The Blog

Hay Festival 2015: What the BBC Can't Show You

Going to 'Hay' doesn't just mean going to the Hay Festival. The 'Hay' experience has become a sum of its parts. When people ask me what 'Hay' is like, I don't just detail the many authors and experts you can see (wonderful as they are), I tell them about the town which positively buzzes during the eleven day period.

Having just come back from Hay-on-Wye, I went online to the BBC Arts homepage to watch coverage of the Hay Festival and relive some highlights of the weekend. Yes - the big names were there, discussing all manner of topics from all corners of the globe. Yes, there was footage of people on deck chairs happily reading in the sun. Yes, there were shots of children clutching books, waiting in the queue to have them signed by their favourite authors. But something was missing. Any Hay-goer will tell you that 'Hay' has become so much more than the BBC OB team get the chance to film.

Going to 'Hay' doesn't just mean going to the Hay Festival. The 'Hay' experience has become a sum of its parts. When people ask me what 'Hay' is like, I don't just detail the many authors and experts you can see (wonderful as they are), I tell them about the town which positively buzzes during the eleven day period. I tell them about the lovely pubs where you can sit with your wine discussing the talks you've just had the pleasure of hearing. I mention the breadth of restaurants from the Groucho Club 'pop-up' in the semi-derelict castle to the tiny cafes selling flat whites and freshly-baked cinnamon buns. I tell them about the street musicians, stalls and bookshops. I tell them about the achingly cool, yet authentic vintage bar selling gin cocktails and playing funk music late into the night.

I also tell them about HowTheLightGetsIn, a flourishing festival on the eastern side of town run by The Institute Of Art and Ideas that runs concurrent with its better-known relation. Billed as 'the world's largest philosophy and music festival', it is perched on a tiny terrace-tiered hillock, and is populated with bohemian tents, yurts, gypsy caravans, hay bales, boutique eateries and fairy lights. It also has a line-up to drool over.

In its seven years of existence, HTLGI has unquestionably matured to achieve parity with the Hay Festival on the other side of town - certainly in terms of content, if not size. Take this year's line-up for example. It is peppered with titans from all fields. Nobel Laureate and New York Times economist Paul Krugman made a rare UK appearance. Sir Roger Penrose - one of this country's leading lights on general relativity and cosmology along with Sir Stephen Hawking - was there. And unlike the main festival, where tent capacities must push a thousand, you can be sitting in a small yurt just feet away from some of the greatest minds in the world - and usually for about a fiver.

In the three years that I have been going to Hay-on-Wye during the festival period, HTLGI is increasingly where the vitality and dynamism can be found. This year, the festival expanded to a new site across the river, where Spiegal Circus was the main draw. The audience is young and diverse, equally drawn by the comedy acts and gigs by the likes of Molotov Jukebox and Lianne La Havas, as the speakers. The IAI has succeeded in creating an event that draws its own crowds, attracting a different demographic that acts as an effective counter-balance to the Hay Festival crowd.

There is a wonderful immediacy to 'Hay' that doesn't come across in the mainstream coverage. I don't know many other places were you can chat to theoretical physicist and broadcaster Jim Al-Khalili in the supermarket queue in your PJs at eight in the morning or find yourself in conversation with Susie Symes (Chair of the Museum of Immigration and Diversity and host of a number of talks at the Hay Festival) about the wit and warmth of Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti CBE as you stroll back into town. Or, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Sir Roger Penrose as he patiently discusses the ins and outs of super-symmetry with an audience member after his hour-long talk, while the setting sun fleetingly bathes him - and the single sunflower he is holding - in a brilliant orange glow.

Furthermore, the cameras don't capture the joy of people and the chance conversations with remarkable strangers - audience members of both festivals - possessed of keen minds and open hearts. I'm thinking of the chap in the hat from 'Penrith-sur-Mer' (his description) who had tackled Tory 'policy wonk' Steve Hilton (his description) during a talk earlier in the day. We met him again in the Swan Hotel where he was being given the run around by his mate's miniature Yorkshire Terrier, a dainty but unruly beast that insisted on disappearing back into the bar. The conversation continued out in the garden, where he chatted merrily away about the last gig he went to, which turned out to be teenage rock band The Strypes. He must have been in his sixties. What a top fellow he was.

Let me be clear: no criticism of the Hay Festival should be inferred from any of the above. Granted, it is sponsored by The Telegraph, thanks to its largely white, middle-class demographic (there are very few persons of colour in the audience). But - despite the affiliations with the Barclay brothers - the content is gloriously liberal. The irony did not go unnoticed when Polly Toynbee and David Walker's talk on their book Cameron's Coup found itself scheduled to the Telegraph Stage.

But best of all, it's all unapologetically intellectual, which is a rare trait these days. Time spent in Hay is food for the soul as well as nourishment for the mind and so much more than a camera can ever convey.

To watch talks from the Hay Festival go to:

To watch talks from HowTheLightGetsIn go to: