“The Woodstock of the Mind” Celebrates 30 Years

By Katie Lewis

Nestled among lush-green rolling hills, just on the Welsh side of the Anglo-Welsh border, lies the beautiful sleepy town of Hay-on-Wye (or Y Gelli, to use its Welsh name). With over two dozen bookshops to serve fewer than 2000 permanent residents, Hay has long been known as “the town of books”, and by the late 1970s, became the world’s first official Book Town. A great venue, then, for Britain’s biggest and most famous literary festival. Founded around a kitchen table in 1987, Hay Festival has grown from an exciting idea to a world-class event, drawing writers, actors, artists, politicians, philosophers, scientists, comedians, musicians and crowds numbering 250,000 people, from across the globe. Called “the Woodstock of the mind” by Bill Clinton when he spoke at Hay in 2001, Hay Festival has become a highlight of the literary calendar for many; indeed, the late Tony Benn said that “in my mind it’s replaced Christmas”.

Hay Festival 2017 gets underway. Photo by Mogan Selvakannu

Hay Festival always feels special, but this year there was a buzz in the air, as Hay celebrated its 30th year with a superb line-up of speakers. These included: Bernie Sanders, Eddie Izzard, Jaqueline Wilson, Nick Clegg, Helen Fielding, Victoria Hislop, Jeremy Paxman, Stephen Fry, Peter Singer, Tom Daley, Graham Norton, Simon Schama, Nadya Tolokno (of Pussy Riot), Robert Winston, Colm Tóibín, Tom Hollander, Juliet Stevenson, Tony Robinson, Gillian Tett, Tracey Emin, Martin Rees, Harriet Harman, Tracy Chevalier, Rowan Williams, Paul Cartledge, Neil Gaiman, Richard E. Grant, Germaine Greer, Michael Parkinson, Will Young, Jeremy Bowen, George Monbiot, Will Self, A. C. Grayling, Jim Al-Khalili, Ian Rankin, Michael Sheen, Simon Armitage, John Simpson, Bill Bailey, and many more.

Princeton University Press is proud to be part of Hay Festival each year, and this year we had a wonderful group of authors speaking on a fascinating range of subjects:

Robbert Dijkgraaf, Director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and author of The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, spoke about one of the great paradoxes of scientific research: the search for answers to deep questions, motivated solely by curiosity and without concern for applications, often leads not only to the greatest scientific discoveries but also to the most revolutionary technological breakthroughs. Dijkgraaf’s charisma and humour shone through as he made his large audience laugh with a video of the world’s first robot and reminded us that “without Einstein’s theory, your GPS would be 7 miles out. So, I like to say that without Einstein, we would all be lost”. Dijkgraaf also recorded a special episode of BBC Radio 4’s programme “Inside Science” in front of a live audience at Hay. You can listen again here.

Speaking on a subject of macabre topicality, Gilles Kepel, author of Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West, discussed the topic of his book in relation to Europe as a whole, and the events in Manchester on 22nd May in particular.

Kevin Laland, biologist and author of Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind gave a fascinating talk highlighting the uniqueness of the human species, and what sets us apart from other animals. He argued that it was the complexity and diversity of human culture that has caused human beings to evolve, and that the success of the human species is down to a ‘whirlpool’ of evolutionary feedback and cultural processes. In other words, human beings are creatures of their own making.

Kevin N. Laland. Photo by Sam J. Peat

Alexander Todorov, author of Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions enthralled his audience of almost 2000 people with his digitally constructed images of faces showing characteristics that the human brain (often incorrectly) perceives to denote different personality traits upon first meeting. Did you know that our brains make judgements about a person’s trustworthiness, competence, dominance and other traits within 1/10th of a second? Definitely food for thought…

Roger Penrose, renowned physicist and author of Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe did an ‘In Conversation’ event with Marcus du Sautoy. Marcus told us all that Roger was one of his childhood heroes and remembered having heard him lecture in his school days. Their conversation ranged across string theory, dark matter, black holes and sparked some excellent questions from the audience.

Roger Penrose. Photo by Mogan Selvakannu

Finally, Lawrence Bee, author of Britain’s Spiders: A Field Guide, delighted arachnophiles of all ages in his talk on how to recognise some of the 670 species of spiders living in your British back garden. He also brought some live spiders with him on stage, which the audience were able to get a closer look at during his book signing!

Lawrence Bee. Photo by Liam Webb

Hay Festival really is the thinking person’s paradise. Some years, the grass quads swarm with sunbathing readers or people dozing in deck chairs between talks; some years, wellington boots become not just a festival fashion item, but a necessity. But, rain or shine, Hay Festival has a certain magic that’s hard to describe. It’s a bit like the thrill of walking into a great bookshop and finding the authors of a whole host of wonderful books inside, waiting to welcome you and introduce you to the characters and ideas within their pages.

Clips and full talks from Hay Festival 2017 can be viewed on the BBC’s Hay Festival webpage.

Katie Lewis has been a publicist at Princeton University Press’s European office, near Oxford, since 2009.

Hay Festival: A Literary Vacation

Hay Festival is an annual literature festival that takes place in Hay-on-Wye in Wales. In 2001, Bill Clinton described it as, “the Woodstock of the mind.” This year, Hay Festival takes place 25 May – 4 June, bringing writers and readers together to share stories and ideas in events that inspire, examine, and entertain. Here at PUP, we’re looking forward to seeing many of our highly celebrated authors participate in lectures and panel discussions. Get your tickets here.

Peter Singer
Ethics in the Real World
Saturday, 27 May 2017 2:30pm

Singer

Robbert Dijkgraaf
The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge
Saturday, 27 May 2017 5:30pm

Dijkgraaf

Gilles Kepel
Terror in France
Sunday, 28 May 2017 1:00pm

Kepel

Kevin Laland
Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony
Tuesday, 30 May 2017 2:30pm

Laland

Alexander Todorov
Face Value
Tuesday, 30 May 2017 4pm

Todorov

Lawrence Bee
Britain’s Spiders
Wednesday, 31 May 2017 4pm

Bee

Roger Penrose
Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe
Thursday, 1 June 2017 5:30pm

Penrose

Hay Festival – A Literary Vacation on the Welsh Border

Hay Festival is truly a highlight in the bookworm’s calendar. On a typical day at Hay, you might spend the morning sipping coffee on a sofa in the café marquee with a newspaper and croissant on your lap, followed by a talk on Shakespeare’s Women, then a journey into the future of science with the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, before tripping along to a live lunchtime recording of BBC Radio 3’s The Verb (don’t laugh too loudly or your cackle will be heard by millions!). Over lunch you might catch a glimpse of Stephen Fry walking along in the sunshine, or meet a fellow bumble-bee enthusiast at the next table. Whilst admiring the myriad display of colourful wellies everywhere you look, you rifle through your programme deciding what to go to next. You make a last-minute decision and rush to a talk about homo sapiens, followed by a browse in the books tent and an ice-cream and a read in a deck chair in the sun. Next up, a talk about a better future world and a glimpse at a real page of the Magna Carta, hosted by Stephen Fry and the hilarious Sandi Toksvig, before ending your day dancing at one of the wonderful concerts held in the large Tata Tent.

Hay Festival

Hay Festival gets underway

Princeton University Press has a strong and long-standing relationship with Hay Festival, and we are proud that this year proved to be no exception. Our week was kicked off by the wonderful Beth Shapiro, on the subject of her new book, How to Clone a Mammoth. Is it possible to bring back the mammoth, the dodo, or the sabre-toothed cat? Why would we want to? And, much more importantly, should we? If you’re wishing you could have been there, fear not, as Beth Shapiro gave the same talk at the Royal Institution earlier in the week, and the whole thing can be watched online, here.

Hay Festival Shapiro

Beth Shapiro at Hay Festival

Best-selling Irish novelist Colm Tóibín spoke about his new novel, Nora Webster, and his Princeton book On Elizabeth Bishop at Hay’s opening weekend. Despite covering themes of loss and death that recur in Bishop’s poetry, he had the whole audience of 1100 people roaring with laughter.

Toibin at Hay

Colm Tóibín amusing the crowd at Hay

On Saturday evening, Beth Shapiro and Colm Tóibín were joined by historian Yuval Noah Harari and novelist Owen Sheers to record a live audience programme for Start the Week, to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4. A fascinating discussion encompassing pre-historic animals and humans to 20th century poetry and everything in-between. You can listen to the programme online here.

Toibin on Start the Week

Colm Tóibín on Start the Week

Other Princeton author events, which this Princeton publicist would love to have attended but had to go back to her day job (perhaps I should take a week-long vacation during Hay Festival next year…) were talks on dark matter and dark energy by Katherine Freese, director of Nordita, the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics and author of The Cosmic Cocktail, and a talk about the process by which artists such as Michelangelo, Dürer, and Titian became early modern celebrities by Maria Loh, author of the beautiful Still Lives.

Who knows who next year will bring to delight the crowds on the Welsh borders. One thing is for sure: it’s worth blocking out your calendar even before you’ve seen the line-up.

Katherine Freese, author of “The Cosmic Cocktail,” at the Royal Astronomical Society

Freese RAS talk

Katherine Freese speaking at the Royal Astronomical Society

Only 5 percent of all matter and energy in the cosmos (think plants, animals, planets, the air we breathe) is made up of ordinary atoms. The rest is known as dark matter—it cannot be seen with telescopes, and its precise identity remains unknown. The Cosmic Cocktail is the inside story of the epic quest to identify dark matter and learn what the universe is made of, told by one of today’s foremost pioneers in the study of dark matter, acclaimed theoretical physicist Katherine Freese. Neil deGrasse Tyson calls the book “a gripping first person account of her life as a cosmologist…Part memoir, part tutorial, part social commentary.” It’s the perfect detective story for science geeks.

Freese post-talk

Post-event drinks at the Royal Astronomical Society

This week, Katherine Freese is in the UK talking about her research and the book. On April 8, she gave a talk at the Royal Astronomical Society and then recorded The Forum on the BBC World Service, which was presented by science journalist Quentin Cooper and will be broadcast and available to listen to online later this month.

Freese and Quinton Cooper

Freese and Quentin Cooper

Don’t miss Freese’s upcoming speaking engagements: On April 15th, Freese and PUP author Jacqueline Mitton will be participating in Edinburgh International Science Festival and on April 16th Freese will be speaking at Blackwell’s in Oxford. Freese will be a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour on April 17th. On May 26th, she will be speaking at Hay Festival, a philosophy and music festival in Hay-on-Wye, (one of the biggest literary festivals in the UK, which was described by Bill Clinton in 2001 as “The Woodstock of the mind”).

Freese recording The Forum at BBC

Freese recording at BBC Broadcasting House