Well, SerenaSatNav did the biz....except we prefer to call her Connie (as in Constance)
We set her a-talking as we left home, just to get the hang of 'in 400 yards, bear left' and then 'bear left,' when in fact you are only going around a normal bend in the road, but also to get an idea of how much warning you are given, and just so that we could cope with it all in the middle of Abergavenny.
Abergavenny was where Bookhound finally surrendered all vestiges of control having done his usual Google Earth route plan which fixes a satellite image of where he's going in his head (never of any use to me as navigator). He had quite thought we would go to the east of the mountains whilst Serena took us to the west.
'No, no, no...she's got it wrong, we're going the long way round...get the map out...'
There was a minor exchange in which I sided with Connie who kept dishing out the perfect directions...
'Let's just do as she says,' suggest I, having spent the last hundred and something miles in a state of advanced nirvana at not having to pore over the map every five minutes, and in no mood to start now.
Of course Connie was right and we pulled into Hay-on Wye in record time singing her praises before tucking her away out of sight.
Now it must be ten years since we have been to Hay for the festival, if not longer, so I was pleasantly surprised with a great deal.
The ease of parking for one.
The Macmillan charity car park, adjacent to the festival site, £6 for the day, seemed like an appropriate charity for us to support this year, and from there the shuttle bus into Hay for lunch and a browse around the bookshops...twenty or more of them.
Faced with more books than even I knew existed can you believe I didn't buy a single one??
I'm in book-clearing rather than book-buying mode at the moment, trying not to add needlessly to shelves that already hold enough reading for three lifetimes, but if there was one I was looking for it was a new one. Fran H-B had just that morning told me she was engrossed in The Mighty Dead - Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicholson. I know next to nothing about Homer and I am intrigued to know there is something enjoyable and accessible out there. I did find two copies both new but with pages creased and with spines already cracked...if I'm going to pay full whack for a new book it had better be exactly that.
I also had to stop and stare because there seemed to be Ross Poldark strumming away in the town...
Back to the Festival site and another Good Thing...it is very spacious, well-laid out and sign-posted like a small village, and mostly under cover. I seem to recall muddy walkways and a festival atmosphere I couldn't quite fathom many years ago, but on Saturday it felt both relaxed yet vibrant.
We slotted into the airport-like queuing system along with 1200 others, in a hangar-sized space outside a 'tent' that was more like a stadium, to hear Helen Macdonald talk with passion and humour about her best-selling and prize-winning memoir H is for Hawk. Fortunately Carol found us in the queue (as did Sheelagh who comments here and popped across to say hello) and Carol is well-versed in what happens next, so she led the way and we tipped into seats a few rows from the front.
It was good to hear Helen Macdonald's story first-hand and to hear how her book has been so well-received by many people who are grieving themselves. Helen has given voice to something we are still not very good at and that is talking about loss and mourning, as well as giving people the time and space to do it, and to do it in whichever ways feel right for them. No one can tell anyone else exactly how to grieve and if it involves training a goshawk so be it.
Robert Macfarlane in conversation with Horatio Clare was the next event in the same venue but of course everyone has to file out and then queue up again, so there we were right at the front this time, no messing..
..and with Bookhound prepping himself for the role of seat-seeker while Carol and I had a good old yarn. It could all have gone horribly wrong...one trip and the thousand people behind you would pile in on top but no, safely into almost the same seats...except...
The tallest man in the country was now sitting in front of me directly blocking my view of the lectern, and though events are relayed to a big screen if I'm only five rows from the platform I really want to see these people for real.
Then there was the woman who absolutely HAD to send text messages all the way through sat next to Bookhound; thumbs all a-twiddle and the mobile phone screen flashing, a little beacon of addiction in the midst of the hushed darkness.
Except it wasn't quite hushed because the only woman in the whole tent with a very irritating cough (about every three minutes) was immediately behind us. It wasn't her fault I know, cough reflexes have a will of their own, but if I'm going to any event with a cough I take water and dry tickly cough sweets with me don't you?
Too late to move, we were surrounded, locked in place on oddly uncomfortable (to me) seats which somehow sloped a little too far backwards.
No matter Horatio Clare gave a wonderful introduction and of course Robert Macfarlane was... well Robert and we hung on his every word. I didn't take notes so it's all a wonderful mixed-up-memory of words and landscapes and meanings interspersed with some good questions from Horatio Clare who presented Robert with this year's Hay Medal for Prose, an annual award from the Festival committee. Having done this whole interviewing thing, and vowed not to do it again for the foreseeable future if ever, I now have the utmost respect for the role. But I also thought how lucky I was to have had the chance to interview Robert Macfarlane a few years ago at Port Eliot, it was one of the most memorable moments.
By this time it was 6.30pm, so we floated out on a real high making for the food tent and more chat before wending our way home.
Except I still hadn't bought a book.
How on earth could I go to Hay and not buy a book.
Granted one more sniff of the Festival Book Shop, off I trotted at about 7.30pm and there he was, Robert Macfarlane with his signing queue still snaking out of the door. I watched for a while... he was talking interestedly and at length to each person and it was clear plenty of people were prepared to wait for the opportunity. Plenty too seemed to be offering suggestions about more words for the glossaries in Landmarks, laying out books in front of him with carefully marked pages, turning to each one and pointing something out while Robert looked on and listened with patient attention. In the rarified microcosm that is a literary festival this all seemed to be signalling a heightened awareness and a genuine revival of respect for these disappearing words before it is too late, and it can only be hoped that the interest and enthusiasm spreads beyond the confines. As well as taking an interest in schools' projects, Robert Macfarlane revealed that he will be collaborating on a children's book in the near future, one that brings back the words lost from this year's Oxford Junior Dictionary, words like catkin and acorn, buttercup and bluebell (replaced by blog, broadband, cut-and-paste and voice-mail.) so it is clear that he has a commendable vision for this that goes far beyond the pages of his book.
Something interesting has begun.
I ambled around browsing the books. I already have every word written by Robert Macfarlane... but then there was the interviewer Horatio Clare, I don't know his writing at all but Carol and I both agreed he has the most beguiling voice, if he's a singer he's going to be rocking it over with the basses. A Single Swallow has been sitting on the shelf, the Tinker loved it and I hadn't got round to it, but Carol had mentioned the two volumes of memoir, Running for the Hills and Truant as excellent reads; I needed little encouragement.
As I turned to leave the bookshop, there he was, Robert Macfarlane still signing and chatting and the queue seemed no shorter, still snaking to the door, people still joining the back. Maybe this wasn't as tiring as climbing a mountain...or maybe it was. As Connie guided us home and delivered us to our gateway at about 11.30pm (our postcode is our house, the other two homes who share it have to make do and find their own way) I spared Robert Macfarlane and authors like him a thought...
And thought too about the demands of the whole LitFest circuit feeding as it does the reader's need to have much more than the written word. Now the need is for events, and books signed and tweets and Facebook pages, and yes please another book asap as part of the 21st century deal. Charles Dickens would have loved it all, any author needs their public and owes it to them to pay attention and occasionally be available and visible (many authors would kill for the mile-long signing queue) but popularity can also be exhausting and distracting from the next work in hand, and there is little doubt that Robert Macfarlane is much-loved and extremely popular (heads up...he will be on BBC Springwatch at 9pm this Wednesday). Hilary Mantel has talked in the past about the impossibilities of 'doing the circuit' and coping with distractions when she is engrossed in the sixteenth century. In Robert's case the next book will be Underlands, about what lies beneath (and don't expect it before 2020 he told us) so perhaps sometimes we can offer our favourite authors the chance to go to ground for a while and just 'be' and think and write, and in Robert Macfarlane's case cope with a day job and a young family too, all whilst reassuring them that their audience isn't so fickle as to have forgotten them. How fortunate we are to have them writing in our time.
So at 11.30pm I do hope he wasn't still sitting there.
Footnote : Extracts from both talks are now available on the BBC Hay Festival website so I have added the links below