For 355 days of the year, Hay-on-Wye is just a sleepy market town in South Wales. With its historic castle and old-fashioned pubs, you could be in any other rural spot in the UK – except for one key difference.
Book shops. Over 40 of them, which for a town of around 1,500 people, feels like there’s one on every street. Known as ‘the town of books’, it’s little surprise, then, that there’s a festival dedicated to it.
Hay Festival hasn’t been itself recently, for obvious reasons, but many people consider it to be the one of the best literary festivals in the world. Here’s a look at what Bill Clinton once called ‘The Woodstock of the Mind’.
The first Hay Festival took place in 1988, but it had been over 25 years in the making. Richard Booth opened the first second-hand bookshop there in 1962 and dreamed of a town full of books becoming a tourist attraction. He wanted to, in his words, ‘buy books from all over the world and have customers from all over the world’.
The idea caught on. Several more bookstores opened in the town which led Booth to declare it as the ‘Independent Kingdom of Hay’. He jokingly wore a crown, referred to himself as the ‘King of Hay’ and even made a horse the Prime Minister – the event made headlines around the world.
Hay was known as a book paradise, and the first Hay Festival in 1988 saw people gather to celebrate their love of literature. The event grew in popularity and created some eccentric moments. One of which was when Booth created a Hay House of Lords in the State Room of Hay Castle and welcomed 21 hereditary peers to the kingdom.
By 2019, under the stewardship of Peter Florence, the event had expanded to a week-long celebration, with over 250,000 attendees. A report found that the event pumped £70 millionin the local area over the course of three years, generating employment and recognition for Hay inhabitants.
Famous guests have included ex-presidents Bill Clinton – responsible for the ‘Woodstock of the Mind’ remark – and Jimmy Carter, while writers regularly hold talks there. Activities range from acoustic concerts to performative art, and even a kids’ event called Hay Fever – all connected by one underlying theme – books.
Hay during the pandemic
The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020 brought obvious problems to the event. How exactly could so many people meet up in one place, even if it was to do something as tranquil as read books?
The solution was Hay Digital, an online version of the event in which writers interacted with fans via video link. The concept was nothing new, of course: interactive social activities had been around for a while, ranging from digital trivia nights to live-dealer casinos where players can talk to the dealer in real-time. Hay Digital was different, though.
It was one of the few festivals to not suffer any major losses to its line-up – in fact, the number of performers grew. Authors Esther Duflo and Paul Krugman beamed in with live talks from the US, ballet superstar Fernando Montaño danced live from his studio in LA, and guitarist David Gilmour played a special concert.
2021 promises more of the same, but with more variety. Over 250 writers, actors, poets, comedians and historians will take part in the 34th edition, as well as two prominent figures from the UK’s recent past. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair and his spokesman Alistair Campbell will chair a series of debates at the festival, in which they’ll discuss Blair’s tenure as leader and the global politics.
Other performers include former Australian PM Julia Gillard and actors Kate Winslet, Stephen Fry and Vanessa Redgrave, who will speak from temporary studios at Richard Booth’s bookshop.
What the event lacks in live atmosphere, it hopes to make up in content, and it might pave the way for a different-looking Hay festival in years to come.
2022 and beyond
By the time the 2022 event rolls around, the world will hopefully be getting back to some kind of normal – that is, holding live events for fans to attend in person. After its three-year hiatus, Hay organisers might want to mark the occasion with a special celebration of having people back, which could mean a larger line-up than ever before.
However, its digital format also looks like it’s here to stay. A hybrid Hay festival would please its international fan base. There are even copycat festivals in several countries, including Colombia, Peru and Spain.
Beaming the events online could lead to more and more fans tuning in, making Richard Booth’s independent kingdom a truly international power for years to come.