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September 12, 2013updated 11 Jan 2016 2:16pm

A Role in the Hay: Clive Aslet gets literary festival fever

By Spear's

Authors could spend their whole lives at literary festivals without leaving these shores, their egos so massaged that they’d lose the drive to write another word, says Clive Aslet.

Don’t ask writers about publishing. Most of them — correction: most of us — feel that we’re experiencing the last scene of Götterdämmerung in even slower motion than it unfolds in the opera house. The Rhine has risen and is sweeping away all the stage properties which shaped the landscape of our lives: newspapers, most magazines (except Spear’s and Country Life), books…

No, no, I hear you say: books are still being made. They are, but increasingly those that will sell in the supermarkets. Penguin has just merged with Random House, so that together they will be able to afford the sort of advances needed to tempt Pippa Middleton to write about entertaining — £400,000 in her case. That book bombed. The solution? Spend even more money buying ever bigger names.

Those of us who have made reasonable careers out of writing books on subjects that interested us find ourselves, for the moment, dished. Fortunately, while dreams of solvency fade, consolation of another kind is on the rise. Our spirits are being nurtured, our bodies fed, our fragile sense of self-worth boosted.

You may think I’ve discovered a Salvation Army soup kitchen. Not so: I refer to the rise of the literary festival. You’ll know about the Hay Festival, which has become a kind of Glastonbury for book lovers, without the mud; but Hay is only one bookish destination among dozens. In the last month I’ve visited three. 


<p>Call me a book festival whore, if you like, but, as a friend once had emblazoned on his T-shirt, to the embarrassment of his girlfriend, I ONLY SLEEP WITH THE BEST. Authors could spend their whole lives at literary festivals without leaving these shores, their egos so massaged that they’d lose the drive to write another word. I choose carefully. Naturally, Althorp was irresistible.

Earl Spencer

From Northampton station, our London-style black cab trundled out through mediocre suburbs, until bricks gave way to hedges and we entered the Elysium of a landscape park, a low sun silhouetting ancient trees beneath which deer grazed. We drove up to the forecourt, in front of which was a lecture tent. An irate Earl Spencer came out to order the cab out of earshot, and the driver hurriedly reversed to find another entrance. 

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Having unpacked, we descended to a drawing room in which Antony Beevor was talking to Dame Antonia Fraser, Michael Palin to Alexander McCall Smith, and the butler to me, asking if I’d like a glass of champagne. If, as happens when two or more writers foregather, you’re going to moan about your professional lot, a deep sofa in front of an Angelica Kauffman portrait of the Spencer family is as good a place to do it as any. 

William Dalrymple arrived during dinner, to give a barn-storming talk about the First Afghan War the next day. I got a high-grade crowd for War Memorial, afterwards having serious talk with a member of the audience about the kite balloons used by artillery spotters during the First World War. 

Field work 

The Chalke Valley Festival of History takes place not at a premier country house, but in the middle of a Wiltshire field. It has the air of being a secret assignation. Suddenly, there it is, lying in the bottom of its coomb: a collection of white tents which might have been the 44th Regiment of Foot’s cantonment outside Kabul in 1840.


To add to the effect, Napoleonic re-enactors marched past as I arrived, looking distinctly warm under their great coats and shakos. Sunset painted the sky in the colours of a 1950s ice-cream parlour, turquoise and pink. Then I was swished off to an exquisite country house outside Salisbury for a stroll through the garden, attended by toy terriers and pet camels.

Dartington — well, that was heaven too. It was that baking Sunday afternoon that saw Andy Murray capture the Wimbledon title, and the unmistakable sound of a Centre Court crowd baying for a British victory emanated from the deckchairs, whose occupants were glued to their iPads and mobile devices. Fortunately the match ended just as I began to talk. 

Sting, I’m told, now regards himself as a troubadour, picking up the odd million from gigs here and there but not earning the megabucks that used to come from record sales. In its much smaller way, publishing follows suit. It will be hard for the big publishers, all their staff and expensive premises.

But the crowds that turn out for itinerant speakers show that a market — the carriage trade, as it used to be called — remains. More authors will find the way to publish on a micro scale. Back to the days of William Cobbett, the father of journalism, who had to found the papers he wrote for. It will be worth it for the festivals. 

Read more by Clive Aslet

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