The speakers and what they find when they stop looking – Laia Jufresa, translated by Annie McDermott

The speakers and what they find when they stop looking – Laia Jufresa, translated by Annie McDermott

‘Let digression be your guide’
(Orlando Seale)

It’s a gross simplification, but you could say that the staff at the festival give and the public receive. The speaker, however, is somewhere in the middle. She appears on stage for an hour thanks, almost invariably, to years spent sitting alone at the computer writing something. Or researching it. Or both. The long gestation, the subsequent rounds of editing, the printing, and so on – all of that has brought her here. Her stay is short and, aside from an event, a signing session and a dinner, her time is more or less her own. She can drift through the festival guided only by her intuition, confidently getting lost because she knows that, in these surroundings, she will almost certainly get back far more from the experience than she puts in – or, at the very least, that every so often, on-stage and off, unexpected conversations will break out like spontaneous dances.

Unlike the majority of the speakers, I had already been at the festival for almost a week by the time it was my turn to do anything. I had been spending time as a member of the public; I had interviewed more than thirty members of staff; I already knew how to make my own coffee without Penny’s help (more about her and the rest of the team in the third installment) and I knew where to leave my rucksack so it wasn’t in anyone’s way. I hadn’t, however, had much practice in socialising with the other speakers.

The socialising takes place in the Green Room, a name I first encountered in the initial invitation from the British Council. It informed me that “as a writer in residence, you will be very welcome to spend time in the Green Room”, and I imagined a room that was, if not exactly identical to the real one, certainly not a million miles away. Let’s just say it was green. And when I arrived and saw the grass-coloured carpet and the walls decorated with rural scenes (perfect photos of the Welsh countryside that might have been taken right outside those very walls), I assumed that that was where the name came from. But I was wrong, as is usually the case when you assume something is as simple as its name suggests.

On the third day I was there, someone explained that every waiting room in every theatre is called the Green Room. I wasn’t too disappointed, however, because what makes this one so special isn’t its name or the colour of its walls, but rather the sheer quantity and variety of people who pass through it every day. Strictly speaking, this is more like the Green Room for eight theatres at once, each of which puts on a different performance every hour. Needless to say, it’s pretty big, but I should add that it’s also much more welcoming than you might imagine. There are flowers and sofas and magazines and even a little bar.

In a process not unlike the creative process, you always leave the Green Room shaking your head in amazement at the things you find when you don’t find what you were looking for.

You go in, mainly in search of a cup of tea and a table where you can sit and get on with the blog you’re meant to be writing. But there’s no space at the tables so you find a sofa instead, and begin talking about cakes with a woman who turns out to be a writer whose work you’ve come to love but whose face you didn’t know.

Or you chat with a very friendly man with transparent eyes who tells you how he went for a run and came across a sheep with a metal railing stuck in its mouth. Two days later you learn he’s a travel writer who, having published books about Latin America and India, is now in the middle of one about the region of Hay-on-Wye.

Or you have to interrupt the girl you’re talking to mid-sentence because you’ve suddenly realised that the reason she looks so familiar is that she once gave a Ted Talk you watched on Youtube once and really enjoyed.
Or you finally do find a table to work at, only for a load of people to come in drinking champagne and carrying mountains of fabric that turn out to be garments they’ve sewn during a week-long workshop all about making clothes from recycled materials. You immediately find the text on your computer much less interesting, and want to know how they made the clothes, how long it took, how they went about it and what materials they used.

Maybe if you’re a writer from around here, or even just a bit better informed about authors’ countenances than I am, things like this wouldn’t happen to you. You would do less wandering blindly around the Green Room accidentally making trivial chit-chat with the greats, and instead be forever spotting people you admire. But I suspect that being any better informed would also make the whole experience far more intimidating. You’re better off talking about injured sheep and flapjacks with these people. After all, the speaker, any speaker, is a person first and foremost.

But the speaker is also extremely lucky first and foremost. She can go for a stroll around this town full of bookshops, or step into a pub and hear a musician who gives her the epigraph she was looking for. She can escape and listen to the brilliant, honest and very pregnant Amanda Palmer speak (and sing). Or eat more sheep ice cream. Or interact with the public. Or stay in the Green Room as just one more ball in its intricate snooker game of chance encounters. And if the speaker still has that spark of curiosity that made her research and/or write the book that got her invited here in the first place, I would be inclined to bet that any of those options would strike her as stimulating.

The festival director, Peter Florence, said in an interesting interview a few years ago: “Hay is twinned with a lot of places, but we have more in common with Macondo and Llareggub, Ambridge or Elysium.” The Green Room, just like the stage during an event, and like that place you go in your head while you’re writing a book, is more than just a stopover. These places are all temporary homes, places to return to, to sit down in for a while with a drink. Places that owe less to geography than they do to each speaker’s inner world and the desire to share it. Places, then, that are partly imaginary, and that the speaker will carry within herself long after she has left.