Hay II

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.

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About janh1

Part-time hedonist.
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13 Responses to Hay II

  1. valzone says:

    This is a great read in itself Jan, I felt I was there with you, wish I had been actually, I love these sort of festivals. I totally agree with you regarding these authors strutting around as though they wish they hadn’t made the effort to be there, quite sad really, but rude in the extreme.
    I have actually read the Cotswolds way, I read it at my Aunt and Uncles house on one my many visits there, they live in the Cotswolds.
    There’s a little book shop just below there house, the sort you love to nose around in at leisure, and the owner doesn’t seem to mind one bit if you don’t buy anything. I always do buy something, there’s always something you come across that looks good. I echo your love of the smell too, I love it.
    I used to have a dream of owning a book shop, I wanted it to be a bookshop with a difference, my late husbands idea really. Floor to ceiling shelves with one of those moving ladders. Centrally arranged old leather armchairs and settees, a roaring fire in the old grate. Coffee and tea on a table for people to dip into and leave some money in a dish for next time they called to sit and take a book down to browse before they decided to buy it. Dreams eh?

    • janh1 says:

      Hi Val – the Cotswold Way book is an old one (you might have guessed) by Richard Sale, who is heavy on history and light on lunch and pub suggestions but I forgive him.

      It’s a good dream to have, Val. Bookshop people rarely seem stressed. Your vision sounds lovely and cosy. I could combine that with my dream of owning a cottage somewhere overlooking the sea and doing refreshments for walkers and cycling types. The kind of place with some ricketty chairs and tables dotted around a wild-ish garden where you can knock the back door, order a cream tea and just hang out for a bit.

  2. Isobel says:

    “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.”
    Gosh what a jolt of recognition that gave me. I had to go back into the bedroom to prove to myself that my bookstacks were no longer there.
    Lovely blog. You are so obviously a happy bibliophile. 🙂

    • janh1 says:

      You know what, Isobel? I’d never have said that before writing this. Having books, keeping them and accumulating more always just seemed natural things to do…but I suppose I must be! Doh. 😉

      • IsobelandCat says:

        One of my neighbours, who also lives in this block of flats, has adopted the minimalist look. Any books she owns, and there aren’t many, are hidden away. It’s a curiously hotel-like atmosphere she has created, but the advantage for me is that everytime I see it, I suddenly don’t mind the messy shelves and bookstacks in my own flat.
        Have you discovered Abe Books? Someone put me onto them earlier this year. They are independent booksellers selling as a group online. Very competitive prices. A real alternative to Amazon and one that supports independent bookshops.

  3. janh1 says:

    Oh God, I could never be minimalist. There’s always been way too much going on in this house. I’ve never approved of packing stuff away when you’re half way through something, just for the sake of tidiness.

    Books should always be conveniently to hand and displayed – not hidden. Bet you find yourself examining the bookshelves in other people’s houses. I do and they do when they visit here, although it’s mostly non-fiction in the living room (all the fiction is upstairs) and cooking and wine books in the kitchen and music in the dining room! The poetry books and wickedly amusing books are in the downstairs loo.

    Jeez. Thinking about it, I could open this place up as a little “Non-Hay book emporium.” Non-fiction downstairs. Fiction upstairs. Joke books in the Bathroom. General fiction and non-fiction, OS maps and other maps Study One. His fiction and DVDs Study Two. Assorted fiction: bedrooms 1 and 4. Bathroom Two – poetry, current reading. Attic: Beano, Cycling Weekly and Mountainbiking UK archives plus archived fiction.
    The only place we don’t have books is the garage. That must be normal, though. Surely.

  4. IsobelandCat says:

    Living in a one bedroom flat, I read with something approaching awe how many places you have to keep your book!
    I do cull mine from time to time. I’ve got three poetry/plays waiting for a nice woman I met on Freecycle, whose boyfriend probably hates me, as they too have little space.
    So in bedroom I have a small freestanding bookcase and various books including library copies and the one I’m reading, off the shelves. Hallway – two parallel bookshelves q high. Kitchen cookery books. Entrance built in shelves to take files and big coffee table books. Sitting room, one free standing bookcase, built in shelves all along one wall under the window.

  5. janh1 says:

    I admire the way you don’t allow lack of rooms to stand in the way of your book-keeping, Isobel!

    I know friends who have floor to ceiling bookshelves on the landings of stairways rather than in the living rooms but I suspect they become things to pass rather than things to sit and refer to in comfort.

  6. IsobelandCat says:

    I have some on the boat too, mostly wildlife stuff, some easy reading for bad weather, and a book on tying knots.
    The one entry on the boatclub website I got really excited about was for book storage. Then I realised the layout was different to mine, and I’d have to virtually dismantle the seating area every time I wanted to get at one.

  7. janh1 says:

    Good grief. Highly unsatisfactory.! We were caravanning once and the bed broke (don’t go there) so our holiday books and maps – a few hardbacks plus DT man’s paperback – proved invaluable to shore up and re-enforce the bed.

    Ray Mears would have been proud. 🙂

  8. IsobelandCat says:

    Did you kill one of the books, skin it and eat it too, having cooked it over an open fire which you lit by rubbing two sticks together?

  9. janh1 says:

    Good God no. I could never condone the wanton killing of books or the hunting of books with packs of ravening hounds.

    I have nothing against shooting clay books with a twelve bore, though. Blasting them into smithereens is quite satisfying. 😉

  10. IsobelandCat says:

    Oh, that’s a relief. 🙂

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