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“A festival,” the author Matt Haig recently wrote in the Telegraph, “is a book you can walk into.” For those who have never been to the Hay Festival, it must be difficult to imagine how a village of tents – erected as if by magic in the night – can be home to so many potentially life-altering ideas. But it is.
The comedian Frank Skinner turned up, heard the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, and fell in love with the stars. Jimmy Carter, the former US president, listened to Gene Robinson, a gay American bishop – both away from their home country – and began to think differently about homosexuality and the church. Hilary Mantel came last year and first had the thought that led to her eloquent and controversial assertions about the Duchess of Cambridge. Hay, in other words, is where people go to challenge and change their minds – and those of others.
And what better way to exchange ideas than by travelling? These days you can attend Hay Festivals in cities from Kells to Cartagena, and hear local authors in conversation with British writers. Foreign travel was, in fact, part of the inspiration for Hay, and what the festival’s founders always hoped would happen.
The festival began 26 years ago, after Peter Florence returned to Wales from a British Council theatre tour of Latin America, and thought a similar set of cultural encounters could be brought about in this picturesque town famous for its second-hand bookshops. There were early sceptics – one famous novelist couldn’t believe they could persuade anyone to travel somewhere so remote – and early adopters: Arthur Miller signed up for the second year, having earlier assumed that “Hay-on-Wye” was “some kind of sandwich”.
Two and a half decades later, Hay is acknowledged as a leader in the field of ideas. And when Florence and his colleagues saw how this dissemination worked, they decided to extend something that had almost germinated on its own: they began to export the festival to other parts of the world.
Next month, in Budapest, you can hear Carl Bernstein, who unearthed the Watergate scandal, and the Hungarian author Peter Esterhazy; in Beirut, Hay will offer a platform for the novelist and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi and the groundbreaking graphic journalist Joe Sacco. Later in the year, the Hay Festival travels to Kells, Nairobi, Segovia, Mexico and Bangladesh – and each place will become a small crucible for thought.
Next month, at Hay in Wales, you’ll be able to hear John Le Carré speak for two hours about his life and work; Simon Schama will investigate the teaching of history in schools; Rowan Williams will discuss religious imagery with Neil MacGregor.
These speakers will be joined by the likes of Quentin Blake, Melvyn Bragg, Edna O’Brien and Thomas Keneally, and cede the stage later on to Rupert Everett, Miranda Hart, Dara O’Briain and Alan Davies. You may think we say this every year, but it’s true: the Hay festivals of 2013 promise more surprises for the mind than ever before.
Full Hay Festival coverage from Telegraph Travel
Hay-on-Wye travel guide: Joanna Symons offers a guide for visitors to the Hay Festival, including how to get there, where to stay and where to eat and drink.
Hay Festival: travel tips from Telegraph writers: Hay-on-Wye regulars among the Telegraph’s writers reveal their favourite haunts, from b&bs and bookshops to food stalls and pubs.
Walking the Offa’s Dyke path: Sam Llewellyn takes a leisurely approach to the great literary gathering – along Offa’s Dyke.
Beirut: a city built on miracles: The Lebanese capital has had its fair share of hard times, but it has survived. Benjamin Secher visits the vibrant city as it prepares for next month’s Hay Festival.