Editor Ben Tate on his trip to Hay Festival

It’s the mother of all literary festivals, and since its establishment in the late 1980s virtually every living writer of consequence has attended. It was here that the late Christopher Hitchens promoted, in turn, both his atheist manifesto as well as his memoir, and it was here that Margaret Atwood appeared just last year for an extended discussion of A Handmaid’s Tale. In 2004 John Updike, before presenting one of his last novels, insisted upon arriving by train ‘because they don’t have trains in Massachusetts’, and famously, and rather awkwardly, Paul Theroux and V.S. Naipaul were reunited here in 2011 after their long estrangement. It was in 2000 that Gore Vidal made one of his last truly robust public appearances, amusing audiences with his impressions of Ronald Reagan and Spiro Agnew; and Bill Clinton, after peddling his own book here in 2001, referred to it as ‘the Woodstock of the Mind’, though he was thinking more of upstate New York than of West Oxfordshire. This is, of course, the Hay Festival, staged every May in the Welsh market town of Hay-on-Wye, which is perched along the River Wye, and not too far from the southern extension of Offa’s Dyke, the Anglo-Saxon earth wall which more or less demarcates England from Wales. But it’s not for the stunning countryside that the festival is held here. For many bibliophiles, Hay-on-Wye is the very centre of the known universe: it’s the ‘town of books’ for a reason, as there are more than 30 used bookshops tucked into its narrow streets. And it’s such a relatively small place that one could conclude a ratio of one bookshop for every resident.

I had made pilgrimages to the town in the past, primarily to buy books I never intended to read with money I never really had. Last month, however, I visited the actual festival for the first time. And what a spectacle. Although until a few years ago the festival was held literally in the town, it is now of such a magnitude that it’s staged in an open field on the outskirts, in what is really a self-contained city of tents and marquees, with two bookshops on the site and a food hall of overwhelming variety and quality. I was there with a purpose, specifically to see our author Marion Turner, whose new book, Chaucer: A European Life, has been acclaimed as nothing less than a literary milestone. It’s a biography which situates Chaucer within the broadest cultural, political, social, and intellectual context, and by predicating the narrative upon the places in which Chaucer is known to have lived and travelled the author has rendered the subject’s life and work into a tangibly concrete and complicated reality. With helpful instruction from our publicist Katie Lewis, herself an expert hand at Hay, my wife Ginny and I made our way to the festival green room, where we found Katie and author in mid-conversation, and mid-prosecco, just about an hour or so before the early afternoon event. The green room was exactly what one would want it to be. Cake, bubbly and coffee were in generous and complimentary supply, as were various British cultural celebrities: Jeanette Winterson was there chatting with friends before her event; Bettany Hughes, the popular ancient historian, breezed through on her way to a panel on reconciliation in time of conflict; BBC lion Melvyn Bragg was holding court, because he’s Melvyn Bragg and this is the sort of thing he does; and finally there was Stephen Fry, whose presence exerted a kind of gravitational pull on the rest of the room. I had to remind myself that I first knew him as Jeeves more than twenty-five years ago.

Marion was whisked away by a festival official for a debriefing, and then after a quick lunch Katie, my wife and I walked over to Llwyfan Cymru (Wales Stage) for the sold-out event. 800 people crammed under the marquee to hear Marion discuss the book with Jerry Brotton, a professor of Renaissance studies Queen Mary. Brotton was the perfect interlocutor: he never imposed himself upon the proceedings, and his questions were posed just frequently enough to move the conversation naturally from one subject to the next.  Marion, not surprisingly, was effortlessly lucid and engaging, distilling her considerable learning with a youthful and noticeably infectious enthusiasm.  Audience questions, including one from the former manager of Tower Bridge, carried on until the very last minute of the hour-and-a-half event before a throng queued up in the main festival bookshop to buy signed copies.

Princeton’s Hay experience this year extended well beyond Chaucer. Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, talked about the future, and more specifically his wonderful On the Future, and later in the week Jonathan Bate attracted a crowd of 1500 for his talk on How the Classics Made Shakespeare. It’s difficult to get one’s head round a festival like Hay. For more than a week, thousands of readers converge on muddy farmland to see authors both prominent and obscure and to listen, learn, eat, drink, talk and buy books. The scale of it overwhelms and reassures at the same time. We’re fortunate to publish authors who are invited to engage with the public at such an annual gathering, and more literally we’re fortunate to be positioned in such proximity to the ‘town of books’.