Hay-wire festival

The director stands accused of Leftie elitism, sponsorship deals are ending and the new kid down the road is pulling in the punters. Joy Lo Dico reads between the lines

Cast of characters: (from left) festival director Peter Florence, biographer Charles Moore, who wasn’t offered a talk slot this year and Sky Arts flagship book show presenter Mariella Frostrup
Cast of characters: (from left) festival director Peter Florence, biographer Charles Moore, who wasn’t offered a talk slot this year and Sky Arts flagship book show presenter Mariella Frostrup

The director stands accused of Leftie elitism, sponsorship deals are ending and the new kid down the road is pulling in the punters. Joy Lo Dico reads between the lines

Don’t judge Hay by its cover of slate roofs and threatening clouds heading over from the Black Mountains. In the last week of May, the Welsh border town lights up with debates at the Hay Festival. This year Google’s chief executive Eric Schmidt jetted in to talk tax, nudging up against Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson and BBC economics editor Stephanie Flanders on the programme.

And when the day is over, and the public in their tens of thousands go home to take off their anoraks and dry their socks, the Groucho Club and Soho House host champagne and gossip-fuelled banquets for their star attendees and the cream of London’s publishing industry. But this year the big debate has been offstage, and about who should be allowed on one. It all began when David Goodhart, director of the think-tank Demos, complained this weekend that he’d been snubbed over his controversial new book on immigration, The British Dream.

“I just don’t want to be on this island with the Tory posh boys and their privileges when the drawbridge is pulled up,” was the reason the festival’s director Peter Florence gave the Sunday Times, adding that he wanted the festival to “celebrate plurality”. The row has served its purpose for Goodhart — it’s been like a shot of caffeine to his sales figures. But he wasn’t the only one left out. Charles Moore, whose meticulous authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher, released late last month, has been a bestseller, was not offered his own talk, only a space on a panel that he declined on grounds of the scheduling. He did manage to find time to speak at the Charlestown Festival in Lewes this weekend instead.

Accusations are flying that Florence has simply raised the drawbridge against people whose politics he doesn’t like. In conversation with the BBC’s Nick Robinson last week, Florence said he would never consider inviting Prime Minister David Cameron, a little awkward for local MP and Hay director Jesse Norman who, like Goodhart, attended Eton and is in Cameron’s policy unit. But Florence can be surprisingly tolerant. In a recent interview with Total Politics he said he’d love to have Rupert Murdoch, whose TV channel Sky has been one of the sponsors of the festival.

Hay’s association with literature dates back to the 1960s when Richard Booth started making it a centre for second-hand books, in 1977 declaring it an independent principality. The festival, created by Peter Florence and his father Norman, started in 1988 and hit a peak in 2001 when Bill Clinton accepted an invitation to speak there, dubbing it “the Woodstock of the Mind”.

In that decade it made a name for itself with strident anti-Iraq speakers — a subject to which they return this year with UN weapons inspector Hans Blix on the programme — and late-night talks with the contrarian Christopher Hitchens. The Guardian lined up as a sponsor and it became the May bank holiday destination for the literary and intellectual classes of London, with Zadie Smith and Niall Ferguson among the regular speakers. But three years ago, the Guardian’s deal expired and the Daily Telegraph bettered its £100,000 offer to renew it by stumping up £250,000 a year for the privilege. The other main media sponsor is Sky Arts, which has hosted its flagship book show fronted by Mariella Frostrup from one of the many marquees on site. It is ending its long-standing partnership with Hay this year.

Despite the downpours and the terrible mobile reception in the town, the public turn out en masse for the festival. Last year it sold 225,000 tickets to its 500 events, held in a field on the edge of town, on a grid of marquees and catering tents. One publisher who has a number of his authors speaking says that asking why one of his writers isn’t included is “like asking why Led Zeppelin isn’t playing the Green Man festival”. But it’s a big date in publishers’ calendars, a great opportunity to sell books and generate publicity for their writers, and so inevitably there’s irritation from those who don’t get their one hour of fame at Hay.

Duncan Fallowell, author of the award-winning How To Disappear, who used to live in the town, doesn’t attend pointedly. “The programme has become a bore that lacks bite or much intellectual food,” he says. “I have never been invited to be part of it because Peter Florence presumably doesn’t rate me or anything I do.”

The Idler editor Tom Hodgkinson also found himself banned after staging a protest over authors not being paid for their troubles, despite big sponsors like Barclays Wealth. “Peter Florence loathes me,” says Hodgkinson. “People are scared to say this sort of thing, as they don’t want to be excluded from Hay. But as a speaker I’d like to get paid for these things.”

His mother, writer and journalist Liz Hodgkinson, has also fallen foul of Florence after writing a book about local artist Alex Williams and the history of Hay as a literary hub, crediting Booth over Florence with its foundations.

“I was banned,” she says. “Peter Florence said, ‘What you have written is skewed and misleading’. What was funny was he used almost the same words about Goodhart’s book as mine. He said it was ‘unpersuasive’ — something that doesn’t mean anything anyway — and that it wasn’t well written. If he had only well-written books, half the speakers wouldn’t be there,” she says.

What’s adding further tension to the charmed circle of Hay is an alternative that sprang up down the road four years ago. How The Light Gets In, a philosophy and music festival named after a Leonard Cohen lyric, had tickets sales of 27,000 last year, hosts its events in an old chapel and rug-covered yurts rather than thousand-seater marquees, and prides itself on nurturing dispute rather than consensuality. Its audience is noticeably younger than that of the Hay Festival and its footwear not as sensible for the weather. This year its speakers include former Conservative leader Michael Howard, independent MP George Galloway, writer AS Byatt and Liberal Democrat peer Lord Owen. Even David Goodhart got a platform.

“We don’t expect everyone to agree,” says its founder, philosopher Hilary Lawson. “We are looking for radical ideas, so long as they are challenging and go to underlying debate.”

Goodhart was given a platform because “the notion we can’t discuss multiculturalism (one of the contentious points in Goodhart’s book) is the reason for increasing tensions”. “It doesn’t mean I agree with this particular line of attack but my personal view is irrelevant to this,” he says. “You’ve got to talk about it. You can’t hide behind a safe position.”

The Hay Festival wraps up this weekend with talks by crowd-pleasers John le Carré and Miranda Hart. But all the controversy of this year’s festival may have sewn the seeds for a rethink next year about what Hay stands for.