Friday, May 25, 2007
When Arthur Miller was invited to speak there, he asked what kind of sandwich it was. Hay-on-Wye is in fact one of the biggest literary festivals in the world, and is held every spring in a little market town on the Welsh border with England.
The town is called Hay and the river's named Wye. It sits at the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park. Offa’s Dyke, the ditch that divides England from Wales, runs through the middle of it, so you’re never quite sure which country you’re in - but it likes to think of itself as Welsh and natives call it Y Gelli (pronounced eeGETHlee). And it’s one of the most beautiful spots in Britain.
They call it a market town, but its main market is second-hand books. Hay is one big bookshop, with books occupying any available space: the former castle; a cinema: a chapel; a Victorian military drill hall. Bookshelves line the main street, with honesty boxes labelled ‘Hard backs 50p’. You pay what you like for paperbacks.
Hay has a population of 1300 people and 39 bookshops - that's one shop for every 34 inhabitants. You’ll find bookshops that specialise in anything: books about bee-keeping, about British birds, about WWII medals. One shop sells only new books at £1. Marijana Dworski sells books in Polish.
If that looks familiar, it's part of a post I did last May, updated. Well, it's May again and we're off to Taffyland this morning clutching our 'must find' book lists, for our ninth trip to the Land of our Fathers. (DG was born there and so was my great-grandfather.) The photo's by Justin Williams, who has to be another Welshman.
'My books are the tendrils of my soul', wrote another Riviera writer, Robert W. Service. I'm not sure I know what a tendril is, and even less a soul - but I agree.
Desert Island Disc N0. 7 It’s May 24, my Dad’s birthday. He was my earliest musical influence, but I’ve no idea where his own preferences came from. Neither his class nor his education could have exposed him to much other than Victorian Music Hall (Burlesque): Florrie Forde, Harry Lauder, Sandy Powell etc., and he remained a Music Hall addict all his life, taking my mother and me to one or other of the many Liverpool (and later Blackpool) theatres at least once a week. That’s why I know all the words to songs like Any Old Iron, My Old Man, Oh Mr Porter and My Old Dutch. (I met the Sherman brothers once - the guys who wrote the music for Mary Poppins - who amazingly turned out to be English Music Hall fans. They were massively impressed with my repertoire if not my singing and asked me to write down the words, which finally found their way into an exhibit at EPCOT. Sure beat Supercallifragilistic.)
Dad also loved the musical comedies of his day: Rose Marie, Maid of the Mountains, Student Prince, White Horse Inn and such. But the surprise was that he also knew the works of people like Mendelsohn, Offenbach, and Herman Darewski. We didn’t have anything so sophisticated as an electrically-operated gramophone when I was a kid – in fact we didn’t have an electrical anything – but we would spend hours winding up the old machine and listening to Dad’s records. They would run more slowly as the spring wound down until finally Jeannette MacDonald would sound more like Ronald.
Later, my older brother would get into jazz and the records would be of Louis Armstong, Jelly-roll Morton and Billie Holday - but that’s another post.
One of Dad's and our favourites - we were a railway family and it began with ‘steam train’ effects - was Darewski playing Beyond the Blue Horizon. The train motif was taken up by the orchestra, building up speed and slowing at the end with a steam release like a sigh. Or was that the spring running out? I was later knocked out by the Artie Shaw arrangement, so that's the one I'm taking to the island, to remind me of old Walter tapping his fingers on the sewing machine and listening to his train sounds and the words: 'Beyond the blue horizon waits a wonderful day'.