So Sunday, the last day at Hay Festival was pretty idyllic. A sunny afternoon relaxed into a glorious evening and the final remnants of the sun-worshipping literati lay on the lawn reading or splayed out in one of the deckchairs.
Listening to Stephen Fry in the Barclays tent, a guttural bleating interrupted the proceedings and made me think “Hah. Some farmer’s phone with a comic sheep ring-tone. How apt.”
After a while, it dawned on me that the ‘mobile’ was standing proclaiming his woolly presence somewhere in the meadow at the back of the tent and didn’t have an ‘off’ switch.
On the whole, though, it was a big mistake going to Hay. I bought eight books and forgot to donate my Maeve Binchy’s to Oxfam. So a net gain of eight brand new books plus I have a list of second-hand Ishiguro’s I need.
I should not really have acquired any other books. I have thirty-five books, some read, some un-read, some half-read on my bedside table. The pile is not a single pile any more. Another has sprung up beside it. I have no idea when this occurred. It must have been when I put a book down for a moment as I was drying my hair or something. And a little later, another book landed on top of it. I should imagine that’s how it happened. I have no real idea. The thing just grows with roughly the same speed as the orchid flower stems on the kitchen windowsill. They pause, waiting for nightfall and extend by half an inch by dawn.
This thing with books; it’s not a collector thing, it’s not even so much a reading thing as an interest thing. I have 38 books on my “to read” list. I own most of them. I don’t know when I am going to get time to read them. A week’s holiday hardly seems sufficient but I reckon I could nail three as long as I restrict the snorkelling or only sleep five hours per night.
On my desk alone I’m looking at a glossy, fresh uncracked copy of Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, on top of 1945 worn paperback of ‘Odd Man Out’ by F.L. Green with an image young James Mason on the cover looking gorgeously tense and sweaty, A Guide to the Cotswold Way and Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos plus four library books on aspects of the history of Cheltenham. It’s a serious addiction.
The Festival bookshop itself was full of new books. Ten minutes walk down the road, Hay town was bulging with second-hand books. I went on a two hour unsuccessful hunt for a copy of Arcadia and visited eight of the thirty or so bookshops.
I like the smell of old books. This Odd Man Out paperback – an original Pocketbook – smells lovely. It takes many years of rest to make books smell that good. These bookshops are full of similarly fragrant volumes down lining corridors and rooms that were once bedrooms and dining rooms and sitting rooms. They can be dingy, a little chaotic, or scrupulously organised. Some, at first glance, may look like tat but it’s always a shock to the system picking up an ancient old Pelican book on Insect Behaviour – as I did – original price 1/3d and being charged nine quid for it. Of course, I had to have it. You never know when you might want to research the mating habits of the praying mantis.
The other thing is the remarkably encyclopaedic knowledge of the woman wearing the crocheted multi-coloured tank top sitting reading at the cash desk.
“Afternoon. Um.. Stoppard… Arcadia? I wonder if you might have a copy?”
She thinks for two seconds.
“If we have, it’ll be along the corridor to the left, mind you don’t trip on the step where we’ve duct-taped the carpet, up two flights of stairs, into the second room on the left and look on the shelves to the far right of the fireplace.”
Then, just as I’m checking my water rations, finding my emergency fragment of Kendal mint cake and taking a compass bearing from Gay/Bi/Lesbian Literature, she adds “They might not be very alphabetical, mind.”
No luck. No luck either in Richard Booth’s wonderfully spacious bookshop where some of the book corridors and corners are quiet enough and dark enough for clandestine assignations. No luck, even, in the Hay Cinema bookshop, another rambling, labyrinthine emporium (20,000 books, no kidding) with a hard-wearing and wondrous variety of flooring which varies from bits of old carpet, to lino, wood, concrete or simply tarmacadam.
I’m not one of those people who think the whole point of Literature Festivals is to get books signed but I can see that if you’re keen enough to pay 25 pounds to listen to Tom Stoppard for an hour, and you see him sitting there in the bookshop with pen in hand later, you might want to buy a few books and offer them up for signature or present him with a much-cherished volume to initial.
Some celebrities sign for hours to avoid any of their fans being disappointed. Stoppard’s people – to be fair it was one snotty publicist woman and an awfully English Pemberton’s chap – had very different ideas.
They patrolled the queue of book-clutching hopefuls waiting to approach Stoppard like the Gestapo inspecting rail passengers. They sneered and peered at people’s expensively acquired books, telling them that Stoppard would only sign one book per person.
And they tried to insist that he wouldn’t sign any books that hadn’t been bought that day. The young chap in front of me – about nineteen at a guess – had one copy he’d obviously brought from home and they made it very plain it was highly doubtful that Stoppard would sign it. At any moment I expected they might poke us with pointed sticks.
Well, I had an armful of books plus one old book which I very particularly wanted signed in a particular place as a surprise for no2 son, so I rather thought they could just fuck off. I didn’t say that, obviously. I intended to be polite and try my luck.
I asked him to sign only three including son’s old GCSE copy of Arcadia – which he did with a smile as I explained the circumstances and how son had never forgotten what an impact Arcadia had made on him.
Just as well that authors are often much nicer than their officious managers and organisers.
Doris Lessing was the exception. When I offered her a humble paperback to sign when she was pushing a brand new £25 hardback novel, she gave me a stare that would have turned the milk. It made me think that if the writing talent and the ability to exude charm are in any way connected, it must be purely accidental.