Red Kites and Penguins

Red Kites and Penguins

The taxi slows down on the road to Hay-on-Wye, and Alan, my festival driver, points up through the windscreen. ‘Look there!  A red kite!  Lovely, loping flight, like a seabird, and that long forked tail…’

As the car glides between hedgerows, copses and fields of livestock, we talk about kites.  Carrion-eaters, they must be in competition with the crows that sit like musical notation along the staves of the pylon lines.  ‘Never seen crows and kites fighting though,’ Alan says, ‘but the buzzards on the other hand…’  The kites were reintroduced to North Wales, he tells me, and are thriving in the rich, wooded borderlands that surround Hay.  I tell him about Leonardo da Vinci’s earliest memory: how a kite swooped down to his cradle and prised open his lips with its tail.  ‘Never heard of them do that,’ Alan says, shaking his head.  ‘Must have terrified his mum!’

A little further on I ask him if he can point out Offa’s Dyke, the border raised in the eighth century between Wales and the Saxon world.  ‘Oh we’ve passed it,’ he says.  ‘Blink and you’ll miss it.’  This is frontier-country: some houses have Welsh flags tacked to their windows, and I see more than one car with a ‘Saxon’ bumper sticker.  Twelve hundred years separate Offa’s world from the modern day, but some things don’t change.  There is a legend in these parts that an Englishman found on the Welsh side of the dyke would be hanged, while a Welshman found on the English side would only have his ears cut off.  The legend doesn’t mention Scotsmen, which I find reassuring.

Hay appears suddenly, around a bend in the road; a neat little town in Hereford brick and Welsh slate, hemmed between the banks of the river Wye and the ruins of an ivy-covered castle.   The valley is a deep bowl, as if Hay has buried itself away from the world.  We trundle over the bridge, pass some bilingual roadsigns, and suddenly we’re out of Wales and back in England again.  Hay is animated and sustained by books.  It all began, or so I was told, with Richard Booth’s shop, and so it was there that I asked the driver to drop me off.

Architecturally, Booth’s is a house of worship rather than a shop, with carved wooden balustrades and a gothic cathedral atmosphere.  Books’ spines clothe three storeys’ worth of walls like tapestries, and liberal pews and sofas invite a particularly leisurely, even reverential, sort of browsing.  There are not many bookshops where you can find a shelf on Metallurgy, Arthuriana, and the Italian Renaissance.  At the till I overhear a conversation – ‘Do you have anything on Japanese gardens?’  ‘Why yes,’ the proprietor replies, ‘there’s a section just over here.’

From Booth’s I cross the road to a Christmas market, where fair-trade ethno-wear is being sold alongside cakes and of course, books.  A café nearby has a terse sign on the door: ‘Will customers please refrain from using iPods, iPads or laptops inside.’  Even the chip shop has a shelf of second-hand books on offer.  I dutifully read one as I sip my coffee, wondering what they’d say if I pulled out a Kindle (not that I have one – yet).  A town whose vitality is nourished by the flow of real rather than virtual books is perhaps wise to give the Internet a cold shoulder.  My phone doesn’t get a signal even when I try waving it from the castle ramparts.   It’s as if the place demands my full attention, and that means no emails, tweeting or surfing while I’m here – which is no bad thing.  I’m not here to give a virtual reading after all, but a live performance.

My gig is scheduled for 6pm, so there’s time to sit in on Kevin Jackson discussing his book Constellation of Genius; an encyclopaedic exploration of 1922, the birth of modernism, and the contribution made by individuals like James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.  And then I’m up, congratulating the crowd for coming out on such a bitter, frosty evening to hear about a place where months of darkness are combined with temperatures plunging to -55ºC.  The book I’m reading from is Empire Antarctica, published by Chatto & Windus last month, describing the year I spent at an extremely remote research station in Antarctica beside a colony of emperor penguins.

They are a good crowd, the Hay Festival-goers.  Confident, curious, they laugh in all the right places, and enjoy trying on the Antarctic gear I hand out.  They also come up with some searching questions.  Two of my favourites: a six year old boy wants to know if I gave names to any of the penguins, and a retired teacher asks what emotional and psychological preparation I underwent for such profound isolation.  Then it’s time to sign books, and a beautiful Spanish girl, whose role at the festival is otherwise undefined, presents me with flowers, a Welsh blanket, and a couple of bottles of fine wine.

Hay might be a little rural town, but the audience members who speak to me afterwards have experience of the world far beyond these valleys – we swap stories of Greenland, Iceland, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula.  The festival itself is far-reaching too, from the Welsh borders it stretches out to international venues that include places like Beirut, Dhaka and Cartagena.

The following morning, a Sunday, and the streets of the town are shuttered and silent.  ‘It takes a while for Hay to wake up,’ says Alan with a smile as we set off. We cross Offa’s Dyke once more, thread our way between hills that rise through a blanket of mist, and scan the sky for more kites.  ‘The other day I was driving an author back to London,’ says Alan, ‘and just outside town we had to stop for a family of badgers.’

‘What were they doing?’ I asked him.  ‘Relocating?’

‘Maybe they were,’ he chuckled. And the author whose journey home was held up no doubt enjoyed a sight he couldn’t have glimpsed at the book festivals of Beirut, Dhaka or Cartagena.  If he had an experience of the Hay Festival like my own, perhaps he was even tempted to relocate himself.


Gavin Francis is the author of Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins. 

Chatto & Windus, November 2012