Postcard from the Hay Festival

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I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Hay Festival again this year, having made my first visit ever in 2018. Last year I went down just for the day, and loved it, so I decided to make a weekend of it this year. It felt busier this time, although perhaps that was just my imagination. Last year, I packed four events into my day and felt like I didn’t have enough time to just wander around soaking up the atmosphere, so this year I booked five events for the two days and built in some time for a stroll into the town. The festival site is about a mile outside of Hay-on-Wye itself, or the ‘town of books’ as it calls itself. It really is a beautiful little place. I must go down sometime, outside of the festival period.

2019-05-25 19.05.44There was a decidedly political, Brexit-y feel to events this year, perhaps that is because of the looming Tory party leadership contest and the European elections last week. Also, there is a sense that the world of arts and culture is beginning to assert its feeling about the Brexit issue more vociferously as the UK’s departure draws nearer. I saw Keir Starmer on Saturday and found him extremely impressive (surely a future leader of the Labour Party?). He was thoughtful and candid, whilst also remaining tactful about current political events. He was gracious about Theresa May and less so about many of her colleagues. He was being interviewed by Philippe Sands, author of East West Street, and it was a treat to see him too.

2019-05-28 15.52.24I also saw Naomi Wolf, a woman whose work I have admired for years. She was talking about her latest book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalisation of Love in which she traces the evolution of attitudes to sex, particularly homosexual activity, from the mid-19th century on, through the writings of John Addington Symonds. There has been a lot of controversy in the press about an error in her book (which she has acknowledged and plans to correct in the next edition), which in my view, has been somewhat overblown; I truly doubt whether a male author would have experienced the same opprobrium. Naomi Wolf was warm and articulate, and gracious about the cultural and political turmoil in the UK, reflecting also on similar events in the US too. I was glad to have heard her speak.

2019-05-26 11.34.46On Sunday, I went to a panel discussion led by Ed Vaizey MP, talking about branding with a number of business-people. It was interesting, and Ed Vaizey is very witty, but, to be honest, didn’t feel very “Hay”. I also saw Melvyn Bragg speak about his new novel Love Without End: A Story of Heloise and Abelard. I enjoy listening to his BBC Radio 4 show In Our Time and am always impressed by his ability to cut through to the core of so many topics. Can you believe this is his 22nd novel!!! He has also written seventeen non-fiction books. Surely, he is approaching national treasure status!

 

The highlight of the weekend for me, however, was seeing Anna Burns talking with Gaby Wood about her Man Booker prize-winning novel Milkman. Burns was characteristically humble and quirky, utterly authentic and it was joyous hearing her read several passages from the book. She is brilliant. I loved the book and hearing her speak made me want to go and read it all over again!

I struggled to tear myself away from the Festival; I ‘bumped into’ Maxine Peake on Sunday morning (who had performed a reading of Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy about Peterloo on the Saturday evening). I had not booked to see her performance as I’ve seen her do it in Manchester, but am a huge fan of hers so felt slightly star struck. I also strolled past BBC journalist Kamal Ahmed, who was talking about his newly-published memoir, Michael Rosen and new poet laureate Simon Armitage. Yes, the Hay Festival is a great place to just hang out!

Have you ever been to the Hay Festival? What are your fondest memories?

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Book review ‘Salt to the Sea’ by Ruta Sepetys

I saw Ruta Sepetys speak at the Hay Festival in May and I’m so glad I did, because otherwise this book may not have crossed my radar. It’s being marketed as a Young Adult novel (though DO NOT let that put you off) and there were many young people in the audience with whom Ruta was gracious, charming and generally lovely.

RutaThis book is magnificent and I urge you to read it. It was my book club read this month and we all loved it. It concerns a period in hsitory that is seldom openly discussed – the brutality of the Russian advance into Germany at the end of the WW2. One of the earliest books I reviewed on this blog was A Woman in Berlin (Anonymous author) which was an account, reputedly a true story, of the siege of that city and its final capture by Russian troops who, half-starved and brutalised themselves, set about rape and pillage of the native population (which by that stage was mostly women, children, older men and the infirm) on an industrial scale. It is tough reading. My WW2 history is not great so correct me if I’m wrong, but these events are not widely recognised and discussed because of course Stalin was part of the Allied group which defeated Hitler. There was, and, arguably, continues to be, a reluctance to openly acknowledge anything which might tarnish the glory of that victory. We all know that the Allies committed many atrocities in the name of war, but somehow these have been brushed over.

Enough of the political history because Salt to the Sea is so much more than that; it concerns an event that almost no-one knows about, the sinking of the civilian ship Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945 by a Russian submarine, resulting in the largest loss of life at sea in maritime history, My children at school know all about the Titanic, thanks to the movie and the 100th anniversary of its sinking in 2012. A little over 1,500 people died in that disaster. Nine thousand died on the Wilhelm Gustloff, over half of them children and almost all of them desperate refugees.

It is a story beautifully and skilfully told through the eyes of four characters – Joana, a young Lithuanian nurse, Florian, A Prussian who worked for but then subsequently fled from the Nazi art theft effort, Emilia, a Polish girl from Lwow, whose parents sent her away from home to live with a German family with whom they thought she would be safe, and Alfred, a young German soldier, conceited, inept and deluded. Joana, Florian and Emilia are part of a small group, which includes an elderly shoemaker nicknamed ‘Poet’, a young boy, Klaus, a young blind girl, Ingrid, and Eva, a bold and forthright German woman. The raggle-taggle group has come together on the road, along with thousands of others, and is making its way to Gotenhafen, fleeing the brutal Russian advance, in the hope of boarding a ship which will take them further west and to what they hope will be relative safety.

It is the end of the war and they all know the Nazi Reich is close to collapsing, but the military remains in charge and committed to the Fuhrer’s cause. The group is also well aware of the fates of others who have fallen into the hands of Russian soldiers, some of them having direct experience of Russian violence. The group is facing multiple threats, not just from the Nazis and the Russians, but also from starvation and sickness. We follow the group as they trek across Prussia, learning about their back-stories, and the relationships between the group’s members evolve.

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“Freedom” – my copy, signed by the author!

Once they reach Gotenhafen, they feel relief and begin to feel safe. Although the town has become a ghetto, with thousands of desperate people trying to escape on a handful of ships, they are hopeful and begin to imagine a future once again. Alfred is one of the sailors on the ship and by the time the group meets him we have learned much about his earlier life. He will become an important character in the events our group is about to face, and his back-story is important to understanding the motivation behind his actions.

For the reader, the tension here is excruciating because although the characters are hopeful and relieved, we know that tragedy will strike the ship. It is just a question of who, if any of them, will survive.

Sometimes, knowledge of the general outcome of a story can have a profound effect on your reading experience. This was very much the case for me here. The tentative joy, so long held-back and so fragile, that the characters experience, contrasted so deeply with the doom and dread that I felt for them.

This is a Young Adult novel and I would suggest that it is appropriate for 14 years and upwards. Even then, some younger teens might find it quite challenging. I would liken it to The Book Thief. The characters are fictional, but the events portrayed in this book are real and we have a duty to acknowledge what happened in the past rather than to airbrush it.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.