Diary of a Hay Festival Steward Days 2 and 3 – Truth, Lies, Fake News, Fact and Fiction

Tracy EminMy second day of stewarding at the Hay Festival continued in a whirl of crowds, queues and high winds, with Lucy Worsley on Jane Austen and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, from Russian punk band Pussy Riot (both fascinating in different ways), followed by a late night traipse back to the tent and an early start the next morning for the hilarious Andy Hamilton, followed by a real mix of events including Tracy Emin…   

Lucy Worsley was as entertaining as ever, giving us a run through of Jane Austen’s life, focusing on the gritty details, rather than the novels, but Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was the highlight. She talked about her time in prison, where she wrote (and smuggled out) letters to the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, whilst also working 16 hours a day. The letters have been published in a book – Comradely Greetings (they’ve currently sold out in the bookshop so I’ve not had a chance to look at it yet).

Her experience of prison has made her even more determined. She now runs a media outlet with 20 journalists who write for them, and its completely uncensored. It was quite unnerving to hear her describe just how these journalists risk their lives to uncover the truth.

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You can see by my clothing that it got a bit cold again last night, but I was well wrapped up

Day 3

You know that you’ve been stewarding for a while when you end up dreaming about taking tickets and giving directions! Day 3 started well with a visit to the box office to see if there were any tickets left for the Tracy Emin event (which was sold out). There was one left – just for me!

One of the exciting things about stewarding is the venue changes – each morning you turn up and discover that (due to ticket sales) you’ve got different events than expected in your venue. We ended up with Andy Hamilton which was a nice surprise. He continued the theme of truth versus lies by talking about ‘fake news’, the man who impersonated him and the Wikipedia entry which says that he has no legs (put there by his son) – some much-needed hilarity early in the morning.

I was told that the BBC events are free, and that even if you don’t have a ticket it’s still worth queuing as people often don’t turn up. So I tried my luck with a BBC Radio 3 event on historical fiction, featuring Madeleine Thien, Jake Arnott and Sebastian Barry – I not only got in but managed to easily get a seat on the front row.

It was a fascinating discussion on the age-old debate of historical fact versus historical fiction. Madeleine Thien said that in her opinion “fiction is the way in to history” and that “there is no history, only a version of history”. Her inspiration for writing Do Not Say We Have Nothing was watching the demonstrations in Tieneman Square on TV, which she saw as “truth that is a lie” and a determination to uncover the truth behind it.

hay festival lightsI spent a very pleasant half hour in the queue for Tracy Emin, chatting to a fellow lit fest enthusiast, and it was well worth the wait. Emin talked about her role as an artist, saying how proud she was to be able to write ‘artist’ as her profession on a passport application form, after her first gallery show.

Dylan Jones, her interviewer, asked about whether she would describe herself as “self-obsessed” and she cleverly turned this around, explaining that, as an artist, you need to be “self-focused”, something which is essential to her work. She explained, “I don’t have a partner or children, or a family like other people, all I have is my art, so that is my obsession – not me.”

She also talked about the development of technology and social media having a negative effect, as people view things like art in a superficial way. She explained that, “art should make you stop and stand still, and think – it’s something you feel, not just take a photograph and then move on, and without the feeling, you don’t develop as a human being”.

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