5th January, 2012
Â Maggie Robertson and Penny Compton, Producer of the Welsh Hay Festival and the Programme Officer respectively were at The Lagos Book and Arts Festival which ended last month. They spoke to a select group of journalists. Nkrumah Bankong-Obi was there.
Q: What is the Hay Festival all about?
The festival originated in the UK in 1997 in a small market town called Peanwhire on the Wels/ English border. It is 25 miles from the nearest train station and has a population of about 2,000 people. There are about 39 bookshops in the place that sell second-hand books. So we have a huge literary tradition in the town itself. The festival has grown over many years to attract about 200,000 ticket sales in the last year. So there is a huge influx of people into the town.
From all over the world?
The majority come from the UK, but we certainly have visitors from all over the world. And most important for us we have a lot of writers that come from all over the world. In about seven or eight years we started to work in other countries and so we have a festival in Columbia, Mexico, Spain and Kenya; we have also worked in Beirut, Lebanon. We are hoping to work in other places. We try to inform ourselves about the writers in these countries we have worked in and introduce them to our body back in Hay.
Do you have plans to replicate that festival here?
We are really just here to meet the guys from CORA. The British Council invited us here because we are its global strategic partner in all projects that involve literature. And so they really wanted us to come and see what goes on here. The first work we have to do is to have a look and have a chat with them. We might develop going forward, nothing certain has been done yet.
Do you also publish books?
What is the perception of African writers and African writing as far as your festival is concerned?
Nigeria has an amazing tradition, very well known in the UK. Certainly, a lot of Nigerian writers live outside Nigeria, which is what we talked about earlier. So we have them in our company.
Is there really a theme for the Hay Festival?
No, it covers a lot of tradition. We talk to politicians, scientists, historians, musicians, comedians, writers, poets, story tellers. It is a very broad programme of gardeners, booksâ€¦
You mentioned places where you have done the festival. Is it a replication of the Hay Festival or something home grown in those places?
I suppose both. Firstly, a replication of Hay Festival, but obviously there is no point of us going to those places if it doesnâ€™t make sense what we do when we get there. So we always have a great partnership with people within those countries and develop relationships with them; and that somehow works. The programme is always partly international, but mostly arises from those countries, mostly the highlights and stuff.
You mentioned a few countries where you are already working. Are we going to replicate what you are doing in Kenya or Beirut here?
Itâ€™s a possibility. I mean there are lots of things to consider. But it is nice to be here, to meet everybody and to hopefully bring them back to Hay so that they can see what we do. We will take it from there.
You have 200,000 visitors coming to your festival. What is the attraction for them?
I think a slow growth over many years. And the support of lots of organisations and people. Penny should talk to you about that. She deals with kids, she talks to them.
Penny: Yah! I think it is good to have very good media partnerships. For us who work in the programming, it has quite a special trend of inviting the big names. And people come to see the big names and then they get a lot more. May be they applaud then when they go to see other stuff. That quite often blows their minds a lot more, than the big name off the TV that they originally came to see. And once they have had that experience, there are some really life-changing moments for people as that go inside the marquis at Hay when they listen and writers speak. Once that happens, they go away and tell other people. That is how it grows.
You have seen the Lagos Book Festival. Does it compare to what you do?
Maggie: Definitely. It is the biggest point for us to be here. I mean we are in a festival where we are not actually working because we donâ€™t really get to do that. So we are going to sit down and listen to the conversations that are going on because as a rule, we donâ€™t really get much time to do that.
But that is not to say that there are no observations that you have had that can make this one better, based on your experiences.
There are necessarily things you could do better but things you could do differently. That it has to function for the people coming for the festival. We donâ€™t know enough about that now. We are just learning.
Penny: The first is to say that you are encouraging the childrenâ€™s programmes. You are encouraging them to write, to read. Also you are providing platforms for people to speak. What is completely perfect about this venue is that it was once a prison, people suffered here. That could be a creative work. Earlier, we saw two speakers on stage, who strongly disagreed with each other, and that happens at Hay quite a lot too. I think it is important that they have a place to come and do that. Itâ€™s really important.
Is there a reduction in book sales at the festival now?
So there is really no reduction in sales in spite of the upsurge of the micro-chip?
The systematic thing about the festival is that you see your hero on stage and then, the event finishes. You run like a lunatic to the bookshop to buy the books and get them for him to sign. There is something really special about that. In this age of proliferation of content, the thing that festivals will always give people is the opportunity to be in the room and see their hero in person; that is a pretty unique experience in a live session.
What kind of books and what heroes attract people to your festival?
That is completely subject to the person. One hero to you may not be a hero to be. And the programme at Hay is so diverse. The programme at Hay has the luxury of being about five to six hundred events. So there are lots of things that you can do and subjects you can cover in that time of 12 days. You can have all sorts of heroes in town, really you can.