I was invited to the Guardian Hay Literary Festival, held annually in the small town of Hay-On-Wye on the English-Welsh border. It’s a lovely bucolic place, and, with 29 bookshops, a Mecca for bibliophiles—ergo the festival.
My own event consisted of a one-hour conversation with the British writer Rosie Boycott, but some of the best parts of the festival were all the freebies associated with speaking. These included flights to the UK and back, free tickets to all the events (the nicest perk), a case of champagne, free car transportation anywhere I wanted to go, free food, and, of course, a nice stay in a B&B, in this case the Rhydspence Inn, a 14th-century building:
I went to as many events as I could. A nice one was the wine lecture and tasting by Simon Hoggart, wine writer for The Spectator and political columnist for the Guardian. Hoggart is shown below with the four wines we tried—a viognier, a Ribiera del Duero, a St. Joseph, and an albariño. Two of these were very good, and Hoggart punctuated the tastings with wry and ascerbic observations about the wine world. (I am still a bit appalled, though, to see how often Brits will publicly make fun of the French. It’s a reliable way to get a laugh in old Blighty, but it’s pretty chauvinistic. I’ve seen it at academic talks, too.)
A day before my own talk, I was asked by festival director Peter Florence to fill in for Philip Pullman, who was ill, as part of an impromptu series of short talks for charity. I agreed, though I was a bit freaked out by having only a few hours to write a short talk on a subject of my own choosing. But I was even more freaked out when I saw the line-up for that event:
OMG, Tom Stoppard! This was clearly to be the apogee of my life. But, with my polo shirt and blue jeans, I wasn’t dressed properly. I quickly asked my friend Steve Jones if I could borrow his jacket. Here we are with his jacket, which was made for him by a tailor in India. The label says, “Specially made for Prof. Steve Jones.”
At the gala, I talked for about 12 minutes on evolution, science, rationality, and atheism; it seemed to go down well. After the talk Stoppard detained me and noted that I had been unfair to claim, as I had in my talk, that religion was the major reason why many people opposed evolution. Another important reason, he argued, was that evolution simply could not explain some phenomena. When I asked him which ones, he said, “Consciousness.”
Over the next day and a half we continued this conversation, with me trying to persuade The Great Man that while evolutionary biologists had not yet provided a definitive natural-selection scenario for the evolution of consciousness, scientists were busily and successfully showing that consciousness was a material phenomenon, and that this was the first step in understanding its evolution.
I’m not at all sure that TGM had a real beef with evolution (after all, Stoppard is our most science-friendly playwright), and in the end I suppose that he regarded as the big mystery not consciousness itself, but the ability of the consciousness to crank out things like Arcadia or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
Stephen Fry (left) at Hay. Like Stoppard, he is TALL:
From Hay-on-Wye we repaired to Laugharne for a few quiet days on the Welsh coast. Laugharne, a sleepy town on an estuary, is famous as the final home of poet Dylan Thomas and the place where he’s buried.
I am a huge fan of Thomas, whom I regard as one of the three best anglophone poets of the twentieth century (the others being Yeats and Eliot). Most of you probably know at least one of his poems (“Do not go gentle into that good night” is the most famous), and may be aware that he was an alcoholic womanizer who died at 39 in New York. He had a tempestuous relationship with his wife Caitlin; here’s the couple in a more peaceful moment:
When not travelling (Thomas made frequent poetry-reading trips to America to earn money), he spent the last four years of his life at The Boat House in Laugharne, a lovely place overlooking the estuary. It was purchased for Thomas by a patron.
Here he wrote many of his finest works, including the wonderful “play for voices” Under Milk Wood, and the poems “Do not go gentle. . ” and “Poem on his birthday.” (If you have not read the play, by all means do so. Better yet, get hold of the Caedmon recording that Thomas and colleagues made in 1953.)
These pieces were composed in “the writing shed”, a very small room that was the previous occupant’s garage. It’s been left exactly as it was when Thomas occupied it:
Interior of the writing shed:
Holy relics: Thomas’s drawing of a boat
and his only pair of cufflinks.
Here’s the local paper’s announcement of Thomas’s burial in Laugharne (click to enlarge). Note that it gets far less space than an announcement of the burial of two local toffs:
Thomas’s grave, in the burial ground of St. Martin’s Church, is touching: it’s a simple wooden cross, the only one among the gravestones. Catlin was later buried beside him; her name is on the other side of the cross. (The only other grave I’ve seen that is so poignantly austere is that of Vincent Van Gogh, buried next to his beloved brother.)