I stumbled, heady on free cheese and Spanish lager, into a temporary toilet cubicle at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival, locked the door behind me and spun round to a MESS of a room. And not in the way, having spent 18 months working for a company too stingy to pay its cleaners to sanitise toilets, I am used to. The green, plastic panelled room was full of loose, spilt, cocaine. On the floor. On the toilet seat. On the flat space levelling off the top of the cistern presumably there for that purpose. A high-end portaloo.
What didn’t shock me was the fact that someone at this FESTIVAL OF BOOKS was getting wired, what shocked me was the volume, the quantity, the amount, that had been left behind. From a quick calculation (I’ve seen things, I’ve been places), there must have been AT LEAST forty/fifty pounds worth of powder spread across the various unsanitary surfaces of the cubicle. This laissez-faire attitude towards something of value (as well as the people who died/received hefty prison sentences getting the product into Powys, Wales, in the first place) was the thing that struck me. And, I’m afraid, the thing that kept striking me throughout the whole event.
I am someone obsessed with class. I am someone who notices behavioural patterns/accents/styles of dress/colour of credit cards and how these tie into, are influenced by, in turn influence, my previous generalised readings of class. I am someone who hovers between easy class readings, and have done for a long time now. I relate to every lyric in John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’, every page in Keep The Aspidistra Flying, yet have holidayed in Tuscany more than five times… Am I upper working, lower middle, middle middle? It’s difficult to say. One thing I can categorically say I’m not, though, is whatever class of people it was that Hay-on-Wye was filled with. Loud conversations about school fees, wide cars, plastic surgery, wine collections… Fifties handed across at bars, cigars in every hand, cocaine sprayed over the floor… It was the first distinctly – and to me, limitingly – “upper class” place I’ve ever been. Full of the kind of people who flirt instead of converse, the kind of people who value nothing but the value of things.
It felt exclusive, it felt elitist. And I mean that, of course, in a bad way. I had hoped to have as joyful an experience at the Hay festival as I did six years ago when I first went to the Edinburgh Fringe. I had hoped to walk into a world of poetry, be unable to pass a conversation without feeling intellectually dwarfed, shocked… But it didn’t happen. Rather than discovering something I wanted my life to regularly contain, I instead got a very eyes-wide view of a world I’d never quite encountered head-on before.
As much as I loved the antiquarian bookshops of Hay itself, the festival left me cold, Marxist, and hungry for simple pleasures. The day after I did, like the messy individual in the toilet before me, get high. But literally: by walking to the top of a mountain, not by stimulating an international trade that kills people every day. Until I’m invited there to speak, I doubt I’ll be back.