On Wikileaks, he said, “it hasn’t taught us much more than what our governments do,” criticising Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, for disclosing names and putting lives unnecessarily at risk. Referring to the accused Wikileaks source Bradley Manning, Bernstein said he should be brought to task for becoming a whistleblower.
Appearing for the first time at a literary festival (and the last, as he mentioned), star attraction Le Carré quipped, “the secret world is big, all of us have an aunt in the secret service” as he gave quite a virtuoso 90-minute performance where the world of intelligence was the focus. “[The British] pretend we haven’t got a political establishment. Utter nonsense: we have. It’s mainly public school people like us,” he said. The creator of George Smiley who quit M15 in 1964 admitted he had told many lies in his time. On his new novel A Delicate Truth he said it’s an “all British kettle of fish” about deception within the secret service.
At Hay to promote her spy novel, The Geneva Trap, former MI5 head, 78-year-old Stella Rimington, referring to the fiction and facts of espionage, told Telegraph book editor Gaby Wood that people who suspect their neighbours may be extremists should inform the security services because “the enemy is everywhere”. Speaking in the aftermath of the Woolwich murder, she supported the Conservative government’s plan that police and spy agencies should monitor email, phone calls and internet visits because militant ideologies rooted within society are becoming more difficult to unveil and deal with.
The last weekend at Hay had Jody Williams, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for her campaign to ban landmines, speaking about the next generation of military drones. She said that the US has used drones in Somalia, Yemen, Indonesia and Pakistan but was not at war with any of these countries. According to Williams, the next generation of drones — initiated, she said, by America, Britain and South Korea — will be built and programmed to attack on land, in the air and at sea, without human interaction.
At a session chaired by Gaby Wood, the Zimbabwean novelist NoViolet Bulawayo, who won the Caine Prize for African literature, talked of AIDS, migration, and “being lucky enough to forge an existence in a country that is burning in the sun”. With her novel We Need New Names, Bulawayo was asked whether she could say there was a “Zimbabwean dream”. Answering in the affirmative she said there had been one. When asked if she would return home, she said she would like to but that the diaspora served a better purpose back home, sending money, writing about the government. “There are those of us who fiercely love our country,” she said, “and think we can serve it best while we are alive and free.”
Shereen El Feki, author of Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World, had just come from attending Hay in Beirut where she spoke about the process of sexual evolution rather than revolution, she said. Feki, half-Egyptian, half-Welsh, is a writer, a broadcaster and an academic, and discussed how sexual attitudes are bound by religion, politics and economics.
From former Beirut hostage John McCarthy talking on his travels through Israel and Palestine and Paul Theroux on a journey alone through Africa to Howard Jacobson on Jane Austen (he wrote in an article recently, “Who cares what happens to us so long as Lizzie Bennet ends up happy!”), and historian Lucinda Hawksley telling the audiences that “women should get off their backsides” and vote for more women if we want to empower ourselves, there was much to absorb and embrace. Conversations are easy to make but it’s the power of great ideas that excite. Hay is about ideas, imagination, books and more books, sunshine, ice-cream and of course tents: it conveys that the future of the written word and creativity is well-defined.