Something about being at Hay Festival compels me to sit and scribble. This is what I wrote yesterday.
So here I am back at Hay Festival again. A lively breeze is whipping the tops of the trees, the creaky aluminium-framed tents are protesting and the tall pastel ripple-edged flags are waving as though frantically trying to catch some attention. We are surrounded by green pastures.
The Festival site floor plan is much the same, which is welcome. It’s always good to know the short-cut to the less-popular loos, for a start. And if you only have 20 minutes between talks, it’s sensible to work out a rat run to the Friends bar. They re-named the Guardian stage the Oxfam Stage and kept the Barclays Wealth Pavilion – the biggest auditorium of all. Successive comedians have been disappointed by the interior. They come expecting a Wealth Pavilion to be lit by sparkling crystal chandeliers and stuffed with gold, frankincense and myrrh instead of rows of black plastic seats and a stage set which looks like its made from random off-cuts of B&Q MDF.
The Telegraph is sponsoring this year’s Hay Festival and I have yet to observe the effect that may have except to note that the Telegraph tent welcomes the public, provides comfy seating, big plasma screens, computers showing aspects of the website and newspapers whereas the Guardian yurt was small enough to take only the Guardian writers who actually enjoyed sitting on the floor to tap into their laptops.
The mobile phone signal is, as usual, pretty dire and the Wi-fi promised by the Friends of Hay (for I am on friendly terms with the Festival, although missed the Friends booze-up this year) is weak. They really ought to get some gigantic phone mast up, disguised as a giant elm tree or something equally symbolic.
At Hay there are so many people purposefully striding, meandering or just stopping to chat or wonder where they are and what time their next talk is, that you really need to have some kind of communication with your companions.
Texts like “Friends Bar 2pm” “Shepherd’s ice cream queue? Banana toffee crunch!” “Lawn, by tap, double deckchair. Cappucino” or “Car keys? Waterproofs!” are essential.
On a practical note, it’s a shame that Cider Corner has been replaced with yet another coffee bar. That cider was something, especially quaffed accompanied by a bag of crisps sitting on a hay bale beneath a tree with a new book in hand.
Three talks so far. Professor Steve Jones, who I admired loads, talking genetics but sadly not saying anything I haven’t heard him say before. I probably go to too many Festivals.
But I hadn’t seen Paul Theroux at a Festival before. Such a great travel writer and an excellent talk – especially as his new book The Tao of Travel points out how some travel writers are great big fibbers because it’s obvious that they’ve made a lot of it up and wilfully conceal the fact that while they pretend to be journeying in spendid isolation against the elements, they are having conjugal visits from the wife and carousing with groups of pals.
And then, to a packed Barclays Wealth Pavilion and a prolonged and effusive welcome applause, Professor BRIIIIIAAAAANNNN COX!!!!! (It wasn’t actually Kermit who introduced him, Muppet Show-style but it would have been good if it had been…)
Some people might think he’s a pretty boy TV presenter who used to be in the band that provided the soundtrack to the landslide New Labour victory in 1997.
Well that’s true, he’s all of those things but hang on, he’s also a Royal Society research fellow, a Professor at the University of Manchester, a Professor of Particle Physics and an active researcher working at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. And he takes part in a science-based comedy show, and attends festivals to give talks and turn people on to the wonders of physics.
Can you sense a little hero worship seeping through the text? Well yes. I haven’t been around much but he’s the most impressive, articulate captivating speaker I’ve ever seen; a premier league communicator, transforming with considerable zeal, complex ideas and theories into language even people like me can understand.
He was giving the Royal Society lecture. Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society introduced him and said Professor Cox (known locally as Mr Universe) was at the forefront of making science part of our shared TV experience. Thank God, I say. I hope couch potatoes and particularly their little couch spudlings will pay rapt attention and be enthused and encouraged to study Science.
Anyway, you’ll be delighted to know that the Large Hadron Collider is running beautifully. They haven’t found the Higgs Particle yet and if they don’t within two years, they’ll know it doesn’t exist and start the search for something that isn’t the Higgs Particle but does much the same job of creating mass.
They have confirmed the 12 essential particles that make up matter and what sticks them together. Humans aren’t that complicated – we’re only made of electrons and up and down quarks. And we’re completely permeable as far as neutrinos are concerned. Billions of them pass through us and everything else here on earth all the time. I won’t go into further details mainly because I don’t have any.
So, although I admit I didn’t have my usual enthusiasm for Hay this year, it won me over yet again. Just being there among the crowds, absorbing the vibe, browsing the book shops – Pembertons and the Oxfam shop (Hay town centre’s bookshops still to do) listening to stimulating talk and ideas from interesting authors, scientists, commentators was mentally invigorating. What’s more, some enterprising chaps were pedalling bicycle-powered tuc-tuc things to transport people to the town centre and back. There was no set fee – people could pay what they want to. It was a nice “green” add-on.
Hay is a kind of annual therapy to which I just might be addicted.