The Best Moments From the Smartest Literary Festival in the World
This year's Hay Festival was a historic meeting of the minds — and the events are still available to stream online
The world’s premier literary festival wrapped up recently in Hay-on-Wye, a tiny village on the Welsh side of the English border, home to a castle, an ice cream parlor, and more bookstores per capita than just about anywhere. The Hay Festival, which runs through late May through early June, is like Sundance for intellectuals — in practice less a festival about books, per se, than about ideas, where just this year world leaders like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon appeared under the same metaphorical tent as Benedict Cumberbatch, Jarvis Cocker, Damian Lewis and Minnie Driver. (The festival also makes space for regular old writers like Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Philip Pullman, and many more.)
The good news: All of this year’s events are available for review on the Hay Player. Sadly, this is a pay service. Happily, it’s cheaper than a hardcover book, at about $18 for a year’s access. These are our picks from the best of a very crowded festival, but start poking around and you’ll find your own favorites (especially if your favorites include climate change, Russia and/or its corrosive effect on British society and leaving a city to raise sheep).
Bill Browder’s packed presentation was the most talked-about event of the week, with the British-American financier explaining why he’s third — to Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian dissident Alexei Navalny — on the list of Vladimir Putin’s least favorite people. Freezing Order, the follow-up to 2015’s Red Notice, reads like a novelization of an Indiana Jones book — if Indiana Jones were a professorial, Princeton-born hedge fund manager whose moral outrage over Russian corruption and state-sanctioned violence led to his forceful advocacy for — and the John McCain-sponsored passage of — the Magnitsky Act in 2012.
2. Sad Little Men: Private Schools and the Ruin of England by Richard Beard (see the event here)
Beard is a product of England’s exclusive private boarding schools — the same system that has spit out the lion’s share of the country’s political leaders, including Boris Johnson and his Etonian classmate, David Cameron. In this furious memoir, Beard picks apart how these students’ privilege and isolation — not to mention the omnipresent Lord of Flies vibes — has led to the least deserving rich kids manipulating the country’s levers of power. (So just slightly relatable.)
Sheila Hancock isn’t the household name in the U.S. that she is in the U.K., but the 89-year-old actress’s sharp, candid memoir about Brexit, quarantine life, Quakerism and the indelicacies of aging are universally applicable.
4. Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency by Mark Lynas (see the event here)
Lynas gets the book shout-out since he’s the author in the group, but this panel discussion on the future of renewable energy — and the role nuclear power will or won’t play — was possibly 100 times more compelling than that description makes it sound. Here, he’s joined by climate activist Harriet Lamb, CEO of Ashden, and Nina Skorupska, CEO of the Renewable Energy Association.
Historian and broadcaster David Olusoga popped up at multiple events throughout the festival — but his tour de force was his lecture on whether history (and its monuments, and historians) are currently “under attack.”
6. They: What Muslims and Non-Muslims Get Wrong About Each Other by Sarfraz Manzoor (see the event here)
Hay festival regular Manzoor — for some of us, best known as the Springsteen-mad author whose Blinded by the Light became an actual movie with the Boss’s actual music — turned in a stellar performance as usual, gently needling Michael Lewis late in the week and here, debating cancel culture with Olusoga and comedian Shazia Mirza.
7. The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II by Svetlana Alexievich (see the event here)
Though forced to appear by video from Berlin, her home in exile, the Belarussian Nobel Prize winner spoke clearly about her hopes for peace and democracy in Ukraine (and in her native country, which she fled in 2020, after opposing the Putin-aligned strongman Alexander Lukashenka.) The Unwomanly Face of War — an oral history of Soviet women who fought in World War II — isn’t new, but Alexievich did name it her favorite of all her books.
8. Sana Safi, Lyse Doucet, and Emma Graham-Harrison speaks with Misha Glenny (see the event here)
Sana Safi doesn’t have a book out, but she does have an extraordinarily urgent reporting career and “audio documentary,” “Afghanistan and Me,” tracing the twin paths of her childhood in Kandahar — during which she attended three underground schools “until there were no schools” — and the rise of the Taliban in her homeland.
Love him or hate him, Michael Lewis is an affable guest, and tells an extremely good story — and The Premonition is as full of that-just-can’t-be-true moments of institutional absurdity as his recession-era epic The Big Short.
If you didn’t know the former Secretary of State was speaking, the notable increase of British police hanging around the tents would have tipped you off that something was up. Clinton was in Hay promoting the political thriller she co-wrote with Canadian mystery writer par excellence Louise Penny; it’s no Le Carré, but it does ask some interesting questions about how women-led diplomacy would differ from the standard affair.
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