Matthew Engel's diary: My love-Hay relationship and the benefits of hard borders

I have a dual relationship with Hay – I have sometimes been a performer, and have known the angst and the pleasure, but I'm also a local. 

The finest May for decades in the Welsh Marches rumbled to a halt a week early, complete with thunderstorms: much rarer around here than in the sub-tropical south-east. The meteorological explanation was obvious to everyone in these parts: it was the opening day of the Hay Festival. Duh. In fact, the weather turned out remarkably well. And last Sunday, as the tourists decamped, the shopkeepers were smiling, if wearily.

I have a dual relationship with Hay. I have sometimes been a performer, and have known the angst (has my event been moved because it needs a bigger tent or – the horror – smaller?) and the pleasure (being greeted by your charming minder who always persuades you they have just met the one writer they wanted to meet above all others).

Then again I’m local, insofar as nearly 30 years living in south-west Herefordshire actually qualifies anyone as local. Hay is in a different country, technically Wales, though its edges straddle the English border, and connoisseurs of publicity stunts may remember that in the 1970s Richard Booth, the man who reinvented Hay-on-Wye as a book town, declared independence and had himself crowned king.

Eighteen miles away, we are nonetheless in Hay’s penumbra, and the B&Bs and pubs and shops expect an annual uplift from the festival that helps sustain some of them all year. It is an extraordinary event, successful in ways that are quite counterintuitive.

For a start it is proof that more means more all round. Once I found myself in the same time slot as five other writers, all of them way more famous than me. I whinged. “We’ll be dandy,” insisted the director, Peter Florence. And we were. On top of the 465 events in the main festival programme, a simultaneous rival show, at the far end of town, popped up again this year. Everyone is still dandy.

Second, the festival is a kind of Veblen good, like a diamond – worth having only because it’s expensive. In this case Hay succeeds because it is so damn hard to reach. It is 20 slow miles from Hereford station, which itself is joined to the national network more by threads than rails. The festival didn’t work in London, yet offshoots thrive in South America. It would probably draw crowds to the South Pole.

And now there’s a third thing. For years the posh papers all had a go as the festival’s title sponsor, until their money dried up: hinc illae lacrimae. The Guardian and Telegraph were the last two. Each parachuted in their columnists and the week took on their political tinge. Without them, it has become less pigeonholed, more inclusive. And unlike other small border towns, Hay is quite dandyish the other 51 weeks too. Booth and Florence share much of the credit.

Nineteenth-century seating

Hereford is still served by a few direct daily trains to London, all slow enough in the timetable but worse in reality. It is quicker but dearer to divert via Wales.

Great Western is introducing the long-awaited InterCity Expresses, designed for the forthcoming electric age, which began in the south-east a mere 135 years ago (and will reach Hereford c. AD 3000). The new trains have rock-hard seats with a discomfort level not seen in the west since the 1840s, when Brunel conveyed third-class passengers in open-top wagons. Even first class is crap.

Govia Thameslink, which has pulled a similar trick with its new trains, claimed it was all about health and safety, foam padding being flammable. The Rail Safety and Standards Board denied this. A Great Western guard told me the real reason was that if coffee gets spilt on these seats a replacement cover costs under a tenner. Advice to travellers: complain, complain, complain.

Pubs by any other name

One local pub has not benefited from the festival effect, for the fourth year running. The much-loved Bull’s Head at Craswall, on the lovely, lonely mountainside back road out of Hay, has been closed since 2014. The owners prefer it that way.

There have been potential buyers, at least four serious ones to my knowledge, all willing to pay a market price. But a half-century of social and legal change (from the breathalyser to a recent surge in business rates) has been cruel to rural pubs. And a licence-free country house or cottage is now worth about a third more than an equivalent pub.

Much trickery has been employed by greedy/incompetent publicans to be granted an official change of use and turn a profit. Sometimes the council planners stand firm, sometimes not. However, there is nothing to stop a landlord just shutting up shop and hoping that in time everyone will forget the building ever was a pub. Last month 200 of us met outside the Bull and staged a demo calling for its revival. An online 38 Degrees petition has gathered more than 1,100 signatures. And we will not forget.

Break for the border

In the old days pubs just inside England, such as the Bull, got a weekly boost on Sundays when Welsh pubs were forced to close. Now, with devolution, these anomalies get more frequent. In the border village of Llanymynech – half Shropshire, half Wales – the clientele of the Dolphin (Welsh) defected en masse to the Bradford Arms (English) for the three months that elapsed between Wales introducing the smoking ban and England catching up.

Now Wales is expected to follow Scotland, well ahead of sluggish England, by introducing minimum alcohol pricing. Shops on the English side will reap the benefit with a sudden influx of cheap-lager drinkers.

It is said in Ireland that no one wants to have a hard border again. But wherever there are differing laws, taxes or currencies, there are always angles that work to someone’s advantage. Short of the border being the Berlin Wall or Panmunjom, the harder the better. In Hay, the left’s favourite shop will for once get the profit: the Co-op is in England; its rival, Spar, is in Wales.

Matthew Engel writes “The Lost Continent” series in the New Statesman

This article appears in the 08 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Nuclear Family