Hay-on-Wye is home to one of the world’s leading literary festivals. As sponsors, we've been on the ground taking in some of the author sessions and we are delighted to share some of our insights.
Reporting from Hay
Hay-on-Wye, a sleepy village on the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park, comes alive once a year when it hosts its annual literary festival, a celebration of literature supported by Baillie Gifford. The 1,600 population rockets to many times that number – ticket sales this year were around 270,000. Below are some of our highlights – from the rising star that is Chibundu Onuzo to a household name in the shape of Sir Salman Rushdie, and the thoughts of respected academics on a range of subjects.
In the shadow of Hay Castle, the narrow streets teem with tourists, dipping in and out of the shops and cafés while a schoolboy busker entertains the throng, his hat bulging with coins as he makes the most of the mid-term holiday. Meanwhile, the shuttle bus sets off on the latest run to the festival site.
However, for many it is a gentle stroll from the bustling village centre. Along the route, resourceful sports clubs and charities welcome visitors to facilities that have been repurposed, the fees charged for a playing-field car park berth delivering a welcome boost to the finances of these organisations.
Householders also seize the opportunity to profit from a ten-day bonanza, selling everything from pet food and bottled water to second hand books and what looks like the unwanted contents of an attic or garden shed.
The festival site comprises a series of stages joined by covered walkways that even the worst of the weather will have little impact. There is more to enjoy than the programmed events, a fact confirmed by a gallery where book illustrators display and sell their work and performances from high-profile musicians and comedians.
Also attracting the crowds are a food hall, bars and cafés where people-watching is a popular pastime, and a bookshop where the smell of ink on paper evokes nostalgic memories for one age group, and an opportunity to enjoy browsing physical books for the online generation.
To the events. Friends of Hay season ticket holders are armed with queue-skipping rights and enthusiasts strike up conversations as they wait to hear the words of politicians, economists, world-famous authors and wordsmiths of many varieties.
From intimate venues where children sit in thrall of authors reading favourite kids’ stories, to the cavernous 1,700 capacity tent which is full to the brim for the big ticket authors such as Rushdie chatting about his latest, critically acclaimed novel, Hay hosts almost 500 sessions.
Alongside Onuzo – an engaging young Nigerian author with a great line in humour – and Rushdie are discussions on weightier issues. Examples are economist Mariana Mazzucato urging us all to reconsider how wealth is created, anthropologist David Graeber with his take on the problem of meaningless jobs and their damaging impact on our health, and Sir Nigel Shadbolt, who shared his enthusiasm for the future of tehcnology.
Also falling into the more serious category are the debates and discussions, one instance being Philippe Sands and his gentle investigation of fellow award winning author David France to analyse the latter’s book on the inhumane treatment of AIDS sufferers.
Then, when it is all over, the village returns to normality – the bookshops and cafés resume the gentler pace of business, provided primarily by walkers, and preparations begin for next year’s book jamboree.
Graeber warns against confusing meaningless jobs with poor jobs, defining the latter as meaningful work that is undervalued. Indeed, he suggests that many of the worst paid jobs are among the most valued.David Graeber.
Wednesday at Hay - The scourge of meaningless jobs
The title of David Graeber’s book suggests that he is a straight talker. And the author of Bullshit Jobs: A Theory lives up to expectations. He entertains a busy Tata Tent audience with stories of dead-end employment and what we can do to address it.
Graeber, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, explains that the prompt for his latest work was the widespread reaction he received to a magazine article on the same subject.
The humour he brings to the subject is evident from the outset when he offers an anecdote which brings guffaws of laughter. “I kept meeting people at parties and when you ask them what they do, they say nothing really. You think they are being modest, but no, they really are doing nothing”, he says.
This appeared to be so common that he felt it was worthy of further investigation. He conducted a survey among his Twitter followers and received around 300 responses from people who felt they were employed in pointless activities. These included some such as corporate lawyers, who felt they were only needed because someone else had engaged a corporate lawyer, and telemarketers who believed their only purpose was to stop customers buying from a rival.
Such a view was reinforced by a YouGov survey showing 37 per cent of people felt their jobs were meaningless, while a further 13 per cent were unsure.
Many of those who had responded on Twitter were employed as middle-managers and they explained that they first questioned their value shortly after being appointed to their role and realised they were only there to monitor those in other meaningless jobs.
Graeber warns against confusing meaningless jobs with poor jobs, defining the latter as meaningful work that is undervalued. Indeed, he suggests that many of the worst paid jobs are among the most valued.
He then adds that there are serious implications in the form of psychological issues as a result of working in a toxic environment. One factor is that people tend to treat colleagues worse when they realise what they themselves are doing is pointless.
However, the reverse can be true in some cases, and the positive aspect of working in these jobs is that meaningless employment can have positive influences in terms of interaction with colleagues, which would not exist otherwise.
He offers a solution to the problem – and one that may gain support if fears over the impact of robots gather momentum – in the form of universal basic income (UBI). This has been the subject of a trial in Finland and involves paying a flat sum to all citizens of a country on an unconditional basis. The main objection to his proposal is that people will be able to live off handouts. Graeber suggests his plan would free creative minds to focus on other interests such as science or music and, if it leads to the discovery of an Einstein or a John Lennon, will be money well spent.
And he has one final tip for those seeking to avoid meaningless employment – never take a job with ‘strategic’ in the title!
The session continues with Rushdie voicing concern over a narrowing down of perspective in the world generally and the US in particular. He is troubled by the view that we are now seeing a movement against intellectuals. Being knowledgeable, he explains, is now being viewed as elitist.Salman Rushdie.
Tuesday at Hay - From Trump to cream cakes
The lure of hearing the often controversial advertising man turned Booker Prize winning author, Sir Salman Rushdie, has attracted a sell-out audience to the 1,700 capacity Tata Tent. And they are not disappointed.
Host for the session, Tishani Doshi – an Indian journalist and poet – asks Rushdie to talk about his 13th novel, Golden House, which is set in New York and begins with the election of President Obama. He is happy, he admits, to have had the book compared by various reviewers with the Great Gatsby, Bonfire of the Vanities and the Godfather.
There are shades of Donald Trump in the central protagonist, Nero, who has made his fortune in real estate, has his name on the side of buildings and is married to a trophy Russian wife. Rushdie insists that this was all coincidence having created the character before the current president came into public consciousness.
Golden House revolves around a family that has moved to New York from India. The author draws on his own experience of moving to the Big Apple two decades ago. Two of the three sons in the family have issues relating to autism and gender and Rushdie hopes that his work will offer insight and empathy. His aim, as with each of his works, is for the reader to reach the end and feel that they know more than they did when they started. The book is based around the idea of a Greek tragedy, meaning that the outcome is not a surprise.
Rushdie explains that, while writing the story, he woke during the night and realised that he had made a mistake in having the narrator as a writer. Instead the voice of the novel is that of a film maker. That allowed him to write the book cinematically – a technique he had never used in the past.
The idea of settling in a new place is not new for Rushdie and he elicits murmurs of agreement from the audience when, talking of having a permanent home, he says that it is nice to have a home and to be where your books are. He qualifies that by saying that books are his tools and he has never been able to write away from his desk.
The session continues with Rushdie voicing concern over a narrowing down of perspective in the world generally and the US in particular. He is troubled by the view that we are now seeing a movement against intellectuals. Being knowledgeable, he explains, is now being viewed as elitist. He is especially perturbed by the findings of a recent survey by Pew Research Center among Republican voters and Republican-leaning independents, in which 58 per cent had a negative view of universities.
And it ends with a throwback to his previous life as an advertising executive. A member of the audience poses the question – is it true that he coined the phrase ‘naughty but nice’ as an advertising slogan for cream cakes? Yes, it is, Rushdie confirms before stating, “And I suppose it is a reasonable description of my career”.
And the session ends on a positive note when Page suggests there are grounds for optimism. Although there are many challenges of which corruption is one, he believes it is a country populated by talented and capable people who appear ready to move it to a higher economic level.Oliver Bullough with Chibundu Onuzo and Matthew T. Page.
Tuesday at Hay - The corruption conundrum
It’s perhaps fate that the recent sunny weather has abated on Tuesday morning, when one of the early sessions features three authors whose work focuses on Nigeria, and specifically the gloomy yet engrossing subject of corruption in its largest city, Lagos.
Investigative journalist and author Oliver Bullough hosts the session under the guise of his Kleptoscope series which looks at corruption and dirty money, primarily in London. He welcomes Chibundu Onuzo, a young Nigerian author, whose second book, Welcome to Lagos, has corruption at its heart. Also on the Wales Stage for the event is Matthew T Page, a former US intelligence agent who spent many years in Nigeria. His book, Nigeria: What Everyone Needs to Know, will be published later this year.
Onuzo, a sharp and witty 20 something, reads a section from her book that highlights the issue of a black economy in Lagos, where many workers duck below the formal tax system. That is the tip of an issue that sees billions of dollars siphoned from the Nigerian budget by corrupt officials and politicians, much of it subsequently hidden in overseas bank accounts.
She explains that in many instances the individuals concerned are not regarded as ‘bad people’ and she later cites the case of a politician who pays for a sick individual to have treatment overseas using money that had been earmarked to build a hospital.
Page agrees that the seriousness of the situation is often underplayed, with politicians falling to challenge each other robustly. In fact, it has multiple effects, particularly on security which is at the root of many issues in the country. As an example, he points to the 2 million people, many of them women and children, who are currently displaced in Nigeria, and suggests that corruption is a primary cause.
The difficulty, Page suggests, is the greater opportunities for theft in Nigeria. An example is in military funding, where there are 20-30 steps at which funds can be diverted. By contrast, the UK or US systems will have only two such phases in that same process.
And he underlines the extent to which it is engrained in everyday life with a gruesome tale. Bodies are often found in bushes and the reason they lie undiscovered there is that the police are so corrupt that any person reporting such a discovery is arrested and treated as the prime suspect.
Bullough’s overriding concern is that London is the centre for global money laundering and the impact of that is emphasised by Onuzo who now lives in London but can’t afford to buy a house because the influx of foreign money has driven up prices.
She lightens the mood a little when she refers to the Nigerian prince email scam that is known to everyone in the audience. They are not all Nigerians, she complains suggesting the emails come from around the world – “China has stolen our brand!”
And the session ends on a positive note when Page suggests there are grounds for optimism. Although there are many challenges of which corruption is one, he believes it is a country populated by talented and capable people who appear ready to move it to a higher economic level.
And with that the session ends, while outside the sun echoes that positivity when it breaks through the clouds.
A computer in 1971 had 2,300 transistors. By comparison, a recent Apple iPhone has more than 3 billion. We now have super-computers in our pocket.Sir Nigel Shadbolt.
Monday at Hay - The digital optimist
Sir Nigel Shadbolt insists that there is nothing new in our relationship with technology. Indeed it has been going on for three and a half million years, all the way back to when our ancestors were making tools. And, although it has a markedly shorter history, which can be measured in decades, artificial intelligence (AI) is also firmly embedded in the past.
More than 700 people are packed into the Baillie Gifford Stage to hear the Principal of Jesus College, University of Oxford and professor of computer science at that establishment explain the background to his latest book, The Digital Ape: how to live (in peace) with smart machines, which he co-wrote with Roger Hampson, a former social policy economist and now chief executive of the London Borough of Redbridge. Shadbolt is also collaborating with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited with inventing the internet, on a project with the UK government to provide public sector data relating to such things as health and transport.
It is evidence of the broad appeal of Shadbolt’s work that those engrossed by his presentation and the subsequent Q&A session are drawn from across the age spectrum – proof that technology is no longer a topic consigned to a single demographic group.
He talks about Moore’s Law – the notion that the power of computers doubles every 15 months while costs fall by around half. A computer in 1971 had 2,300 transistors. By comparison, a recent Apple iPhone has more than 3 billion. We now have super-computers in our pocket. But, he concedes, these are machines that no-one, even the greatest technology minds, fully understands.
One common concern is our fear that AI is a threat to humanity. Not so, according to Shadbolt, who suggests that the bigger reason for concern is our own natural stupidity. He is equally keen to dispel fears that technology advancements will lead to job losses. In this respect too, he believes our worries are overblown. His assertion is that we are ingenuous and inventive in creating things for human beings to do. And, he backs up his claim with an assurance that new jobs will be created in areas we have not yet considered.
Shadbolt acknowledges that there are valid reasons why we should fear the power of technology when it is used for aggressive or illegal purposes. However, he takes the view that developments will depend on the light and shade of human beings, rather than the technology itself.
Referring to the diverse developments he would like to see, Shadbolt is in favour of the Digital Geneva Convention proposed by Microsoft as a means of policing cyber-activity and combatting the growth in cyber-attacks by governments.
And, high on his wish list is to have more female participation within technology, starting with higher numbers of students – only 7 per cent of the places on computer studies courses at Oxford are women. And, judging by the mix in the audience, that particular ambition is on the way to fruition.
The audience become more animated when she moves on to the subject of Brexit. A vociferous opponent of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, she is sceptical about the amount of money being paid to the four consulting companies managing the leaving process.Mariana Mazzucato in conversation with Dharshini David.
Monday at Hay - A lesson in progressive economic thinking
Mariana Mazzucato was dubbed the ‘world’s scariest economist’ by The Times. While that assessment appears harsh, there is no doubting that she is an impressive whirlwind of energy, enthusiasm and innovative economic thinking.
Host, Dharshini David – an author, economist and broadcaster – promises during her introduction that the next hour will change the way the audience thinks about economics. That seems a reasonable expectation given the standing of Mazzucato whose portfolio of jobs have included professor at University College London and adviser to the Conservative and Labour parties, as well as the Scottish Government.
The author explains the reasons for writing her latest book, The Value of Everything. There is a view that only businesses create wealth. Mazzucato refutes that suggestion, pointing to the contribution of the public sector and, increasingly the third sector towards building value in areas such as the internet. She also wanted to look at how the wealth that activity creates is shared. Her conclusion is that everyone should have a return on the public’s investment and business should only benefit if there is a surplus after everyone else is paid.
A key point in her argument is that wealth extraction is damaging. Withdrawing value is not new – 17th century landlords were guilty of it – but what is new is that the value extraction is veiled. She illustrates the argument with reference to stock market-listed companies buying back their own shares in order to bolster their value and boost the performance-related pay of bosses, rather than investing profits in capital creation or training programmes.
That, she says is simply short-termism. Her aim is to set a new agenda of co-creating value and co-shaping markets – working together to improve efficiencies – rather than just fixing them when something goes wrong.
Terminology is an issue for Mazzucato, who dislikes the passive implication of a central bank being described as a ‘lender of last resort’, the suggestion that policymakers should ‘facilitate’, the negativity of the word ‘regulation’ and the ambivalence of the term ‘level playing field’. We should, she suggests, have more ‘tilted playing fields’, favouring something other than the status quo.
She goes on to express concern about the lack of commitment shown by the Westminster Government towards a public bank that would supply finance for public projects, pointing to the more progressive view taken in Scotland where it is regarded as a better value option than Private Finance Initiatives (PFI).
The audience become more animated when she moves on to the subject of Brexit. A vociferous opponent of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, she is sceptical about the amount of money being paid to the four consulting companies managing the leaving process. That is quite apart from what she perceives to be the economic cost of withdrawing.
She goes on to offer several other radical proposals, including a payment to individuals from large technology businesses – she prefers the tag ‘media companies’ – in return for access to personal data.
And, at the end of a thought-provoking, hour-long session, the Bank Holiday audience leaves the Good Energy Stage, their knowledge almost certainly enhanced, just as they were promised.
As you would expect from an eminent QC, Sands has a gentle yet probing style of questioning and he elicits information from France that clearly remains raw. However, both authors also do a good line in humour. And France sends the audience into the balmy Hay evening with a smile on their faces.David France speaks to Philippe Sands.
Sunday at Hay - Spellbinding stuff from prize-winning duo
France meets a Frenchman on Hay’s Good Energy Stage, but this isn’t one for the Francophiles. Instead a large audience sits spellbound as Philippe Sands, the dual national British-French lawyer, who won the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction with his book East West Street, chats with the latest recipient of the award, David France.
France’s book, How to Survive a Plague, tells the harrowing story of the AIDS epidemic and the shameful treatment of its sufferers in the 1980s and 90s.
The denial and lack of compassion from politicians, authorities, media and scientists are the overriding themes of the book, and the shocking aspect is how recent it was. Indeed one member of the audience, a doctor who has treated AIDS patients, expresses his horror at the refusal of health staff to treat sufferers.
However, the work is a chronicle of triumph over adversity, and France tells how the community he had joined in New York after moving from Michigan ultimately overcame the barriers that blocked their way in all aspects of life and in the search for a cure to an illness that generally killed its sufferers within 18 months of them becoming infected.
The death of actor Rock Hudson, a friend of US President Ronald Reagan, was a pivotal moment, taking the issue to a wider political audience and driving the issue into the public eye.
The author himself had experienced discrimination, notably when, as a member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, he had been unable to work as a journalist. However, after launching his career with the New York Native, a publication for the gay community that peaked at 30,000 readers, he secured a position with the New York Post. After being sacked when he was viewed as a ‘gay Trojan horse’, he moved to the New York Times as a science reporter.
France tells of pivotal events such as the creation of Act Up, a group whose aggressive and direct activities ensured the AIDS story was told. And he credits the efforts of Iris Long. Despite having no connection with the gay community, Long, a chemist who had previously worked with the type of drugs that would eventually be the base for an AIDS cure, shared her knowledge with Act Up activists and was a catalyst for enlightened thinking within the group.
As you would expect from an eminent QC, Sands has a gentle yet probing style of questioning and he elicits information from France that clearly remains raw. However, both authors also do a good line in humour. And France sends the audience into the balmy Hay evening with a smile on their faces.
He had earlier exhibited his wit when he told of medical staff who refused to treat AIDS patients, saying, “The joke of the time was, ‘What do you feed an AIDS patient? Pancakes because that’s the only thing you can slide under the door.”
And, asked by Sands if the tears France shed when told he had won the award were a sign of still-raw emotions, the modest American replied, “I had been drinking – the wine was free!"