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.

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.