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OPINION - From Hillary Clinton to Elton John and Arsène Wenger — the Hay Festival's idiosyncrasies have made it special

 (Dave Benett)
(Dave Benett)

This week I step down from the Hay Festival, where for the past decade or so I’ve been a trustee, vice-president and chairman (or, alternatively, chief cook and bottle washer). I’ll be staying on in an advisory (and probably quite annoying) capacity, but operationally I’m done. Ten years is long enough to be involved in any arts organisation, and it’s time for different people with different ideas to have a go.

I have to say it’s been a blast. From the early days working with Peter Florence to the current regime overseen by CEO Julie Finch, “the Woodstock of the mind” (thank you, Bill Clinton) is still the most important literary festival in the world. Its eccentricity, singularity and egalitarian spirit are now famous all over the globe.

It’s been invigorating bringing the likes of Tracey Emin, Ray Davies, Michael Wolff, Stormzy, Carl Bernstein, Hillary Clinton, Elton John and Arsene Wenger to the Welsh mountains, knowing that all their bon mots would be bouncing around the world as soon as they’d left their mouths. When Tom Jones’s wife tragically died, eight years ago, it was the Hay Festival where Jones decided to say his piece, knowing that what he said would be instantly reported globally. When Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed wanted to draw attention to his sinking archipelagos, it was Hay he chose as a platform. For 10 years we even had an annual marquee party hosted by Soho House and Range Rover, in the grounds of Cabalva, the local and rather stately home owned by the Albert family. It was here you saw AC Grayling doing the jitterbug with Dua Lipa, or Alastair Campbell having stand-up rows with Bob Geldof. I can still hear my agent Ed Victor berating the car parking staff for allowing his Rolls-Royce to get stuck in the legendary Hay mud.

There were disappointments, of course, usually caused by politicians. One year we persuaded Bernie Sanders to appear, which caused a flurry of excitement among the younger members in the audience. I was in the audience that afternoon, and wanted to ask him if he had any guilt over staying in the race long enough to disrupt Hillary Clinton’s White House ambitions, but my professional obligations got the better of me. He was a grumpy old git though; he made a big fuss about eating with the “real people” rather than the festival’s VIPs, but then had the kitchen cleared when his food arrived.

It was always its idiosyncrasies which made Hay special. Yes, it has a geographical advantage, being positioned in the beautiful Brecon Beacons (which is what people in Wales still call it, regardless of being told they shouldn’t), but it was always its maverick nature and independent spirit that set it apart from rival festivals such as Cheltenham, Oxford or Woodstock. The DNA of Hay was always freedom of expression, freedom of speech, and the freedom to speak your mind almost regardless of what you were saying.

Which brings me to the lily-livered behaviour of Bernardine Evaristo and the Royal Society of Literature, who this week spectacularly doubled down on their ludicrous decision not to support Salman Rushdie after he’d been viciously attacked in a stage in New York, and nearly blinded.

Last week Evaristo insisted the RSL believed in freedom of speech, but, she added, “it cannot take sides in writers’ controversies … but must remain impartial”. Rushdie retweeted this, adding, “Just wondering if the Royal Society of Literature is ‘impartial’ about attempted murder @BernardineEvari (asking for a friend).”

As our writer Melanie McDonagh said last week, “If the RSL cannot bring itself to clamber onto its high horse about a homicidal attack on a writer because the attacker did not like Sir Salman’s views on Islam, it may as well shut down those agreeable premises in Somerset House and go home.”

This behaviour not only leaves a stain on the organisation’s reputation but also illustrates just how cowardly arts bodies have become recently, unwilling to express anything other than unbound tolerance. I’ve got no idea whether Evaristo or Rushdie will be appearing at this year’s Hay Festival, but I hope they both will.

Rushdie understandably has become nervous of appearing in public, so if he did appear he would no doubt Zoom in. Leaving more time perhaps for Evaristo to explain to the Hay audience why she has made such a cataclysmic error.

Dylan Jones is the Evening Standard’s editor-in-chief