I’ve just finished my talk on nanotechnology here at the Guardian Hay Festival; I was speaking to a nearly full tent, competing only with the sound of the Welsh rain beating on the canvas. There were plenty of questions and afterwards I signed a dozen or so copies of Soft Machines. I have to admit to being more than usually nervous; the audience here gives the impression of being absolutely the epitome of the stereotypical Guardian reader; liberal, left-leaning (this I infer from the wild applause and cheering from the tent in which Tony Benn was talking), and not, perhaps, naturally uncritical supporters of science and technology. They also seem to have implausibly well-behaved and bookish children. Nonetheless it seemed to go well and the comments afterwards were very appreciative, with one exception.
Hay-on-Wye is an odd sort of place at the best of times; a sleepy small market town on the border of England and Wales which by some quirk has become the centre of the UK’s second hand book trade, to support which there’s grown up an infrastructure of organic wholefood outlets, expensive, yet tasteful and understated, guest houses, and shops selling arts and crafts of all kinds. Some tensions result from this collision of the rural and metropolitan cultures; some of these are conveyed in Iain Sinclair’s novel Landor’s Tower, which like all his work manages to impart an unlikely seedy, dangerous glamour to the world of second-hand books. But none of this takes away from the beauty of the landscape here; it’s where the rich orchards and half-timbered houses of Herefordshire meet the harder hills and moors of Wales, with its scrawny sheep and struggling hill-farms. This liminal quality is reflected in the strange place-names, neither Welsh nor English – “Evenjobb”, “Burfa”, “the Begwns”, and a surprising number of places called “Worlds End”. The area has a deep personal resonance for me, because as a boy it’s the first place that I was let out into on my own for a few days without adult supervision. In 1975 a school-friend and I, both just turned 14, walked and camped from near Shrewsbury to Hay-on-Wye. At the time it felt to us like a bigger adventure than going to the Himalayas. The friend, Mark Miller, later became a mountaineer of some notoriety (there are some good anecdotes about him in Joe Simpson’s memoir “This Game of Ghosts”) before a tragically early death in the 1993 Katmandu air crash.
I’m veering into literature and autobiography, clearly intoxicated by my adventure past the “Artists only” sign into the famous Hay Festival Green Room. The people around me are undoubtedly famous authors and literary figures, but I’m too unworldly to recognise them. Time for me to pick up my payment (a case of champagne) and return to my usual rather less literary surroundings.