A Town of Books: Hay Festival 2013

I was lucky enough to get to spend a weekend at the Hay Festival of Literature this bank holiday, which has become something of an annual event for me and my family. In fact, it started with just myself and my partner, Rich, stumbling across it on a trip into the countryside.  Every year since, our group has grown and grown in size.Hay festival

The Town of Books

There’s something fantastic about the feeling of being at a festival of literature in a little village that is already adorned with streets and streets of quirky little bookshops. Having visited Hay-on-Wye outside of the festival season, I’ve seen how essential these bookshops are to this ‘town of books’ throughout the year (it’s especially entertaining to spot the ‘Kindle-free zones’ around each corner). But even though there might be a fair few tourists browsing the shelves on any given day in the year, there’s this sense that the books really get to shine and come alive when the crowds descend in May. Pristine bindings of Folio titles get to dazzle briefly outside their boxes before being snapped up, and dusty, second-hand copies of much-thumbed classics find themselves being loved all over again. The whole place comes alive with a shared passion for words.

In the past few years, my partner and I have developed our little routine of which shops we must visit and how long to leave between each event for browsing the labyrinths of the Cinema bookshop or the caverns of The Children’s Bookshop and Rose’s Books. Coming home empty-handed is never an option, and my personal challenge to find the most battered and fragile, yet perfectly quaint copy of Winnie the Pooh is still underway…


The festival events themselves are like the icing on the cake. And to top it all off, there’s not one – but two festivals spread around the town. I find myself hurrying to book-signings or basking in the sun on the grass in between talks about voyages to Antarctica and Julia Donaldson’s picture books,  before nipping across town to ‘How The Light Gets In’, to be engrossed in an hour-long debate about  the philosophy of forgetting. If your mind doesn’t boggle at the masses of information and inspiration it accumulates each day, you’re doing something wrong…

Hay-on-WyeA highlight for me was a talk by screenwriter and Pixar story consultant Bobette Buster on our last day, who talked through her formulas for what really makes a story. She used examples from such Hollywood films as E.T. and Toy Story to demonstrate that every great story has a set of key ingredients. For example: the chance to take a personal journey with the main character; a clear distinction between enchantment and disenchantment; a juxtaposition between two sets of ideas – perhaps two characters in opposition to one another (hmmm… Buzz and Woody ring any bells?); a transformation from something ordinary to extraordinary; wake-up moments to understand the experience a character goes through to transform; and a story within a story.  It was dense, interesting talk from an excellent speaker – all based around her new book, Do Story, of course.

Young talent

My only regret this year (aside from missing out on Quentin Blake’s mid-week session!), is that I wasn’t able to time my visit with the announcement of the winners of the 500 Words competition for BBC Radio 2, which took place last Friday. I listened instead to the live radio broadcast of the winning entries on my commute to work, as they were read out by such famous voices as Michael Palin and Michael Ball. I was so engrossed that I had to negotiate with myself to peel my feet from the train station platform and risk losing my radio signal by getting on the tube. You can read the shortlisted and winning entries here.

I hope these talented kids get to come back to Hay-on-Wye year-on-year.  If there’s one place at one specific time of year that can inspire someone to open up their imagination, grasp every piece of knowledge from around them and put pen to paper to create something fantastical  – then the Hay Festival is certainly it!