Hay Festival 2019 – Myths, Heritage, Landscapes, Stories & Maps

Hay Festival signI’m writing this from the sanctuary of my own home, after what has been an incredible yet exhausting few days at Hay. The sun did come out yesterday afternoon, and I did enjoy sitting in a deckchair, reading for a bit, but this year’s festival has been more of a challenge than in previous years, due to my lack of energy and a general lack of sunshine, and I am grateful for some much-needed rest.

There were two events that I found particularly fascinating over the last couple of days, both relating to the historical landscape, the way in which we ‘read’ and interpret the past, and the importance of maps and stories…  

The English Heritage Panel – Myths in History

‘Although it’s highly unlikely that giants helped Merlin to build Stonehenge, somebody once believed that, so it is part of the story.’ Matt Thompson (of English Heritage) explained the conundrum faced by historians tasked with looking after ancient monuments and interpreting their stories. He described how myth and legend form part of our understanding of these places, alongside the archaeological evidence, and talked about how ancient monuments can still hold ‘ritual significance’ for some people today.

English Heritage Panel event at Hay FestivalHe showed us the new ‘Telling Tales’ website, part of a project run by English Heritage to explore the myths and legends of historical monuments all over England, with a new illustrated map, so people can explore the mythical landscape, as well a set of new ghost stories and new interpretation at various locations such as Tintagel Castle (exploring the legend of King Arthur).

Susan Greaney talked about the Tintagel Castle project, and the fact that myths often contain elements of the truth, suggesting that myths and history have become ‘entwined’ to the point where it can be impossible to separate the two.

King Arthur statue

A statue at Tintagel Castle, to represent the unknown kings of Cornwall

David Olusoga talked about how we still create myths nowadays, using the Windrush story as an example, and argued that myths can be dangerous, perpetuating unhelpful ideas, such as the notion that The Empire Windrush marked the beginning of black migration to the UK, when in fact there were already several thousand black people living here before that date. He also seemed much more intent than the others on arguing for a clear separation between myth and historical fact.

I would thoroughly recommend the Telling Tales website. The map looks like it may be a work in progress (perhaps more places will be added soon?) but once you delve in, there is plenty to see.

(There has recently been a similar project for Wales called Land of Legends)

Wales: A Tapestry of Literature and Landscape

This event was equally fascinating – a conversation about maps and stories, and how these relate to the physical landscape.

Mary-Ann Constantine talked about the Curious Travellers project, which seeks to re-discover and publish the letters and journals of travellers from the 18th century, focused around the travels of Thomas Pennant in Wales and Scotland. She read us an extract from the journals of Michael Faraday, who attempted to travel through Wales, towards Machynlleth, across an area of open country, with no map, no roads, no bridges and no ability to speak the local language… it was not easy!

Mary-Ann Constantine, Jon Anderson & Damian Walford Davies

Mary-Ann Constantine, Jon Anderson & Damian Walford Davies

Damian Walford Davies from Cardiff University described himself as a ‘literary geographer’ with a fascination of maps, seeing them as texts that we read, and tracing his interest back to a single moment in Pembrokeshire, holding a map, and realising, for the first time, the ‘uncanny’ experience of ‘this is that… the same but also radically different’. He talked about changes in the 1980s when people began to distrust maps, and the notion that a map can be a very political and subjective thing, as well as a work of art.

Jon Anderson, a human geographer, described the Literary Atlas project, which uses twelve novels to create a new map of Wales, a kind of conversation between literature and landscape. To be honest, I was so intrigued that I forgot to take notes, but I was lucky enough to grab one of the free catalogues after the event. Out of the twelve novels on the map, I have only read one of them (Pigeon by Alys Conran) and this has certainly piqued my interest in reading the others. Artists have responded to each book, creating some intriguing works of art. Here is a link to the work responding to Pigeon.

Other Highlights from Hay – Leonardo, Sappho and Germaine Greer

At the ‘Leonardo 500’ event Germaine Greer seemed intent on disparaging the artist, stating that ‘everyone is star struck by him, but I won’t forgive him for his sloppy work’. She described viewing the Mona Lisa on the gallery wall, and said ‘it drives me nuts’ to see everyone queuing up to see a painting of such ‘poor quality’. It was amusing to listen to, but her arguments were rather unsubstantiated, and it was more interesting to hear from Catherine Fletcher who spoke about Leonardo’s fusion of art and engineering, and neuroscientist Hannah Critchlow, talking about his scientific legacy.

Hay Festival - A rare burst of evening sunshine

A rare burst of evening sunshine

Germaine Greer was a little less negative when discussing Sappho – this was quite an entertaining event. She went through the evidence, illustrating how little there is to suggest that Sappho wrote what scholars think she wrote. Any evidence that does exist dates from several hundred years after she lived, and much of the work attributed to her is in fragments, and cannot be verified. Of the two poems generally attributed to Sappho, Germaine Greer dismissed the ‘Hymn to Aphrodite’ because ‘it doesn’t make any sense’, and focused on the other, arguing that ‘on the strength of this one poem I can prove to you that Sappho was a wonderful poet, but I cannot prove that it was written by Sappho’.

I really enjoyed the BBC event – ‘Novels that Shaped Our World’ and will write more about that in a blog post next week… after I’ve had a bit of a rest!

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