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Hay despatch #1

Our festival correspondent listens to Nadine Gordimer, Ed Miliband and Grayson Perry.

Stunning sculpture, stories, sun and strawberries were all to be found at the first weekend of this year's Hay literary festival. A lady made from bronze resin lies on the grass reading, and around the elegant sculpture by Carol Peace festival-goers are milling, enlivened by provocative Q&A sessions.

"If you're interested in the world and in people, in love and death, in what is the best thing to do and how to be happy, then Hay is a great place to be," said the festival's founder and director, Peter Florence.

"Forget about creative writing schools, please," advised the South African author Nadine Gordimer in her enthralling talk. "My only advice is read, read, read, read. That's why libraries are so important. You learn to become critical."

As for Gordimer's own vocations, she revealed an unexpected one: "I intended to be a belly dancer," she said, joking that she was glad that she discovered writing, otherwise she'd be washed up by now.

Gordimer mused on the various disciplines of poetry, prose and short stories: "Poetry is the most disciplined of the non-fiction writing. I discovered I'm not up to that," whereas a short story (like "a firefly illumination") comes to her complete. As for the impulse to write fiction at all, she quoted Graham Greene's point that you "don't know anyone completely. You look at them and invent an alternative life."

All writers will face criticism at some point in their career, but "if you have any integrity at all, you find that your books get banned. What do you want to do? Pretend everything is fine? Tell fairy tales?"

* * *

The weekend offered not only literature, but also comedy, music, politics and art. Grayson Perry was to be seen wandering around the Hay Festival site, clad in a bright dress.

"I used to be a bitter artist but now I try to be happy," he said during a discussion of his career, complete with intriguing slideshow. Perry also revealed that he suffered for a long time from "imposter syndrome" and lacked feelings of entitlement.

* * *

At an evening event, the Labour leadership candidate Ed Miliband commented on the first scandal of the new government, David Laws's resignation. He expressed sympathy for the short-lived chief secretary to the Treasury. As for his own career, Miliband said: "I don't miss the trappings of ministerial power at all . . . Government can have a stifling effect."

As an "expert rider of multiple horses", asked his interviewer, "what is your irreducible core?". To which Miliband replied that it is his sense that Britain is an unjust society and that we should do something about that.

His "prescription" for the problem includes decent wages, controlling the markets and "politically promoting love and compassion" by making more time for family, as he believes that inequality places tensions and strains on people.

Miliband refused to criticise his brother, David, or to characterise the differences between them, though he did concede that it was incredibly hard to run against him. "I'm not a factional person," he insisted. Miliband disputed his "nicey-nicey" image and believes he showed his "flintiness" over the Copenhagen summit. "I've been tested and responded," he said.

Gordon Brown, his political mentor, showed him how to "stand up for what he believed", and taught him "toughness", "persistence" and "doggedness". Miliband defended the record of the Labour government, stating that British society is now fairer and more tolerant.

He was taken to task by the audience, which grilled him about the financial crisis, politicians' fears for their own ambitions, and their hope that the Labour Party can win back disaffected voters.

Elsewhere on the festival site, Beth Orton's acoustic set echoed into the night, and later in the evening, at St Mary's Church, the Norwegian pianist Ketil Bjørnstad closed the day's entertainment.

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