Making Hay: diary of a first-time speaker

December 1, 2018 2 Comments

1   Talk of the Devil

An invisible voice apologises: Marcus Brigstocke regrets he’s unable to be with us tonight. Instead, a cloaked figure bursts on to the stage. There’s a white flash of outsize teeth and ghoulish eyes. Yes, It’s Satan, and he’s in talkative mood. By the end of the hour his biting wit has sent dozens of sinners down below, including one or two audience members, for a host of misdemeanours. In a biting coda he reserves his venom and a special cell in hell for a Mr Johnson, late quiz show star and former Minister in Her Majesty’s Government. At the end Beelzebub leaps off the stage. Our cathartic laughter fades and we file out into the dark.

I’ve another motive for being here, the night before. I need to check out the venue. The tent looks scarily cavernous. It holds maybe three hundred seats. How on earth am I going to fill this space tomorrow? No wonder there are unsold tickets (most of the other acts are sold out). And at 10:00am?

We don’t go on the church afterwards to catch Richard Williams’s sonic realization of F.W. Murnau’s silent classic Nosferatu, even though it’s a favourite film of mine and the show’s highly recommended by the girl who served us earlier in the Blue Boar. I need an early night.

2   In the Green Room

Nine o’clock in the morning. I knock timidly on the door of the Swan Hotel‘s ballroom, transformed into a Green Room for the weekend. No answer. I’m just following instructions: ‘arrive at least an hour before your session’. How naive of me. No experienced speaker would dream of turning up that early. The truth is that although I’ve been coming to the Hay Festival for decades – I can remember the earliest days, when everything was crammed into the primary school – this is the first time I’ve made it into the Green Room.

Soon, though, I’m taken in hand and made to feel wanted. Andy, Marta and Sara patiently take me through the basics, and what to expect. I summon up the courage to ask how many people have booked. ‘Oh, 250 or so’. 250!? Who could they all be? What are they expecting? I imagined I’d be addressing no more than the front three rows.

3   In the wings

I can hear the audience taking their seats. Here, behind the scenes, it’s like a recording studio, all screens, laptops and wires. Someone fits a microphone cage around my head, a modern version of the eighteenth century scold’s bridle I’m about to show on screen. Do I want to pick out my interrogators, when we reach the question and answer session, or leave it to the roving mic staff to choose them? ‘Oh, I’d rather they made the decisions, please!’.

Andy gives a quick intro and retreats. On I go. Just me, the podium and the slide clicker. Almost everything else is in darkness. It’s just as well.

4   On stage

A few words of Welsh to start with, to make the point that people can buy a Welsh version of the book. (Not too many Welsh words, I was politely reminded, in case some monoglots get the impression that they’ve come to the wrong event and make for the exit.)

Then I’m off. It helps that I’ve already had a ‘rehearsal’ of this talk, in Machynlleth a few days before, although the audience was much smaller there, and the venue more intimate. People laugh at the right points, which helps. I start to enjoy myself. Time telescopes, and in what seems like the blink of an eye I’ve used up my 45 minutes. Next, questions. They’re all good ones. One speaker actually knew one of the wartime child evacuees I mentioned. Then the time ticker on the screen in front of me flashes pink, ’00:00′, and it’s time to stop. People clap. Sara comes on and hands me an elegant rose – these days the roses are made of ingeniously recycled paper – before whisking me off to the bookshop.

5   Signing

I’m parked behind a table, lent a pen, and warned not to indulge in over-long conversations, to avoid trying the patience of people in the queue. A decent queue of people, I notice, has already formed.

It appears that people really enjoyed the talk and the slides. Some buy more than one copy: often the other book’s a Christmas present, for a Welsh relative in England, for example. There are some Welsh learners, who are pleased they could follow my Welsh (with them I break the rule about conversation length). The queue seems to replenish itself, and I’m still signing over half an hour later. It’s obvious I’m going to miss the 11:30 session with Horatio Clare we’d booked earlier.

Finally, there are no more people clutching books. I sign some additional copies, for unknown future buyers, and escape to wander the bookshops of Hay in anonymity.

6   ‘Mr Clare, I presume?’

We come back to the site half way through the afternoon, to take a look at the Festival bookshop. All copies of my book, in Welsh and in English, have been sold. Enthusiasm was high, we’re told, and demand brisk. I sidle up to the counter and ask the bookseller, ‘Horatio Clare?’, meaning ‘Do you have any copies left of his lovely book about walking with J.S. Bach?’ Suddenly a figure standing nearby turns around and says, ‘Yes, I’m Horatio Clare’.

And with that, I’m transformed, as quickly and fatally as Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, into a different creature – from tyro author blinking in the lights of unfamiliar fame into a gushing fan, just another reader overwhelmed to have met a renowned writer.

7   On the Black Mountain

Dusk falls early. We’re on the way home. (It would have been a treat to stay for Saturday’s climax, Gwyneth Glyn, but she’s on too late.) The car bounces over the bare mountain towards Penderyn and Hirwaen, and we reflect on the day.

It’s been a good one. One of the main reasons is that the Winter Festival is still quite a small affair. There’s only one stream of events, not multiple ones, and most of the people there are fairly local – including a good number from Wales. It’s been a privilege, surrounded by so many fine writers, to have a stage for an hour to talk about Wales and its rich history.

Horatio Clare’s book, Something of his art: walking to Lübeck with J.S. Bach – an object of beauty and a fine addition to the library of walking – is published by Little Toller Books.

Comments (2)

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  1. Dafydd Pritchard says:

    Difyr iawn, Andrew.

    A llongyfarchiadau!

  2. Horato Clare says:

    You legend! I assumed you had been doing the job forever – living in Green Rooms, foraging on compo sandwiches and finish wine. I was the fan there. Congratulations on a blinder! Am only sorry I missed getting an autographed copy. Next time. My best to you and yours, H

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