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Breaking Travel News interview: Peter Florence, director, Hay Festival

The 29th edition of the Hay festival welcomed over 250,000 visitors with its stellar line-up of literary artistes, musicians, thinkers and more.

Set in the Welsh border town of Hay-on-Wye the festival has been called ‘Woodstock for the Mind’ by Bill Clinton former President of the USA.

Phil Blizzard here chats with festival director Peter Florence in the ‘Town of Books’ to find out about this edition of the event.

But first a step back in time…

Phil Blizzard: I believe it all started around a kitchen table, a bit like where we are at the moment. So can you give us the key moments along the way to where you are now?

Peter Florence: Everything around here starts around a kitchen table.

I think all good ideas start around a kitchen table really.

I had done a one-man show about Wilfred Owen which had been toured all around the world and I’ve been to lots of festivals and I love them, you know?

You love the buzz that you get off a festival, that energy about people coming together is really exciting, and we thought well we should do something at home.

So I invited a bunch of mates.

My parents invited their friends and the idea was to be together. To talk about some stuff.

To have a few laughs. Have a few drinks and that would be enough for a weekend.

And actually, that spirit is exactly what we do now.

PB: So the focus at that time, was it purely literature or was it broader?

PF: No it was always a mix.

If you go to the Montreux jazz festival you get the art form.

What you get here is something that’s more than art form, plus talking about the art form, plus arguing about the art form, plus going out for supper and keeping arguing about the art form, and it’s a very social thing.

It’s about topics of conversation. 

Hay is a book town, I don’t know, we had 42 bookshops around at a peak, and there’s nothing you can’t talk about. Books have authority.

PB: In terms of the programming, you see the billing for the Hay Festival being literature and arts or arts and entertainment. How would you describe the key elements?

PF: I think we’d say the Hay Festival makes entertainment out of the most serious conversations you can possibly find.

So we try and share the Nobel Prize winning scientists in a big popular forum, without diminishing what it is that they’re studying.

So it mixes all those things.

I mean, nobody wants a diet of just one sort of thing.

You want this kind of pluralistic, promiscuous mass of interests.

Because everybody has a thousand influences on what they’re thinking every day.

PB: Sure, yes. It’s sort of like dining out. Progressive dining. You go from one course for the next course and on to another.

PF: Yes, absolutely.

PB: And the program, there’s so much here. How many people have you got on the stage?

PF: Seven, eight hundred artists on the stage. And they are academics. They’re writers. They’re musicians. They’re comedians.

And you’re right to say that the mix is the thing.

PB: From Sam Mendes, the director with Bond, through to musicians David Gilmore to name just two.

PF: Yes, there’s a huge range of people.

And the joy of pitching yourself into a festival is that strands and themes and connections emerge which you have never anticipated, and that’s what makes the festival so thrilling, because all the stuff that you’re taking in does actually in some way connect.

PB: So do you see those strands evolving as the festival itself evolves and do you think, as you said, you didn’t expect it?

PF: Yes. Well, I sort of have a good idea of what there maybe on, because I programmed it, but other people will find different strands, I imagine, for them.

Just because we all have such different experience.

And however much I think I’m in control of what I’ve programmed, whatever comes out is spontaneous and wonderful, because unlike a theatre festival, where you’re booking a theatre show you’ve seen, or a music festival, you’re basically asking people to improvise and to respond to each other, and to develop ideas as they come.

PB: And I suppose creating their own strands in terms of what they’re going to go and see and appreciate.

PF: Yes. You know we’ve been doing this 30 years and we’ve been doing it on five continents and I’ve programmed 200 festivals all around the world, and there are always things that bite you on the arse.

That you’ve never seen before.

You never anticipate, and you think, “ouch. Well okay, that puts it in a new direction”.

And that’s very exciting actually. I mean, it’s a high risk art form.

PB: Sure. I want to move on to the global aspect in a moment. But in terms of where we are - Hay-on-Wye, Powys. We’re at the northern tip of the Brecon Beacons national park. What does this festival mean to the local economy?

PF: Well we don’t do it as an economic driver, but that’s sort of secondary.

But it brings in, well there are all sorts of studies being done and there is another university who are doing one this year.

It basically impacts about £20-25 million into the local economy.

But actually the real impact is slightly different.

The real impact is that kids who go to primary school in rural Wales and rural Herefordshire think it’s normal to have Bill Clinton turning up on their doorstep.

They aren’t intimidated by anything.

And they have expectations which are just high as people who live in West London or Glasgow or in New York, because excellence is for everybody.

PB: So, I’m moving from the community aspect. I’m moving from Hay to your global festivals. Well, I can recall Beirut because I’m based in the Middle East and also Kerala in India. It’s grown much more than that, hasn’t it?

PF: Yes. And it has both grown and contracted over the years.

There are things you can’t do. We have to withdraw from Dakar.

We have grown and grown and grown in Latin America.

This is a new festival which opens every year which starts in Colombia. We were in Mexico. We were in Peru, Europe as well.

We’ve had a fantastic festival in Spain which keeps on growing despite the serious economic challenges working there.

It’s about the need and the desire to sit around the camp fire and tell stories. It’s universal.

PB: It’s a global thing!

PF: Yes. And the more digitally connected we are, the stronger the worldwide web is.

The more the human contact, the eyeball thing is important.

The breaking of the bread the sharing of table becomes more and more vital and also more and more well informed. My dream!

PB: What is your dream? Tell us…

PF: It is to have I have Hay Festival Tehran and Hay Festival Baghdad, two of the greatest literary cities on earth in history.

PB: Peter, let’s go back to where we’re now and finish off, because you came bounding in, full of excitement and you’ve got some news regarding this year’s development which we’ll really be very pleased about. So, give us a quick recap of what 2016 will be?

PF: It’s a vast mixed. We’ve got Noble Prize winning chemist.

We’ve got some of the world’s most famous actors.

We’ve got Benedict Cumberbatch, Sam Mendes is coming. We’ve got two of Wales’ greatest ever voices, Tom Jones and Bryn Terfel coming to perform at Hay on the last day of the festival.

We have 250,000 people coming together to have an amazing inspiring, hanging out, chilled out holiday and there will be picnics!

More Information

More information on the Hay Festival can be found on the official website.