Last day at Hay, and the festival confounded the weather forecasters. Hot and humid. First stop was the Culture Cymru tent to discover which six writers had made their way onto the Wales Book of the Year English and Welsh language lists. On the English side, the longlist had been something of a surprise to me, although I had been really delighted to see some unusual suspects on the list this year, including soon-to-be editor of Planet, Jasmine Donahaye. So I was intrigued to see which three titles would triumph in the shortlisting. Poetry made the final cut this year by way of Philip Gross for his ekphrastic collaboration with photographer Simon Denison from Cinnamon Press, I Spy Pinhole Eye. 2010 is shaping up to be quite the year for him, with a T. S. Eliot win and much deserved attention for a wonderful full collection from Bloodaxe, The Water Table. Fiction was represented by Terri Wiltshire for Carry Me Home and Nikolai Tolstoy earned his place for The Compilation of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. The most unexpected shortlist in many years. The three will now battle it out for the £10,000 prize, announced on 30 June. An enjoyable mingle afterwards, hoping that the ever lovely Luned Aaron wouldn’t catch an embarrassing candid shot – she was prepping up to pap the celebrated writer, comedian, thinker and raconteur Stephen Fry for Barn magazine.
Then on to my evening event with Trezza Azzopardi and Jon McGregor. Trezza was a delight. Witty, natural, mightily intelligent, she read delicious, sensual passages from her latest novel from Picador, The Song House. This new novel is characterised by her gift for evoking place so expertly – and the two soporific summers in the book that provide a backdrop for her narrative of memory and mystery felt altogether apt for the heat and tristesse of the festival’s close. She talked about how at the heart of her writing the struggle with memory was ever present – our ownership of it, the limitations of it and what it means for our identity, and the ideas we have of ourselves. She was, she said, always reaching for the perfect rendering. But what about her own complex identity? Trezza has Maltese roots and was born and raised in Cardiff. She now teaches on the Creative Writing programme that began everything for her at UEA, Norwich. Does she regard herself as a Welsh writer? No. She’s a writer, she says. Plain and simple. The rest doesn’t (shouldn’t?) come into it.
Jon McGregor was reading from his new novel from Bloomsbury, Even the Dogs. He’s just 34 but has two previous novels under his belt, both of which won him a place on the Man Booker longlist. And he scooped a Betty Trask award from the Society of Authors, a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and a Somerset Maugham Award for his first, If Nobody Speaks for Remarkable Things. But he’s still, I suspect, relatively unknown to many in the audience. Jon is quiet, intense, polite and genuine. He seems surprised – and relieved – when Trezza and I tell him how incredible his book is. And that surprise – and modesty – is a rare thing in the book world these days. Even the Dogs, with a clear literary progenitor in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, is a moving and painful portrait of a motley crew of the forgotten: drug addicts, alcoholics, scarred veterans of modern life’s urban sprawl. Jon was moved to write the book by listening to his wife’s own experiences of working in the charity field and was seeking, he said, to give a voice to the unvoiced. His careful and sensitive attention to detail provides optimism, as well as a study in despair. The characters are reinvested with humanity and, as with Trezza’s The Song House, despite the limitations placed on the ownership of our own lives and language, there is always the will to try. This is a must-read novel by a young writer who is surely tipped to become a major one. I am sincerely hoping that the Man Booker judges graduate McGregor to the next level this year. This slim, poetic novel stays with the reader long after the final page. In the audience, there were gasps at the intensity of a long, panoramic passage in which the author takes us from Helmand Province to a junkie’s vein. But they queued and they bought this book. A job well done.
Finally, we raised a toast to the end of the festival. The marquees were empty and what crowd was left was enjoying Stephen Fry’s set. Hay took on the appearance of the last of a happy wedding day. I look forward to next year.
Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor is published by Bloomsbury. The Song House by Trezza Azzopardi is published by Picador.