Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Leaving Hay while the sun shines

And finally today the sun came out. Hay is glorious in the sunshine, and the countryside is beautiful under a big blue bowl of sky with fat fluffy white clouds.

My last couple of days involved fewer talks and more Sally. Yesterday I saw Orlando Figes talking about the Crimean war, including his take on how Russia's view of a 'near-abroad' coloured and still colours its self image and foreign policy.

Then off to the countryside to see Sally, Mr Sally and the small humans and animals. And back to Hay for Barry Cryer and Colin Sell - astoundingly old fashioned in format but done with bags of style and really funny. I particularly enjoyed a very up-to-the-minute version of 'Birds do it, bees do it...'.

And this morning Jim al Khalili blew my mind talking about Arabic Science. I studied the European C17 scientific revolution at Uni and knew we had learnt a huge amount from Arabic scholars who took up the baton when Europe went into the Dark Ages. The talk got my brain buzzing - fascinating content and delivered with humour, insight, perspective. This - with Adam Nicholson on King James Bible - is my Hay highlight.

My last Hay session was Roy Foster talking about Yeats and his inheritances. In essence, Yeats was one of a number of people to collect, anthologise and publish semi-forgotten and overlooked Irish stories and writers. He then went on to explicitly align himself with their work at the same time as creating new forms and new approaches himself. Made me long to reread my 6th form Yeats and to think again about writers of the time -including Le Fanu - with the benefit of wider context about ideas of vampires, evil fairies, and heaven and he'll being part of our world.

I've had a fantastic time in Hay, only wish I'd been able to see more because there are soooo many events I'd have liked to attend. I'm looking forward to getting home to a hot shower and comfy bed, to tidying up my blogging and seeing what other people saw, thought etc. And I'm really looking forward to next year...

Monday, 30 May 2011

Hay brained

Sunday turned out cold and windy, also pretty intellectual, starting with Meghnad Desai talking about India's formation as a multi-national nation. Interesting enough, but it's not really my thing.
Paul Nurse, Nobel prize-winner and President of the Royal Society talked about the differences between Milton and Darwin's view of creation. I found the presentation dry and hard work, but it really came to life as he started to define and champion scientific method and the importance of hypotheses which can be tested and refuted. The first question was long, convoluted and boring beyond belief but things picked up from there, with Prof Nurse respectfully disagreeing with a series of religious questions and arguing against 'Just So' stories which purport to explain a phenomenon without proper evidence.
My most stimulating session was Dambisa Mayo on the Prospect platform. She's a Zambian economist and argues that aid is fundamentally wrong and inhibits African development. I didn't agree with everything and there were several moments when I found her analysis simplistic or felt she was drawing false oppositions. But she had a different and provocative view, argued fluently. It was really stimulating to follow her argument and think at the same time about whether I agreed or not, why, what I'd want to query or challenge. A fantastic session.

Sunday, 29 May 2011


When God Spoke English was amazing this morning - told as a story full of context and characters, with constant reference to historical artefacts and quirky details. I like a speaker who knows his/her stuff and has a sense of humour - we had Sir Robert Cecil compared to Mandelson and someone else compared to Prescott as a Northern tough guy. Nice ending compared sections of the 1611 Bible against C17, C18, C19 and C20 versions. Even the questions were incisive and informative. I was completely absorbed all the way through and can't wait to read the book.

Second session was 'Cold Places' with Sue Flood (a nature photographer) showing pictures and talking about her work and career. Beautiful images.

And then the first half of Man U- Barca, followed by Sandi Toksvig and Sue Perkins. Glad we didn't stay to see Man U get beaten, and Sandi and Sue were funny but not amazing. Finally, beer and wine then a tiddly toddle back down to our field.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Hay Day

Our Yurt is brilliant - and even more so once made up with sheet, pillows and duvet. Wind and rainproof, which was good last night, and nice and close to the wood-fired pizza place.

My first Hay event was Simon Russell Beale and the Archbish. I felt a bit hard done by that the discussion was opened by someone from SPCK and then focussed on faith in Shakespeare's works. But it was actually quite interesting, if not very structured - a tour of the plays looking at soliloquy, guilt, change etc. 'Questions' were mostly self-important showings off with a query barely tacked on the end.

Then an hour on the grass with some Welsh cider and the last 100 pages of Someone at a Distance before double-physics in the shape of Prof John Barrow on universes. It's the second time I've gone for an eminent mathematician/physicist talking about big ideas. I'm not going to do it again - I don't know enough to be able to follow the abstract ideas, and they aren't populist enough to ground it all in imperfect analogies.

Lastly, Victor Gregg and 'Rifleman' was amazing. He's 94, born at the end of WW1, served in WW2 and saw an awful lot, then got caught up in espionage during the cold war. He was compelling, wry, heartfelt and considered - a fantastic session. I rushed off to buy the book and get it signed, and am really enjoying it so far.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Hi ho, hi ho

It's off to Hay we go. Rain and sun at once, wellies and factor 30 in the boot.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Hay - things I'm going to need

So it's time to start packing for Hay. Apart from clothes, toothbrush and shampoo, I'm going to be taking:

1) Duvet and pillows - a duvet feels so luxurious on an airbed, and so much more fun than sleeping bags. Has anyone ever tried a double sleeping bag? I think I'd feel confined and too close to each other - plus I always need to be able to stick a foot out to cool down...

2) Wellies - my first week in Hay it rained torrentially all day every day. I'd taken trainers and a pair of sandals. Wellies and welly socks transformed me from a being-brave-Brit into snug-as-a-bug-bookworm.

3) Suncream galore - because I'm both ginger and hopeful!

4) Book money - although to be honest, in previous years I've got lots of ideas for books I want to read, but saved buying them until later. Also food money because I'm quite up for all the fancy local organic sourced blah blah blah - as well no doubt stopping by the curry shop and chip shop at some stage.

5) A bag of books to donate to Oxfam - they've got a special raffle going, and I'm wondering if this is the moment to finally commit to getting rid of some of the duplicate books that the Man and I brought together when we first moved in. Obviously it'll be his copies that go ;-)

6) Plastic wine glasses - who cares about other picnic stuff, as long as we can drink red wine from a plastic glass while looking out at the sunset with aforementioned bag of chips.

7) CDs for the car, because it's a long way to Wales.

8) Wind up radio - because even on hols I don't want to miss out on the Today programme.

9) Birthday presents for the man - it's his birthday while we're away, and so I've got to make sure we take presents not only from me, but also from our respective mums. Both of whom delegated purchasing and wrapping to me - but did at least write the gift tags in their own handwriting.

10) Chargers for phone and laptop - I love that all the cafes let you charge up, and that our camping field has an electric tent for hairdryers, straighteners (yes, really. Mostly for teenagers I think) and also for phones. How on earth did we cope in the olden days?

Anyone else off to Hay? What are you taking? What've I forgotten?

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Irma Voth by Miriam Toews

Irma Voth is a nineteen year old Mennonite woman in Mexico. She's estranged from her family and her narco husband has left her. Then a film crew arrives and shakes things up even more. There are good summaries of the story here and here.

I thought this was going to be a plot-driven book about a reclusive community and the disruption and attraction of outsiders with a different way of life. It's not - it's character and language that makes the book special.

4 down, 6 to go

Just over a month ago I posted a list of 10 books on my 'to read' list. I've now read four of them:
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And I've also read Irma Voth, reread American Wife (we did have a great book group discussion - lots to say about it, and a big discussion about compromise in relationships) and I've almost finished Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.

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Quite a varied month's reading - with prize winners and big classics as well as a book blurbed as 'the perfect holiday read'. Round about a Pound a Week is the oldest of the books (first published 1913), and the next oldest in this stack is American Wife (2008).

I wonder how many of the books that are currently sold as literary fiction will still be read in 100 years time?

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Catharsis is a brilliant concept for bookish teenagers

I remember being taught about catharsis. I was in Year 9, and we had just finished reading Macbeth (literally - all the way through to sixth form my teachers chose to have us read books aloud in class). Looking back, I think catharsis was an offering to those of us who'd been getting bored, reading ahead during class or at home, and generally getting itchy about the waste of time. It  was one of the first technical literary terms I learnt, and for about six months I used it all the time, about telly, books, films and even rows with my brothers.

At the time, I thought about catharsis in terms of getting things in the open and enjoying big angsty emotions and the chance to work them through. I liked, and expected to feel better because I actively enjoyed the emotions and the validation of them being displayed and provoked through literature. 

I'm more grownup these days, and less into big displays of emotion - so for me catharsis is now less about refreshing and topping up my emotional stocks, but more about cleansing, sorting and emptying out. I expect to feel more tired and looser in my body, and to feel better because I've emptied out some stress, frustration or whatever. It's not something I go actively looking for most of the time - but there are some books, and some music that I know will do it for me. 

Sally posted on 'catharsis' because it resonates with her at the moment. I'm hoping she's feeling emptier soon.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Hay - 2 weeks to go

So with two weeks to go

- there's now an 'official' Hay blogger - Horatio Clare. I'm loving the energy of his early blog posts - a bit longer posts than a lot of blogs I read, but full of beans and a not-usual viewpoint so I'll be keeping an eye on what he's got to say. I'm also going to try to post myself during the festival, but it'll be power-point and wi-fi dependent so no promises.

- I've somehow managed to end up with tickets for two things on Saturday night. Sandi Toksvig and Sue Perkins being hilarious, or the Champions League final and the hope of double glory for Man U. I want us to do one, The Man favours the other - we both want to do the same thing (whichever that might be). Let negotiations commence.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

One Book, Two Book, Three Book, Four... and Five!

I've picked this up via CristinaVerity and Darlene - who in turn took it from Simon (who's illustrated his post with lovely photos). I'd love to know what other people's five books are - pop a link in the comments if you've done this one...

The book I'm currently reading

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

- Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. It's taken me more than a week, and I put most of that down to the fact it's a physically big and hardback book, so it's a bigger deal to cart in and out of work and it's harder to find a comfy position to read it in bed. I'm enjoying it a fair bit - the complicated characters, the echoes and themes that resonate. But with 70 pages to go, I've not yet clocked why it's the next/latest Great American Novel. 

The last book I finished

Annabel: A Novel by Kathleen Winter

- Annabel, and I posted a brief review here.

The next book I want to read

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

- The Finkler Question - I've read the rest of the Booker shortlist, and think I'm good and ready for the winner now. I hope it's good, because I enjoyed Long Song and Room but found the others a bit meh, really. 

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

- I'm also going to be rereading American Wife in the next week or so - having pressed it on my book group girls, I want to make sure I'm really well prepped with some good questions and thoughts to prompt the chat. 

Thursday, 5 May 2011

So what initially attracted you to these cheap seats to see two mega-famous actors on stage?

Slightly late post about the Children's Hour which Kate and I saw on Monday night at the Comedy Theatre.
The Children's Hour tickets
What attracted me? Well - I think the title says it all. It's not a play I'd heard of and the asking price for tickets was around £60. But two things sealed the deal:
a) the chance to see the astoundingly attractive Keira Knightley (best role ever - probably Bend it Like Beckham) and Elizabeth Moss (most famous as Mad Men's Peggy, but will always think of her as Zoe Bartlet) and
b) Kate's discovery of cheaper seats with restricted view. Turns out the restricted view was barely anything - especially given my tolerance for £5 seats at the ROH. 

So we settled in for the show. And it's true the play is a bit clunky in places. It's also true the American accents went alarmingly wrong at times, deforming into posh Brit or bizarrely mangled vowels. But  I really enjoyed it.

The play is set in the thirties, built around two female friends and has an almost entirely female cast-list "When a troubled teenager starts to spin a web of deceit, all around her are soon caught up in it.  Karen Wright (Keira Knightley) and Martha Dobie (Elisabeth Moss) have worked for years to establish their all-girls boarding school, and now, with the school flourishing and Karen on the verge of marriage, their lives and loves finally appear secure. However, when malicious student Mary runs away from the school and seeks to avoid being sent back, she draws on hearsay, gossip, and her own imagination, to concoct a story that threatens the school, the marriage, and their entire futures. "

The plot was captivating - and Mary was spell-binding in her manipulation and bullying of the girls in her class. It made me think of 'We need to talk about Kevin' in the way that some adults saw straight through her lies and others were caught up - and Bryony Hannah was amazingly convincing as a young teenager, uncomfy in her skin but very confident in her own powers and with just an edge of vulnerability that left me twitching with anger at her and a slight worry that maybe there was something going on offstage that excused or explained her.

I also liked that it was a play full of women, and that the drama was driven by lies and their impact on a small community and on relationships - rather than by women bitching about each other and competing for men (or with men). 

There are several good reviews from when the play opened, including in the Independent, and the Stage. There's also some fairly trenchant critiques of the play itself as well as the performances. I'm really glad to have seen it - and them - for what I think was a fair price.