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Interview with Peter Florence, founder of HAY Festival

Thursday 6 June 2013 - 1:07pm

You have been running Hay Festival now for 26 years – How much has it changed in that time?

Well, in lots of ways it’s exactly the same as it always was; it’s just a lot bigger. The principles behind it are the same in that you want to find ways of engaging people and talking about serious issues - through the medium of fiction, through the medium of poetry, through the medium of serious academic work - and at the same time make it a party, make it feel like as much of a picnic as possible so that no element of it is inaccessible.

And what still excites you about the festival, having run it for so long?

Everything! The energy, the way in which everything links up, the way in which you’re constantly reminded that there are threads of tolerance and adventure and risk and humanity that connect all the disciplines; from engineering to morality and from literature to natural science. There are always ideas that can spark in places that you never would imagine they would. So hearing the great children’s illustrator Judith Kerr talking about her childhood, talking about the reality of being a refugee, and then hearing John le Carré and Roy Strong - who you would presume would be gold-plated, Eton carded members of the establishment – both talking about the extraordinary changes in the education system that allowed them social mobility; hearing all these people engaging with what it means to be alive in Britain now and to be international and to have an understanding of how Britain might work in the world, that’s all incredibly exciting.

PEN International and Hay formed a partnership a year ago – why do you think the work of PEN is important?

Well PEN’s at the hard end. They do the grinding, hard, activist political work of arguing for freedom of expression in places where people are horribly persecuted. We have a platform which is quite visible in order to draw some of those cases up before large numbers of people. But there is a basic shared belief between PEN and HAY that people who truly believe what they write, those who articulate difficult truths, need to be heard, and in our different ways we both act on that. There are some things that PEN alone can do, and there are some things that HAY alone can do, but there should be mutuality.

To what extent do you think it is the responsibility of the writer to be political? Or do you think writing is inherently political?

A writer only has a duty to be true. The great thing about literature is that it allows you into someone else’s interior world in the way that no other art form does; it allows you to be able to imagine what it is like to be somebody else. If a writer is true about a life (or a number of lives), that is inherently political because politics is the word that we have for interactions between human beings. Beyond that, no. Card carrying politics is crashingly boring, and it’s unsubtle. The job of the writer is to be subtle, personal and intimate, to tell you quiet truths. And the job of politicians is to grind out gradual improvements by tiny increments. They are playing a macro game and writers are playing a micro game, because writers are trying to address the world one person at a time.

For somebody who runs such an established and prestigious festival and organisation, do you ever feel that you have a responsibility to support certain campaigns?

I think a lot of what we do chimes with campaigns that certain people want to run, or want to fight. The only way that HAY has ever properly contributed to a campaign was the ‘libel campaign’. We managed to get 200 incredibly high profile people to sign up to Simon Singh’s campaign very early on and, while that did seem to have a small contribution, the whole extraordinary effort to address the issue was so much massively more than that, we just helped a little bit. Campaigning can be done in different ways. We like to campaign quietly. And to try and suggest that, if you try and imagine the world from other people’s perspective, your own perspective will become richer.

And lastly, I don’t how much you get to see because you are obviously very busy, but what have you enjoyed the most at Hay-on-Wye 2013?

The thing that I always enjoy the most is just meeting all these people so intensely and hearing the feedback they give about events. Amazingly, about 30 times this week people have come back into the Green Room from a range of events and said ‘that’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen at HAY’. I’ve never seen so many of the true greats that are, funnily after that conversation, but so politically engaged, and surprisingly so. John le Carré and Kevin Powers clearly rocked the room. There have been other quieter events, poetry readings or lectures about exhibitions. The Herculaneum and Pompeii talk given by Paul Roberts was clearly a life changing event for people who were in that room, who will never look at antiquity in the same way again. But inevitably, the big hit stars were the big women, because they have the extraordinary capacity to change the lives of their readers and of the people they are talking to a greater degree. Elif Shafak was clearly for many of the people in that room, a revelatory moment; a game changing idea was propagated in that talk - and there can be no greater gift.