‘The surprising thing is that the bigger, slicker Hay Festival has not lost the joi de vivre of the earlier years.’ – John Mullan

‘The surprising thing is that the bigger, slicker Hay Festival has not lost the joi de vivre of the earlier years.’ – John Mullan

I have been coming to Hay something like twenty years and remember well when  it was an intimate gathering in the rapidly repurposed local primary school. The surprising thing is that the bigger, slicker Hay Festival has not lost the joi de vivre of the earlier years. Most years I con Peter Florence into letting me do a Jane Austen talk in a tent full of opinionated Janeites. I ask them quiz questions and they shout out sometimes right answers.  In the benign warmth of a late May afternoon, with a couple of chilled glasses of white wine in the green room afterwards, this is pretty much the epitome of a happy experience.

This year, however, there is no Austen bicentenary (Emma was published in 1815; the blessed Jane died in 1817). So I am bluffing about Shakespeare and working hard as a stooge to the stars. This afternoon I interviewed Howard Jacobson about his novel-version of The Merchant of Venice. Easy work, really, as you lob up the questions and he returns a miniature comic monologue, complete with puns, satirical portraits and quotations from Dr Johnson. And a special achievement: he wondered about the significance of the line that serves as an epigraph to his book (Portia asking which was the Merchant and which the Jew) and I told him what I thought and in front of 500 witnesses he said that I must be right. Result!