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Neil Gaiman at Hay Festival - the New Welsh Review Blog

BLOG Alice Vernon

NWR Issue 108

Neil Gaiman at Hay Festival

The mid-festival slump I experienced was thankfully short-lived. This was mostly due to the fact that I had a precious ticket to see Neil Gaiman in conversation on Friday evening. The weather was beginning to go downhill, too, which may have made the crowds seem marginally more bearable. The last few days of the festival were my favourites, however, and I left on Sunday exactly as I had hoped: inspired and in a rush to read every single book in existence.

On Friday morning, my mum and my interests came together in Marcus du Sautoy and Ben Okri’s talk on ‘Narrative and Proof’. The mathematician and the writer presented two short papers arguing that numbers and words share the same patterns and sequences. Just as mathematics is a journey to proof, creative writing is also a practice of proving something through storytelling. Marcus du Sautoy referred to experimental writers such as Georges Perec (creator of A Void – a book written without a single letter ‘e’) to show how stories can rest on mathematical foundations. Ben Okri, a wonderful public speaker, suggested that ‘all is numbers, all is vibration’ and read his work with the intention of highlighting the sequences in poetry. Whilst I’m not entirely convinced that the relationship is quite as strong as the pair argued, this event stood out in its ambition. Mum and I had seen so many events that some were beginning to melt into each other. Du Sautoy and Okri, however, presented something new and challenging. They gave the audience meat to chew on, take home and work out with other people. Its interdisciplinary nature, too, was refreshing. I hope they take their ideas further – I’d very much like to read a book on the subject.

When the programme was first released, I audibly gasped to see Neil Gaiman’s name. He is an author I’ve admired since childhood, and someone whose work has influenced my own writing pursuits. It is a gross understatement to say I was excited. And he certainly exceeded my expectations. Much of his talk to Claire Armistead was a touching tribute to his late friend Terry Pratchett. Of Pratchett, Gaiman said he was a man who ‘used anger’ to fuel his writing. Gaiman also explored the act of writing. In response to a question on knowing when a project is finished, Gaiman said, ‘It’s like hitchhiking from London to Hay-on-Wye and never ending up in Hay but being quite happy in Brighton just the same.’ After the event, I went to get a signed copy of his new short-story collection, Trigger Warning. Reader, I met him. It was the best moment of the festival. He blessed my forthcoming PhD and told me that the ‘most important thing is to finish it.’ I absolutely will. It was an honour.

Whilst nothing could beat meeting Neil Gaiman, Saturday was still enjoyable. We went to see Aberystwyth graduate Sarah Hall read from her new book, The Wolf Border. Her writing often features this idea of a border, and Hall added that she was preoccupied with ‘de-mythologizing’ the fictional wolf. It was an excellent start to the day. In the afternoon, we saw Helen MacDonald, author of the phenomenal H is for Hawk. As with Beth Shapiro’s talk last weekend, MacDonald held the audience in awed silence. She was funny, articulate, but also very personable. Following this, we saw Amanda Palmer discussing her nonfiction title The Art of Asking. Mum insisted on coming with me despite my warning that things might get a little weird. As such, Amanda opened her talk with a ukulele song about pubic hair.

We had our last event on Sunday afternoon, before which we’d lounged in our hotel recovering from a fantastic roast dinner. I thoroughly recommend The Red Lion in Bredwardine. The festival site had a lethargic feel when we arrived. I never thought I’d say it but I rather missed the liveliness of earlier in the week. We watched Miranda Richardson, Richard Harrington {of Hinterland/Y Gwyll fame} and Lisa Dwan read a selection of poems from WB Yeats. It was a soft, quiet end to our festival experience.

Back at home, Mum and I keep saying how much we miss Hay. We probably won’t be in a hurry to do the full ten days again, but we’re determined to come back again. We’ve listened to some fantastic speakers and we’re full of ideas to brood over for months to come. I certainly bought enough books to last me until next year.

Alice Vernon returns to Aberystwyth University this autumn to embark on a PhD in Creative Writing.


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