Henry Robinson’s reflections at Hay Festival Winter Weekend

Henry Robinson’s reflections at Hay Festival Winter Weekend

Walking down a street in Hay-on-Wye I spot a banner outside a shop on which is emblazoned KINDLE-FREE ZONE – evidently intended as a defence of traditional printed books but it just comes across Luddite to me.

I’m here for the Hay-on-Wye Winter Weekend Festival to promote the brilliant Kurdish film Hide and Seek by my good friend Namak Khoshnaw – as well as to speak on a panel after the screening about the sense of hope that runs through the film’s narrative, the panel’s theme being: peace and reconciliation – can they ever be brought about while nerves are still raw? It’s my great privilege to be joined on the panel by a personal hero, Richard Needham, the longest-serving Conservative minister responsible for a great deal of Belfast’s rebuilding during Northern Ireland’s troubles and the ensuing peace process and who is still inspiring development today. But he’s not the only hero on the panel – far from it.

There’s James Brett, founding member of Plant for Peace (http://plantforpeace.org/), a survivor of sexual abuse at the age of four, who later informed his mother of the abuse only to lose her when she responded by throwing herself to her death off the roof of a car park. Heroically undefeated by his ordeals, he later embarked on what seemed like a suicide mission of his own when he walked undefended into a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan to engage the tribal elders in an attempt to persuade them to grow pomegranates instead of opium. Amazingly, his head remained firmly attached to his shoulders and they actually listened to what he had to say!

Then there was Martin Bell the hugely respected and experienced war correspondent and highly principled MP who was responsible for awakening the world to the new depths to which humanity was sinking in the genocide in Bosnia.

Chairing the panel was retired Major General Arthur Denaro, CBE. Hailing originally from Donegal, he is the most senior Irish citizen in the British Army and has a long and much-decorated career behind him, yet to this day this brave and highly intelligent man seems a tortured soul who spends night and day wondering how wars can be avoided.

Finally, there was yours truly – a former official IRA member convicted at the age of nineteen during the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’ of shooting and wounding a rival paramilitary member. I went on to campaign for peace and helped establish a human rights group in Northern Ireland, which in a small way made a contribution towards peace by recording the human rights abuses by both sets of terror groups and publishing the victims’ stories in order to expose and undermine their tormentors’ propaganda claiming that that they were liberators.

What with a film that evinced such hope, the debate itself and everyone’s informal talk about the nature of the peace process, the whole evening was an inspiration that left me, and I think all my fellow panelists, a little more hopeful that the world can be a better and a more peaceful place.

I’m only here for a day from Thursday to Friday morning, so I make my way to the Tourist Board to find out about buses to Hereford to catch a train back to London. The really lovely lady behind the desk tells me the bus times, points to the bus stop across the street and suggests I take a seat on the bench at the stop. It’s a bright morning and after five minutes of the Hay-on-Wye sunshine warming my face, I get up and say to myself that I’m not yet done with Hay-on- Wye – there’s a full weekend programme of events I’ve yet to enjoy; that’s the thing about this diamond that is Hay-on-Wye – it won’t let go of you.

So I decide to gatecrash the town and peek into its soul – starting by going back to the lovely lady on the tourist office to declare that the sunshine has got me and that I’m staying. The look on her face reminded me of the person who recruited me into the IRA – only in a much nicer way! She went through the B&Bs and pointed out one on the map, declaring with a mischievous smile that ‘if you stay in this one you’ll be in England; stay in that one and you’ll be in Wales!’

So I choose the only one available, a little walk away on the edge of town, and so began in earnest my extended stay in Hay-on-Wye, at Jan and Andrew Rothbury’s B&B in an elegant Edwardian house (shameless plug!). On my meandering walk back there later that night the Hay-on-Wye night sky seemed vast, calming and peaceful – thanks to a memorable and inspiring evening packed with insight and possibility, as well as just enough Guinness!

I was glad I decided to stay – otherwise I’d have missed some of the most memorable events on the festival programme, such as the session on the theme of ‘What if money grew on trees’ – which asked what if we did things differently, based on the contributor’s book of ideas: Asking the Big Questions About Economics.

And the questions raised were thrilling, intriguing and at times scared the hell out of me – question such as:

What if we were all rich? What if money grew on trees? What if nobody wanted to work anymore? What if we all earned the same?

… and lots more in the same challenging vein.

I made a comment and asked the panellists a question to the effect that ‘What If’ is not in itself a new thought – after all Lenin (that’s Vladimir, not John Lennon!) asked ‘What’s to be done?’. And while it’s the right question, the answer can be devastating in the wrong hands, so to speak. My question was, with what would you replace the current world order? Thankfully, the answer was generous, but weak.

Nevertheless, I admire people who question the status quo and think profoundly, which is why I rounded off my weekend with a visit to the session on QI, the hugely popular panel show hosted by Stephen Fry – because it promised to be funny and fascinating and, of course, all about facts. But as soon as I sat down in the audience, I decided I must be one of the dumbest people on the planet because for years I’ve been flicking to the show on TV and flicking to another channel within 30 seconds because I just didn’t get it. Finally, I do get it! It was little-known facts such as the following that finally grabbed me: The guy who invented basketball because he wanted a sport that the kids at his school could play indoors when it was raining, was scribbling half-formed game ideas on pieces of paper, which he repeatedly hurled in frustration at the wastepaper basket… and thus was born the basic concept of basketball. Amusingly, it was a long time before someone had the bright idea of removing the bottom of the basket so that the ball could fall through it – up till then the players had to drag out a ladder laboriously to retrieve the ball every time someone scored!

It was this blend of the trivial and the profound; the humorous and the deadly serious that made me feel that Hay-on-Wye is a very hopeful and proud place to visit. Its festival has almost certainly insulated its people from the worst effects of the recession by helping them to rediscover their pride, unlike neighbouring villages and towns that don’t have a festival to draw money in and cushion the effects of recession.

Getting back to my original reason for coming here – Namak’s film Hide and Seek and our talk on peace and reconciliation – I was particularly struck by the words of Richard Needham and the true genius of his ideas for bringing peace to Northern Ireland. In the midst of Western Europe’s worst campaign of terror, he was determined to find a way to bring pride back to the people on all sides.

‘I divided Belfast into four sections, East, West, North and South,’ he explained to me. ‘I picked the brightest young civil servants and gave them their heads and a budget to kickstart innovative community projects to bring people together and inspire them to take responsibility for their own lives and communities.’

By creating business hubs in the heart of the most grossly deprived areas, he found the diamonds in the shit and detritus of the ‘troubles’, one of which was the River Lagan. Richard noticed that although the great river runs through the whole city, there wasn’t a single private property along its banks – and he immediately set about changing that! The rest, as they say, is history!

‘Henry,’ he said to me, ‘most people just don’t get it. It’s about making a plan to return pride to people – only then can the real talent be released along with he hope that spills over from it.’

I believe the Hay-on-Wye festival is another diamond in the shit and as I found myself heading back to that bus-stop bench I hoped with all my heart that this particular gem’s success can encourage everyone in its wider sphere of influence to rediscover THEIR pride and ride out this storm.