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Hay Festival Digital 2020 – better than the real thing?

2nd June 2020

Hay Festival Digital 2020 – better than the real thing?

The Hay Festival of Literature & Arts has been held at beautiful Hay-on-Wye, just inside the Welsh border, since 1988. For 10 days in May and June, this picturesque town becomes a haven for book lovers, a media village buzzing with authors, publishers, PRs and industry movers and shakers, a cultural frenzy. Bill Clinton described the Festival as ‘Woodstock of the mind‘, Tony Benn said that, in his mind, ‘Hay has replaced Christmas‘.

But how do you replace something that fixed in the arts calendar when a global pandemic strikes, and the world is in lockdown?

You create a completely virtual Festival, of course, embracing technology to deliver a triumphant Hay Festival Digital 2020 #ImagineTheWorld.

Hay Festival Digital 2020

From May 18th to 31st, a world-class programme of events was available completely online, for you to watch in the comfort of your own home. Visitors from 63 countries sat in on the first weekend’s events alone, and over 1 million people were able to enjoy this new way of seeing the Hay Festival. Even more remarkably, every event could be watched FREE, although of course donations were welcome to help out with the significant cost of delivering the Festival in this parallel digital universe.

TripFiction attended several events, and here is our quick review of those that we saw:

Maggie O’Farrell interviewed by Peter Florence

Tina has written a separate TripFiction post about attending the Hay Festival via Crowdcast here, with the delightful author Maggie O’Farrell talking about her latest novel Hamnet

Philippe Sands interviewed by Stephen Fry

In The Ratline, Philippe Sands has written an extraordinary account of the life of Otto Wächter, who presided over the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews and Poles, including the author’s grandparents. The author trawls through an archive of correspondence, talks to the youngest son of Otto and Charlotte Wächter and charts the life of a convicted war criminal. After 1945, Otto hid in the Austrian Mountains with the support of his wife and finally fled to Rome, intent on moving on to South America.

In the interview Philippe Sands poignantly recounted how he researched the book and reflected on the legacy of learning from the war years. Stephen Fry conducted the interview with warmth and sagacity. I am sure that after this session, many of the 10,000 people participating will want to read the book – Tina

Hannah Rothschild interviewed by Rosie Boycott

Hannah talked about her new novel, the House of Trelawney, a love story and social satire set in Cornwall and revolving around an 800 year-old family dynasty of landed gentry. Hannah’s own family has some parallels with the Trelawneys, and she talked about how 2008 was ‘the last gasp of the British aristocracy‘ and ‘marked the emergence of a new monied class’.

Hannah has also chaired the Board of Trustees of the National Gallery – the conversation drifted towards how art can convey an image of wealth and status, and how in some way homes are similar: the larger the better. The discussion covered some other important themes, but I felt the book became a little lost – Andrew

Ingrid Persaud & Jessie Burton interviewed by Lennie Goodings

A delight from start to finish, this session brought us two engaging and gifted authors – one debut novellist, one already hugely successful – who both had completely different careers before turning to writing. Their current novels contain some common themes, including second chances and the nature of motherhood. They also talked about the way each approaches the writing process, and the challenges of writing about somewhere from a distance – Andrew

Ingrid Persaud’s Love After Love – set in her native Trinidadintroduces irrepressible Betty Ramdin, her shy son Solo and their marvellous lodger, Mr Chetan, who form an unconventional household, happy in their differences, as they build a home together. Home – the place where your navel string is buried, keeping these three safe from an increasingly dangerous world. Happy and loving they are, until the night when a glass of rum, a heart to heart and a terrible truth explodes the family unit, driving them apart.


In Jessie Burton’s The Confession: One winter’s afternoon on Hampstead Heath in 1980, Elise Morceau meets Constance Holden and quickly falls under her spell. Connie is bold and alluring, a successful writer whose novel is being turned into a major Hollywood film. Elise follows Connie to LA, a city of strange dreams and swimming pools and late-night gatherings of glamorous people. But whilst Connie thrives on the heat and electricity of this new world where everyone is reaching for the stars and no one is telling the truth, Elise finds herself floundering. When she overhears a conversation at a party that turns everything on its head, Elise makes an impulsive decision that will change her life forever..

Allie Esiri, Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West – Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year

Hay Festival Digital 2020Almanacs were acquired and used by one in every three Elizabethan families. The passing of time, and the seasons, was one of William Shakespeare’s most common themes. So an anthology of Will’s sonnets and soliloquys by Allie Esiri entitled Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year is a blessing for all lovers of literature. Add a couple of our best-loved actors, some beautiful garden scenery, birdsong, perfect lighting and direction, and Hay delivered a magical event that was a feast for the senses. It was as though Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West were talking directly with you, and you alone, as they delivered some of the most famous words in literary history – Andrew

Polly Samson and David Gilmour – A Theatre for Dreamers – interviewed by Rosie Boycott

What another magical hour of Hay Digital 2020 this was. Writer Polly Samson and musician husband David Gilmour appeared in the reimagined Greek taverna so beloved by Leonard Cohen and the bohemian community of musicians, poets, writers and artists on the Greek island of Hydra in the early 1960s. Polly’s latest novel A Theatre for Dreamers cleverly blurs imagination with history, 18 year-old Erica landing on the island amongst Charmian Clift, George Johnston, Axel and Marianne Jensen, and a young Canadian poet and musician.

Team TF at Hay 2017

Polly talked about her research for the book, how she didn’t just want to tell Marianne’s famous story and how she wondered what would happen if someone on the brink of a new feminist era collided with an artistic commune on a remote Greek island. David – the legendary Pink Floyd guitarist and vocalist – sang sensual renditions of Marianne and Bird on a Wire, accompanied by daughter Romany on harp and vocals, as the candles flickered against the taverna’s blue checked tablecloths

Andrew for the TripFiction Team

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