Last weekend I made my first pilgrimage to the UK’s biggest and best literary event: the Hay Festival.
Hay-on-Wye is a tiny town on the Welsh/English border whose main industry is second-hand books. Shoulder to shoulder along its three tiny, steep streets 28 bookshops jostle for custom. It is hard to imagine how they manage to keep going for most of the year, but each May the Festival descends and the nation’s most avid book-lovers swarm the town, hunting out treasures and swelling the coffers of the hardy dealers.
In a field just outside the town, authors of every stripe hold court, giving readings, discussing the themes of their latest books and interviewing each other about their craft: how they write, when they write, why they write…
It is a haven for book-geeks, who can spot, hear and maybe even chat to their favourite writers – or discover new favourites – as well as buying books and getting them signed by the author.
The highlight for me this weekend was doing the latter. My friends were going to a reading by Owen Sheers, of whom I had previously never heard. They seemed pretty excited by the prospect, so I tagged along, and I’m so glad I did.
Owen was reading from and talking about his ‘verse drama’ Pink Mist. It is a five part poem telling the story of three friends going off to war in Afghanistan, and then returning home in various states of physical and psychological disrepair.
The subject matter is heavy, but the writing hauntingly beautiful. Sometimes poetry can cut to the emotional depth of a story more quickly and completely than a novel can, and this is certainly one of those occasions. I was stunned, and felt quite disorientated stepping out into the festival sunlight when it was over. I had been given a tiny glimpse of what men and women feel like as they return from the frontline utterly changed by their experiences yet expected to slot back into a world that barely makes sense to them any more.
Owen learned that getting soldiers to talk about their experiences – he interviewed around 30 in research for this poem and a play that was the original purpose of the project – is vital to helping them move emotionally from one place to the other. Getting some of the soldiers to act out their stories, through the slight separation of different character names, also helped them come to terms with their injuries and experiences. Watching the play and reading the poem helps others to begin to understand, and perhaps to begin to process things themselves.
The poem ends with Arthur, one of the friends, reflecting on why it is important for the stories to be told:
…I guess I hope it’ll change, somehow.
Till then, if people knew what it is,
that would be enough.
How the loss becomes the reason,
and how the reason’s an abuse of love.
How here and there each wounding,
each death, resonates,
until millions are touched.
So that’s all I hope for.
When the debate’s being had,
the reasons given,
that people will remember
what those three letters mean,
before starting the chant once more –
Who wants to play war?
Who wants to play war?
Skip forward to the afternoon, and I was at another event where some first time novelists (including my friend Joanna Rossiter) were talking about their books, all of which are set during WWII. The interviewer asked why there was such an interest in the war these days, why were so many people writing about it? All three of the authors said that while they didn’t necessarily go out looking for a war story to tell, it was important that these events are recorded now, because the generation who lived them is beginning to die out, and we need to capture their memories before they vanish.
In the Q&A I asked the writers what we as a society have learned in the intervening decades, picking up on something Joanna had said about how people would respond very differently today if they were asked to do some of the things that were expected during the war.
One of them gave the most depressing answer – she said she doesn’t think we do learn anything, culturally, at least not in that sense.
What a hopeless assessment! And what a contrast from Owen Sheers’ view. For him writing, talking, telling the stories is imperative for helping a culture learn and grow and avoid making the same mistakes over and over again. Words have power, and wrapped in his short, sad, harrowing book is a hope that someday it could be different, someday things could change, somehow his work and his words could contribute to shifting the way the world thinks and acts. For her, if she genuinely believes what she said and it wasn’t just a mis-speak brought on by nerves and the heat of the moment, writing is just a way to make a living, reading is just for entertainment and at most for an increase in the stack of facts accumulated in your brain.
But what is knowledge for if not to inform decision and guard against errors? Why is it important to tell the stories of a generation that is passing? They teach us about what it is to be human, they help us broaden our understanding of what makes other people tick, and how some are more able to resist temptation, stand firm under pressure and find inner resources of strength when they most need them.
At the very least, reading must open our eyes to the possibility of other ways to view the world. It should introduce us to new people, places and ideas and it should take us to times and places we could never visit alone. There are times to read purely for escapism, just to enjoy a good story, but if that is all we seek from – or give to – fiction, I think we’re missing out on what it’s all about.
I came away from Hay itching to read more from Owen Sheers, and to share his work as widely as I can. I haven’t even bothered to learn the other author’s name.