“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.