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Katie Antoniou: Hay Literary Festival

As with all the greatest journeys in history, ours began with a car that wouldn't start and a call to the AA. Two hours later we set off, just in time to hit bank holiday traffic - so far so good. We had booked a small cottage nestled in a Welsh valley, roughly 20 minutes drive from Hay-on-Wye, where the annual Guardian sponsored literary festival is held. We turned off the main road at the Pandy Inn, only to find that the subsequent directions from Ruth and Ken, owners of our accommodation, involved a 'triangle of grass' and a 'black horse rake'. Now it turns out that in rural Wales, neither grass nor rustic farming implements make good landmarks, as there's quite a lot of both. 'We've definitely driven past that sheep before!' wasn't much help either.

By this point we had lost all mobile phone signal, it was getting dark, we hadn't eaten anything and people were beginning to show their dark side. Recollections of 'An American werewolf in London' finally tipped us over the edge, at which point, two hours later, we returned to the Pandy Inn and got Ken to come out and meet us. We left the pub (where, loitering on the street corner looking out for Ken whilst the others were inside stocking up on crisps and KitKats, I was briefly mistaken for some sort of rural Welsh prostitute) and followed Ken home to a gorgeous converted granary in the middle of nowhere. A farm survival guide on our coffee table recounted how Kens' father-in-laws grandfather had told him about how his grandfather could remember the last hanging in Herefordshire. Combined with an illustration of a wicker man full of sacrificed druids in the bathroom, this was all comforting stuff. We locked all doors and windows before falling into bed, where only complete exhaustion managed to silence our overactive imaginations.

Next morning, I enthusiastically slathered on the SPF 30, encouraged by great weather forecasts. Looking out of the window, I began to worry that good weather in Wales referred only to a lack of rain, rather than blazing sunshine. Armed with a map, we set of to Hay and arrived in under twenty minutes, where we joined the throng of sandal wearing, eco-friendly, Guardian readers all keen to get their geek on with some literary food for thought. Unlike more commercial music festivals, the number of stalls at Hay is very limited- Penguin books has one, as does the Slow Fashion Knitwear gang, where knitting was being pioneered as the latest look. By this time, the sun had come out, and as far as the eye could see, townies were lounging around in deckchairs, lapping up local produce like Shepherd's ice-cream and Tyrell's crisps whilst commenting on how quaint it all was and wouldn't it be nice if it were on the central line? Seeing someone fall through their deckchair was definitely one of the highlights of my weekend.

Oxfam's presence at the festival is huge, with a stall constantly restocked with second hand books in great condition, selling for around £2.50 each. There's also an amazing new series of Ox Tales being released on 4th July; four books are themed around the elements, representing different aspects of Oxfam's work: EARTH (from land rights to farming): AIR (combating climate change): FIRE (campaigning for arms control), and WATER (safe water and sanitation). Authors include Kate Atkinson, Ian Rankin, Vikram Seth, Rose Tremain, Alexander McCall Smith, Sebastian Faulks, Lionel Shriver, Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith, Esther Freud, Zoe Heller , Joanna Trollope and many more. They are a fiver each, with £3.50 of this going directly to Oxfam's work fighting poverty.

Its not all books at Hay - there's plenty of comedy and music too. The Quiz show, 'What the Dickens?' was being filmed, with Sandi Toksvig hosting the new series, teams captained by Chris Addison (The Thick of It) and Sue Perkins. If you've ever been in a studio audience you know the tedious hours of clapping, re-shooting and fake-laughing involved. This was no exception. Sandi did her best to convince producers that if she didn't get the football jokes, there wasn't really much point reading them out as it wouldn't sound funny. The couple of gems she did come out with tended to get cut by Sky Arts censorship - jokes about Rupert Murdoch are a big No-No, apparently.

One of the great things about going to such a small festival, is that you end up bumping into quite a lot of famous people. Frank Skinner - check. Sadie Jones -check. Marcus Brigstocke - check. Friends who will remain unnamed spent a large part of the weekend stalking Jon Snow, suffering from a somewhat unconventional celebrity crush. We left before Stephen Fry was due to speak - undoubtedly the national treasure will have had to contend with a certain amount of mobbing.

Apart from a brief incident involving two sheep escapees blocking the road home, Saturday night was uneventful. We had a delicious dinner and lit the woodburning stove in our living room, relaxing with some local cider. Unfortunately, the next day another friend who will remain unnamed realised that she had used her ticket to see Dave Gorman on Sunday to light said stove. As excuses go, we figured 'I don't have my ticket 'cos I burnt it' might induce more ridicule than sympathy, so stuck to the 'lost' line and managed to get a replacement. Gorman was speaking about his road trip around the States, boycotting all corporate chain garages, hotels and restaurants in favour of independent businesses. The fact that his talk was held in the Barclays Wealth Pavilion (yep, that was its actual name) left us feeling a bit confused about the ethics of the festival. Gorman was very amusing though - if you saw the TV series on Channel 4, it turns out there's quite a lot in the book that they didn't get to film; right wing religious nuts, policeman, and skinheads are, apparently, reluctant to let you film them. And when someone has a really big gun, you don't argue. Or even a small gun for that matter.

We also popped into Hay - the tiny village has more than 30 second hand and antiquarian bookshops and is the perfect place to while away a few hours between talks. Markets, stalls, and even smaller festivals are run in the village throughout the literary festivals duration, with some home-owners even opening up their front lawns to serve cream tea or sell vintage curiosities from their attics. Friends of ours had gone for the more authentic camping ordeal, but compared to big music festivals, the whole experience seemed pretty civilised. Queues for food and booze are minimal, and the toilets verge on luxurious - its all a million miles from the primitive squalor of bigger festivals. With the event being relatively small, its refreshing to be able to walk from the camp site to any of the lecture tents without having to traipse through 4 fields of mud a la Glastonbury. Whilst wild and crazy fun may be limited, the hours spent glugging Pimms in the sun feel much more justified after sitting through a couple of intellectual lectures. Good speakers leave you feeling inspired to put pen to paper yourself, and bad ones leave you thinking 'I could do better than that' - so either way, this is a great motivator for anyone wanting literary inspiration.

The Hay short story competition is still running - for details visit ..., you have until 31st July to send in your entry on the theme 'Lost'. Perhaps I should write about our journey to Hay....

The Official Website: ...

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