The Hay Festival starts this week, and I thought I’d look into how a small, quiet town in Powys ended up hosting one of the biggest literary festivals in the world.
Back in the 60s, local business man Richard Booth opened a second-hand book shop in Hay-on-Wye, a decision that would forever change the history of the town. Within a few years, he had six book shops, and their popularity attracted even more booksellers to the town. This in turn led to Hay-on-Wye being labelled “The Town of Books”. Booth was well known for his eccentricities, as can be seen when he famously declared independence for the town, and made himself its King. This 1983 article from The Daily Telegraph shows us an example of his political pursuits, and his entry in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography gives further insight into his life:
‘Horsepower manifesto by eccentric bookman’ – The Daily Telegraph, 23 May 1983 (The Telegraph Historical Archive). Booth, Richard George William Pitt, 1938-2019 (The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).
The festival itself was the brainchild of Peter Florence, a local actor who supposedly staged the first festival in 1988 with his winnings from a game of poker. He managed to convince the playwright Arthur Miller to attend, and as this article in the World Literature Journal points out, Miller initially thought Hay-on-Wye was a sandwich!
‘Outposts: Literary Landmarks & Events’ – World Literary Journal, 2006 (JSTOR)
The first festival was a big success, which resulted in the Sunday Times sponsoring the event in its second year. As this announcement in the newspaper shows, they were proud to sponsor this festival, which according to them, was in a “living bookshop”. The event itself managed to attract a stellar list of authors, such as Ruth Rendell, John Mortimer, Ian McEwan and Benjamin Zephaniah.
‘Book Yourself a Festival’ – The Sunday Times, 12 March 1989 (Sunday Times Digital Archive)
Over the years, the festival has attracted some of the biggest names in literature, and as it grew, celebrities from other fields were invited to participate. There was much excitement when Bill Clinton attended in 2001, branding the festival “the Woodstock of the mind”. However, as this article at the time shows, there were some initial fears that these celebrities were drawing attention away from writers.
Making Hay – The Guardian, 31 May 2001 (ProQuest Historical Newspapers (Guardian & The Observer)
Luckily, this has not been the case, and the festival has continued to champion authors and their works. Now in its 35th year, it contributes to a number of educational and environmental projects, as well as holding overseas festivals in Europe and South America. Here’s a quick insight into what can be expected in this years’ festival
‘Are You Ready For Hay?’ – Western Mail, 29 April 2002 (Newsbank)
If you aren’t able to make it to this years’ festival, why not visit the Library, and read Ellen Wiles’ experience of the festival, in “The Hay Festival: The Remote Welsh Field That Stages the Global Publishing Industry”, available in our reading room via electronic legal deposit:
Os na allwch chi gyrraedd yr ŵyl eleni, beth am ymweld â’r Llyfrgell, a darllen profiad Ellen Wiles o’r ŵyl, yn “The Hay Festival: The Remote Welsh Field That Stages the Global Publishing Industry” sydd ar gael yn ein hystafell ddarllen trwy adnau cyfreithiol electronig.
Legal Deposit and Aquisitions Librarian.
This post is also available in: Welsh