Hay Festival 2013 review

April 8, 2014, Article by Ben Willis in Books

In a rare treat, the sun shone down on the Hay Festival this year, or at least for the two days I visited. The festival is in its 26th year and is going from strength to strength. As a publisher it is a great event, as it unites the two most important parts of our business: the author and the reader. And seeing so many people engaging so enthusiastically with books and writing is a wonderful thing. I saw a number of great events, including the always brilliant Robert Macfarlane, but I want to make special mention of one in particular – John Le Carré in conversation with Philippe Sands.

Le Carré (aka David Cornwell) opened by describing the event as his swan song, the last public event he would do (until the next book at least) and describing himself as a reluctant publicist (he’d much rather be writing). But there was certainly nothing reluctant about his performance. After a discussion about the themes of his latest book A Delicate Truth, he kept his audience spellbound for ninety minutes. One anecdote followed another, from meeting Yasser Arafat,  Russian Defence Ministers and Guantanamo prisoners, to a story about filming The Spy Who Came in from the Coldwith Richard Burton – and Burton receiving a slap from Elizabeth Taylor for his late night drinking (with the author) – and on to remarkably candid stories about his own life.

Speaking about his upbringing he quoted Graham Greene: ‘the credit balance of a writer’s life is his childhood’ adding that by which measure ‘I was born a millionaire’, before going on to tell some bittersweet stories about his decidedly crooked father. More stories followed, ranging from teaching at Eton, to his life as a spook, the books and the films. In the question sessions someone asked him if he felt any duty to write a non-fiction account of what he had witnessed as a member of ‘the secret world’. Le Carré demurred. But after such a brilliant and captivating performance it is hard not to wish for a memoir one day. That, I am sure, will never come – but sat just behind me was his biographer, Adam Sisman, and we’ll just have to wait for his version in a year or two. It will be a remarkable story. Meanwhile we have the novels, which are as simultaneously entertaining and thought-provoking as the talk I was lucky enough to hear at Hay.

Simon Thorogood – @simnthrgd