Hay Festival 2019 Day 1 – Rain, Sun & Poetry – Past & Present

Marion Turner, photo by Iga Koncka

Marion Turner, photo by Iga Koncka

My first day at Hay began under a black cloud, and a sudden downpour (whilst sheltering in the food hall) but it soon brightened up, and I enjoyed a treat of poetry, biography and fiction, with a few bursts of sunshine in between. I enjoyed chatting to a friendly couple whilst munching on an incredible chocolate brownie, and despite still recovering from post viral fatigue, I coped with the onslaught of crowds and found refuge in the bookshop for a much-needed a rest. There seem to be more places set aside for reading this year, including a dark cave full of reading lamps called the ‘serious reading room’.   

My first event was both amusing and fascinating – Marion Turner talking about her new biography of Chaucer. I’ve studied his texts but never knew what an interesting life he led, travelling all over Europe, ‘rooted in a cosmopolitan world’. She described it as a ‘biography of his imagination’, which doesn’t speculate about his emotional life, but it does focus on areas previously neglected by other scholars, such as his relationship with his mother, and his daughter, the arts and culture that he would have encountered on his travels, and the impact of reading the Italian poets – Petrarch, Boccaccio and Dante.

She also talked about the impact that the plague had on Chaucer’s life, and that of his family, and the development of the English language at the time, as well as the much-debated ‘raptus’ accusation, which most scholars believe was an allegation of rape.

Simon Armitage, photo by Chris Athanasiou

Simon Armitage, photo by Chris Athanasiou

I then attended the launch of Simon Armitage’s new book, Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic. He talked about the laureateship, and how he would like to create a new award for nature poetry, and also to set up a national centre for poetry in the UK. He also discussed the task of writing to commission, explaining that he has often ‘tried to write to moments of collective consciousness’, and that commissions ‘stretch your imagination’ becoming ‘a puzzle, the answer to which is a poem’.

He talked about some of his recent projects, arguing that ‘poetry is at its most effective when you least expect it’ – when it appears on the side of a building or in a rural landscape. It was a pleasure to hear him read some brilliant, and some hilarious poems from the book, explaining their context. My favourite was ‘A Proposal’, inspired by the carved words he discovered in a rock on a Northumberland hillside:

Stand next to me on this altar stone,
its threshold just one step from the rest of our lives,
the acres of years to come
rolled out at your feet.
Here’s bilberry for your lips,
low cloud for a morning suit,
an emperor moth for a button hole,
here’s cottongrass for a dress.
Now all of England has gone down on one knee,
listening, hoping you’ll say yes.

It was also fascinating to hear him talk about his residency at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and the project at the Brontë Parsonage, writing about Bramwell, whom he described as having ‘a furious intelligence’.

hay festival eveningThings calmed down a bit, later on, as the sun came out and the crowds began to drift away. I heard Alys Conran and Tishani Doshi discussing their new books, both of which deal with issues of caring, and also the importance of place, and the idea of ‘home’. You can read my review of Alys Conran’s book, Dignity, here.

As the sun finally began to set, we were treated to an entire hour of poetry (celebrating 90 years of Faber poets), and time seemed to disappear as we listened to poems from Faber poets past and present, including the enigmatic voices of Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes and TS Eliot booming from the speakers. It was a good mix, and I particularly enjoyed hearing from Daljit Nagra and Andrew Motion.

The Faber Poetry Party

The Faber Poetry Party – Andrew Motion, Hannah Sullivan, Daljit Nagra, Lavinia Greenlaw, Richard Scott and Simon Armitage

More events (and hopefully more sunshine) to come…