Because they had enjoyed Wales so well the first time they’d come to the UK, my parents took me there the first time I came to the UK. We spent a few days in relative wilderness, stumbling along Offa’s Dyke and being windswept at the top of rolling green hills, but then came one day to rest in Hay-on-Wye, a town my parents had specially selected for me, their strange 13-year-old daughter, because it is known as “the town of books”. In a matter of hours, I saw more independent bookshops than I had seen in my entire young life. They let me loose and I swept up every strange title I could. It was bliss.
The Hay Literary Festival is something else, though. We drove up with some friends, chewing cold pizza in the car and trying to discern whether the weather would hold. A few spits of rain hit our windshield; then suddenly the trees would open up to reveal a sparkle of pure sunshine. We arrived at our friends’ rented cottage just as it was turning dark; the garden in which we would be camping overlooked the Wye valley and the town shimmered purple, then indigo, with the sunset. To the right we could see a settlement of great white tents and a few flashing lights. We had enormous chunks of steak with wine and salad and fell asleep and then woke to a day that held promise: warm out of the wind, clear blue sky, and the possibility of books.
But the festival is–well, weird. We got there and were overwhelmed almost immediately. We stood in long queues to buy tickets to events that we weren’t even entirely sure we wanted to see (the Salman Rushdie talk we ended up at, for instance, was incomprehensible at best–why is this man showing us these pictures? I kept asking myself. What on earth is he trying to say to us? How can one of the greatest writers of contemporary literature produce something so utterly dry?–to keep alert, I tried taking notes, but all I ended up with were a slew of poetic half-phrases which, taken out of context, were only pretty, and empty). We walked under the shade of a dozen white tents and sipped lattés outside by a puddle of water, wiping fevered brows. We fought our way to the festival bookshop and then elbowed our way close enough to the shelves (a feat, I’ll tell you) to be able to read the spines of the books, and even bought a few but mostly, I suspect, so that we felt purposeful; but eventually we could take it no longer and went in search of lunch.
We walked back toward the town and alighted upon, quite by accident, a food festival; so we wandered close to the enticing stalls, which advertised venison burgers, a local cider bar, creamy ice cream, pastries, meat pies, nuts and berries of all ilks, wines and liqueurs. We settled for venison burgers and cider and sat on a grassy knoll in the sun, overlooking the shabby but appealing festival, and talked, what else, of books. We were with an author friend of ours who was in the process of revising her novel for publication in the US; call me shallow, but it had never really occurred to me that you would need to physically change the structure of your book to suit the states. Have we really become so disparate that there need be translators from one English speaking country to another?
She told me some of the things they had wanted her to do to make it more viable; I was fascinated. I mean, yes, I knew of course about the not-so-subtle changes publishers had made–the infamous Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone debacle, for instance; the title of the book, as I understand it, being changed because publishers didn’t think stateside readers would understand the allusion to the philosopher’s stone. I suppose they figured if they threw some alliteration in there, the books would sell more readily–but I think we are equally capable of buying whether we understand an allusion or not; and surely it’s unfair to keep a nation in the dark about basic cultural literacy simply out of an urge to make profit.
In the end I wasn’t sure I understood entirely why they wanted her to change things–the structure of things, even, structure being something, in my opinion, that impacts enormously the way you read something. If it really is all for profit, that’s one thing; but it being the literary world, you begin to suspect that also, perhaps, they–whoever “they” really are–genuinely believe that there needs to be some sort of translation or, if not translation, then perhaps transposition, between English books and American books. I’m inclined to say hell, let people figure things out for themselves; but I daresay the people whose jobs depend upon advising novelists how best to sell their work across the pond would disagree.
After venison and cider (strong stuff that made my head spin after only a pint), I lapped up some ice cream and we wandered into the heart of the town to peruse the bookshops. It was a blissful afternoon indeed, but the bliss had nothing to do, really, with the festival itself, and everything to do with circumstance, and company, and the myriad of enticing shops. We were three people who should probably not be let loose for any extended period of time in such a place; but were relatively safe within the confines of a weekend.
The next day it–it what? I would say “rained”, except that rained seems misleading. It implies something ordinary, everyday, a bit of British regularity. It implies a simple wetness, not a profound one like what we experienced. Wet to the bone, I think. We awoke in our tent utterly dry and by the time we had sprinted across the grass to the cottage my hair was dripping and my feet felt as if they had been soaked in a bath for hours. At the festival, the pathways under the white tents had begun literally to foam, and the squeak of wellies created an actual din. In a tent the size of the White House we listened to Salman Rushdie, watching not his tiny figure on the stage but a video projection of his head and torso on an enormous screen, and I shivered deeply, and couldn’t wait for tea, and warmth, and to be somewhere else.
Back in Oxford, we unloaded our bags and discovered that we had bought so many new books that we didn’t know quite what to do with them; so we left them temporarily on the trunks in the lounge to impress–or rather stun–our visitors, and felt oddly fulfilled, somehow.