We've been back in blighty for a week, having spent a few days at the festival in Hay-on-Wye. The week of down-time left space for several longish local walks - woodland, meadows, canal - all with Alex several counties away (he returned well, he returned happy, he returned yesterday). The following notes are late reflections on what I - we - sat in on (and missed), whilst in Hay.
Henning Mankell (Saturday 29 May, morning): cancelled. Explained here (Mankell was aboard one of the flotilla boats that sought to break the blockade of Gaza).
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Ruth Rogers, in conversation with Jim Naughtie (Saturday 29 May, early afternoon): The River Cottage and River Cafe chefs and food writers spoke in memory of Rose Gray (co-founder of the River Cafe). Whilst Rogers extolled the virtues of Italy and its sun-drenched produce, Hugh F-W's bent was differently located. Throughout, there was a quiet distinction in that the ethics and politics of food were much more to the fore in F-W's general message. Key word: sustainability. Jim Naughtie left enough space for the foodies to speak for themselves, and was a beacon of how best to facilitate engaging and occasionally challenging discussion.
Small Space (by Jane Nash and Dan Milne) (Saturday 29 May, early evening): We met by the town's clock tower. And were then guided towards this piece of theatre - a one hour two-hander, performed in the kitchen-diner of a nearby cottage, to a sell-out audience of 20. Themes of intimacy and honesty were charted through the fragmented story of a couple's meeting, marriage, and learning to live with one another. It's rare that theatre gets to be so intimate that you really are looking into the whites of the actors' eyes, and they your's, but more importantly - it's rare that theatre is so tightly written and sharply executed. A great production, that made me want to return to New York, stand up from my uncomfortably high stool and applaud loudly, then quickly push on with my own writing pursuits.
Richard Layard, Geoff Mulgan and Anthony Seldon discussing the Movement for Happiness (Sunday 30 May, early evening): We attended this for a mix of professional and personal interest reasons - as if those things could so easily be separated. It was reference to what this movement's aims might yield - in terms of an approach to education - that drew us in. In short, the movement - as it is being referred to - seeks to provoke people into thinking and acting their way into living in both more personally fulfilling, and socially conscientious ways. Discussion of this raised enormous questions regarding the political, economic and psychological affiliates to what initially sound like radical changes to how we live - or rather why we live how we live. Many questions were discussed, rather than answered - and herein lies the central challenge to the happiness movers (and to many other fantastically worthwhile and creative intellectual endeavours). Translating big thinking into coherent, digestible, points for practicable action is not always so straight forward - although Seldon did articulate a 5-point list that I didn't make a note of. We'll be watching and listening and making some contribution to the furtherance of ideas that were presented, as we work on through 2010 and beyond.
One more point on the above session: Rosie Boycott, entirely open in her manner and (stand-in) chairing of this discussion, made interjections which seemed to naively lay bare the kinds of personal dissonance and social discord that will occur when a critical mass of individuals pursue lifestyles that are largely, if not entirely, self-serving. In suggesting that our domestic economy and broad social behaviour would become 'just a little boring' were they to more closely resemble those of, say, Denmark, the example of the individual chasing down 'some hot-shit media job' and all of the prizes that go with that (read personal wealth, reward, and an enhanced sense of self... self self), Boycott provoked a murmur of disapproval and a more glaring sense of cultural disunity within the room. Anthony Seldon seemed to observe that it was exactly such a profoundly self-oriented caricature (as was perhaps chairing the discussion) that was anathema to what the Movement for Happiness sought to inspire. Whilst not righting off personal ambition, the suggestion was that this might be most socially progressive were it wedded to (what I read as) an Adlerian sense of gemeinschaftsgefuhl - simply put, a sense of community, or social interest. That said, perhaps the entirely self-oriented individual will read their own progress as absolutely a matter of broad social interest. And so it goes.
Audrey Niffenegger in conversation with Lisa Allardice (Monday 31 May, morning): The author of The Time Traveller's Wife, and Her Fearful Symmetry, proved to be an elegant, engaging, and wry discussant of her motivations, passions and working practices. This was most in evidence as the hour-long session was opened up to questions from the floor. For the 25 minutes up to this point, I was reminded of how good an interviewer Jim Naughtie had been on Saturday afternoon. Whilst Allardice' editorship of the Guardian Review is no doubt high office, it probably demands a different set of qualities than does the task of being a stimulating literary interrogator. At times, Niffenegger appeared justifiably bored by the fawningly fannish initial questioning.
And that, was that.