Monday 2 December 2013

The strange irony about literary Hay-on-Wye

Thank you to everyone who came along to talk about What If Money Grew on Trees with Andrew Simms and I.  There is obviously an appetite to talk about other possibilities – and their strange side-effects, and we both had a brilliant time.

The Hay Winter Festival is not quite the same as Hay-on-Wye in the vast tents in the summer, but it is rather wonderful nonetheless.  In fact, I found Hay particularly life-enhancing last weekend, with its little Christmas lights, its beautiful bookshops and its dark, dark nights.

I was particularly pleased to visit Richard Booth’s new bookshop and to see, almost at a glance, the future of publishing.

Ebooks are driving old-fashioned book publishing in new directions, or rather old, more authentic directions, publishing real books as beautiful objects.  Why would you buy a badly-published book if you could buy an ebook cheaper, after all?

Booth is the great pioneer of Hay as a book town.  Back in 1973, he declared himself king of an independent Hay and led torchlight processions through the town.  He was careful to avoid a charge of possible sedition by doing so on April Fool’s Day.

I was just interested in politics at the time (I was 14) and was thrilled by the idea, and collected Hay national memorabilia, which I still have in the back of my sock draw.

In fact, looking back, that may remain the big difference between Liberals and Social Democrats, before the famous merger of the two parties 15 years later.  Liberals are fascinated by the idea of micro-states declaring UDI, of the continuing Passport to Pimlico tendency in our national life; social democrats are rather revolted by it.

Booth is one of the great pioneers of ultra-local economics, and I have huge respect for him.  But there is an irony about Hay, which I recently discovered by reading Booth’s autobiography.

He made his money, and launched himself as the bookish saviour of an otherwise ordinary market town in the Welsh borders, by buying up the libraries of the working men’s clubs, which were being sold off in the 1960s – a kind of working class privatisation.

It is peculiar that the foundations of Hay today, that monument to middle class dreams, is based on the self-immolation of the tradition of working class self-help.

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