The Hay festival website boasts a gathering of ‘some of the most socially attractive people on earth’. Initially I took this to mean that everyone here must be ugly, but the organisers can relax. The Hay festival is full of pretty boys and handsome women, but there are so many people about that people barely matter. They become crowds, and we’re happily lost among a crowd of lively, well-dressed men and women whose genetic origins are impossible to know.
In our seats in the huge tent for Professor Eric Hobsbawm, eighty-year-old Marxist historian, we listen to the great man make a very simple point.
Things change. They don’t always improve, nor were they always better beforehand.
He focuses his discussion on the rise and fall of global empires, but if his conclusions weren’t personally applicable nobody would be interested in history. By happy coincidence, he then quotes Jan Morris on those who insist on believing that the British Empire improved the countries it exploited – ‘This theory of Empire is too good to be true.’
As for the future, Professor Hobsbawm points out that the internet encourages ‘communities of nutcases.’ He enjoys the laugh. ‘An enormous variety of nutters!’ he re-phrases cheerfully. More! ‘You get 50,000 people who also believe the moon is made of green cheese, and then there’s a community!’
No need to go overboard. For scattered groups like the transgendered, the internet has been a blessing. Virtual contacts ease the sense of isolation, while also providing discreet access to catalogues of stilletos in size 11, ordered by Frank in Reading under the name of Melanie. Less innocently, female hormones are also available, as are post-operative blogs that include intimate photographic evidence, not of Before and After, just After. Some people are so proud.
With Professor Hobsbawm in a tent in Wales we’re sharing another sense of community, with the bookish variety of nutter, and we relax into the unmistakable smugness that envelops the Hay festival. I think it comes from the successful colonisation of an entire town with the approval of the good and the great. Nothing can touch us. Hobsbawm has been introduced by the historian Simon Schama, who now chairs the Q and A. He calls for a question from a lady near the front.
‘Oh, I’m sorry! It’s a gentleman!’
Titters. Schama elaborates. ‘That sexually ambiguous person with a beard.’
Ho ho. How everyone laughs. Schama then digresses to tell a story about mistaking a Welshman for a Scotsman, as if it’s the same thing. I have a lot of time for Simon Schama. I wonder if he’s right.
After Hobsbawm, we eat in the Blas Cymru tent. Blas Cymru is an attempt to persuade people who have no experience of travelling in Wales that Welsh cooking is edible. Unfortunately, this news has yet to reach either The Hunter’s Moon in Llangattock Lingoed or the pub at Llanthony Abbey. The tent is packed, and most of the food has gone. We end up with sausages and mash, which is indeed very good, even if Dru snorts at the price. Until now, we’ve had cheaper and worse, which doesn’t feel like the shrewd option. We wander around with our trays and find a place on a table next to another couple. They politely make some room, and then in true British fashion we ignore them and they ignore us. That is, until they hear us (me) once more pursuing the exact trigonometries by which Dru managed to get us lost on roads we never should have taken in the first place, if we’d stuck to the path.
Our neighbours at the table join in.
‘You’ve been to Bickering, then,’ they say. ‘Can’t miss it. Look at the map. Just this side of Sulking.’
They have instantly assumed we fit the standard pattern: woman can’t navigate, man is a tit. We must therefore be a couple like any other. This is the first totally unambiguous encounter we have had with . . . people. Dru is very happy. I am very happy. We talk to our friendly neighbours for a decent amount of time. We find out where they come from and what they do. We discover they’re living a strange menage-a-trois in a caravan that started its journey in Essex. The other woman is saving herself until tomorrow and Wole Soyinka. The man raises his eyebrows:
‘You know what women are like.’
Dru can forget the bangles and the necklaces and the Miso Pretty facials. She can even stop worrying about the watch, because the significant accessory is me. Drag along a grumpy moaner of a bloke and everyone knows what you’re going through, feels pity for you, as a woman. This is quite a discovery. Until now, I’m the one who’s been causing the problems. Somehow I’ve not been giving out the signals that we’re man and woman, and people have been reading us as a pair. I’ve been letting Dru down.