In Depth

Howard Jacobson on the Hay Festival

The British novelist waxes lyrical about his part in one of the UK's biggest literary events

I've been going to the Hay since the mid-1980s, when it was just a handful of writers in a pub. And maybe some curious readers ambled by, sat at a nearby table, and we all had a beer and the sun shone. There was a nice amateur innocence about it. People often invoke Woodstock when they talk about it, but I think of it more as a tournament, in the medieval sense. A tourney with white pavilions and high-flying pennants but a tourney in which I won't be pushed off my horse by someone with a bigger lance than mine. I go riding on words.

Hay is very competitive for speakers. You're anxious to know how big your tent is, and whether it will be full, and whether you will have more people in it than the tent next door; and whether the laughter from your tent will drown out the laughter from their tent. That’s all part of the excitement.

I like meeting readers, because you can be locked away a lot as a writer, and you've got no idea where your words wing to, how they reach people. And sometimes you fear they haven't reached them at all, so it's great having the opportunity to read to them. Often they'll come up and go, 'oh I didn’t know it would sound like that. That's really helped explain things.'

Among my most memorable Hay moments are the two occasions on which I won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize – that cutely titled prize for comic writing – and was given a pig to christen. But what stays in my mind most happened in the 1990s: I was walking through the middle of town when somebody came round shouting through a megaphone, 'Does anybody know Great Expectations?' Well, it happens to be my favourite novel, so I shouted back, 'Yes, I know it. Why?' And she told me there was a big event on and Great Expectations was a set text, and Claire Tomalin [the well-known Dickens biographer] had been taken ill. If I knew the book, would I come along to talk about it there and then? So I was whisked away to address 1,500 people. It was like one of those stories of men and women who dream of being opera singers, and are sitting in the audience and then the lead takes ill, and someone says, 'Can anybody sing Tosca?' Whereupon a woman rises and says, 'I can!'. I love that idea of the audience becoming the act – it quintessentialises the feeling of Hay for me.

For first-timers, I'd say book for what you want to see in advance, but leave yourself time to just wander about. The site has everything you'd need, but I also like walking around the town at night and seeing others doing the same – carrying books, talking, imagining being Tosca.

HOWARD JACOBSON, to date, is the only writer to have won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize twice. He will be speaking at Hay on Wye Literary Festival on Saturday 3 June at 2.30pm and 10pm. The festival runs 25 May to 4 June; hayfestival.com

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