Wales: Tucked away amongst lush rolling green countryside, thick with hedges and tall buttercup-studded grass, is the ancient border town of Hay-on-Wye; famous for bookshops, a stunning location, and the annual literary festival; it’s a place famous as a resplendent retreat for book lovers. ‘The Hay’, properly known as the Hay Festival of Arts and Literature, is recognised as one of the UK’s most prestigious arts events.
Amongst this year’s speakers are household names like Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins, Jennifer Saunders and Mary Berry. What an honour to be amongst that number. My wife, Helen and I arrived the evening before to glorious sunshine and a banner across the road saying, ‘Welcome to Hay’! By morning, the weather had changed beyond recognition; black clouds sat stubbornly over the festival site, sagging with weight of rain.
Puddles and mud stretched between the grassy carpark and the festival entrance. It was a bit more rock n roll than I’d expected; I wondered whether to ditch suit and tie for wellies! I needn’t have worried. The festival itself was sheer delight! The site was beautifully laid out and all undercover, with impressive stages, a food hall catering for every taste and inviting shops, not least the festival book store where I spent time looking through literary delights.
Come lunchtime the first day, fellow speakers and I were whisked from the Green Room where ‘artists’ relax before the show. We took to the Good Energy Stage where all was set for my debate with Guy Smith from the National Farmers Union. Guy has been the NFU’s vice president since November last year.
The debate to a packed audience came and went in a flash. Rural commentator, Rob Yorke, chaired the session well and kept things moving at a snappy pace. I was disappointed but not surprised at the NFU’s blithe assurances that all was well in the countryside, despite strong gathering evidence to the contrary; once common farmland birds, bees and butterflies suffering drastic and long term declines. I had similar feelings when Guy was carping about the effects of banning sow stalls in Britain; perhaps one of the cruellest of the factory farm systems, where pregnant pigs can’t even turn around for months at a time. When will the NFU join us in celebrating welfare advances?
My second day at Hay dawned brighter. Today was the day I’d really come for; to talk about the trends toward global mega-farming and the stories behind ‘Farmageddon: The true cost of cheap meat’. In his welcome notes in the festival programme, Peter Florence invites visitors to “celebrate the power of language and the pleasure of debate.” He paints an overview of the festival menu before asking, who are we in 2014? In terms that are “both profoundly local and spectacularly global: how do we feed our children?”
As I rose to my feet in front of a daunting theatre audience, it was just that question I had in mind to answer. It was so inspiring to be talking to the Hay audience; informed, passionate and engaged; to be in conversation with Boris Johnson’s food adviser and chair of London Food, Rosie Boycott, who chaired the session with incisive ease.
Almost a year ago, when we sat with a blank sheet of paper to plan the Farmageddon promotional campaign, we saw an invitation to Hay as one of the big things to which to aspire. To have been invited to speak not once, but twice, was magic. To Rosie Boycott for her probing and inquisitive chairing of my Farmageddon session, to the organizers and everyone who came out to hear me speak, a heartfelt thank you.
Next stop on Tour Farmageddon; 5th June - New Writing South event, Brighton, Philip Lymbery in conversation with Caroline Lucas MP, Studio Theatre, 7pm