Hey! A May Hay Holiday! Kiri Bloom Walden and Helen Castor

Perhaps an hour spent laughing at badstockphotosofmyjob late on Monday night prepared me for a bit of frivolity, so when I noticed Helen Castor was talking at the Hay festival the next day, I checked out the programme of speakers. Rose Tremaine offered a catalogue of horrible things that had happened to her so I was glad that was too early the next morning for me to get to. Helen Castor was talking about Queen Elizabeth I, but surely that would be just like a TV programme? However there were two speakers on storytelling-type themes, and these looked like just the kind of thing a Top Notch blogger should be on top of! I decided to sleep on it, and if I woke up early enough…

A thirty-five minute flurry of Hay Fest programme speed-reading, Google Maps and Traveline (shocking how slickly G Maps manages to do public transport now!), washing, dressing, lunch-packing, even managed egg on toast, and I was on the train. Just after I’d bought my ticket I learned with sadness that both Traveline and Google Maps thought there were no buses back from Hay to Hereford after midday. And this is what Hay railway station currently looks like:

Hay-on-Wye railway station nowadays. Looks like we missed the last train. By Ben Brooksbank, CC BY-SA 2.0 via wikipedia.

Hay-on-Wye railway station nowadays. Looks like we missed the last train. By Ben Brooksbank, CC BY-SA 2.0 via wikipedia.

I seemed to be heading for Serious Adventure land.

Couldn’t get in to the “HD39. Jen Lunn Read for Good: Secrets of the Storytelling Universe”, so I went to HC’s QEI talk instead. Unlike the other two talks that were in rooms big enough for about 20, Helen Castor’s hall had room for about 2,000 , and I must have got one of the last places. It were Grand. She revealed to us that Elizabeth was not only very canny, but that it was only through her unusual intelligence and self-control that she managed to avoid being killed (as Helen usually referred to it, as in the case of Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn, instead of “executed”). Elizabeth would take up a carefully considered and prepared position and defend it faultlessly to the death, or in her case, to the avoidance of death. More than once The Authorities very strongly suspected her of being involved in conspiracies but just couldn’t quite pin anything on her. She also seems never to have spoken of her mother, only praised her father.

Elizabeth I's locket ring with minature of mum Anne Boleyn.  Click pic for original from theanneboleynfiles

Elizabeth I’s locket ring with minature of mum Anne Boleyn. Click pic for original from theanneboleynfiles

And yet… she had the most delightful signet ring which opened to display a tiny portrait of her mother and someone else – not dad. That ring is kept very carefully under wraps somewhere and not even HC has been able to see it, although it was once loaned to an exhibition. Afterwards, one of the questions was about that ring. An Absolutely Gorgeous Jewel, as that bloke on the Antiques Roadshow might say. The Guardian’s view on it.

HC has recently started showing us unfailingly entertaining extracts from the Ladybird historical books, on Twitter, and her talk here started with the Ladybird Elizabeth I. Page one shows Anne Boleyn holding the newly born Elizabeth I wrapped in swaddling clothes I think they’re called, with Henry VIII looking on. Anne is doting, but although Helen described Henry as being portrayed not too badly in the book, he is glaring nastily at Anne and the baby, and as the text reports, he wasn’t pleased it wasn’t a son. Elizabeth’s older sister Mary was described as a different sort of person (yup, catholic), and, to much mirth, Helen read out that “Henry had been married before”. Yup, many of the audience seemed to have heard about that, by the sound of it 🙂 . I think they must have enjoyed writing those Ladybird books.

But I was wrong about it being like TV programme. It wasn’t, but it was clear that HC is an accomplished lecturer, expertly taking slow half steps back from the lectern from time to time help the legs with the standing, and speaking very easily. Into this hour she packed well over two hours-worth of TV time, but no-one was ever anything less than wrapt. She does “lady” very well in her TV appearances, but it’s clear from her footballing tweets she’s some way towards being a tomboy. It was a hot day and we discovered she has a tomboy’s knees 🙂 . I like that in a celebrity historian. Judging by the audience response at the end, we were all very pleased with her. She’s very able but seems to have no nastiness. I think she was slightly surprised by the extended applause at the end; she said it was the first time she’d been at Hay (as a speaker I presume). I’m sure they’d be happy to have her back. As usual, the unfair treatment of women was a recurring theme, and one of her comments that will bear repeating was: “No-one ever seems to accuse Henry VIII of being bossy and emotional”. Helen Castor has written the Elizabeth I book, in the 25,000 word Penguin Monarch series. See if you agree with The Guardian’s view on it.

I filled the two hours to the next talk with fried squid and chips, and a ÂŁ4 ice-cream, but as people I was chatting to agreed, it was a holiday after all. They also agreed it was full of almost exclusively Radio 4 listeners-type people. Remembering Mickey Flanagan’s joke about places “with atmosphere” having no “working-class” people, I always feel rather guilty at Hay – but it doesn’t stop me enjoying it – even basking in it. While I was wandering about, expertly licking my ice-cream, a few people started giving me funny looks. Only later did I realise that despite my care and attention, I’d dropped four trails of melted ice-cream down my dark shirt :-S . However I was able to discover some of the fascinating stands there: Jackie Morris had a crowd round her desk full of otters.

Jackie Morris' Otters of the aphabet.

Jackie Morris’ Otters of the aphabet. Hay 2018.


Jackie Morris' names of the otter.  Hay 2018.

Jackie Morris’ names of the otter. Hay 2018.


I think I may just have missed her drawing a new full-sized one with an ink-soaked piece of sponge. Fablus. Check out her Otters of the alphabet http://www.jackiemorris.co.uk/blog/more-on-the-language-of-liquid/

She illustrates with gold-leaf too.

Some of Jackie Morris' stuff at Hay 2018.

Some of Jackie Morris’ stuff at Hay 2018.


Jackie Morris illustrated books Hay 2018.

Jackie Morris illustrated books Hay 2018.

There was Mari Thomas there, and what most caught my eye was a sort of parchment effect made of gold or silver, with the words disappearing through a threadbare gold or silver fabric.

Mari Thomas bookmark showing her eroded gold or silver parchment design

Mari Thomas bookmark showing her eroded gold or silver parchment design

In the second talk I attended, Kiri Bloom Walden took us through the four-minute Scene d’Amour clip from Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” where James Stewart meets a woman who is supposed to be imitating a lost love of his. There was such a lot of film culture crammed into this. First she explained that westerners automatically become expert in standard film technique, so that when it’s violated, as it often is in horror films, it has quite a powerful effect. There’s a thing called film language, and also just langue. Didn’t quite fully understand that, but for example during a conversation, you get the view from behind one person’s shoulder at the other person’s face and then vice versa: “shot reverse shot”. Not doing that in the scene added disquiet. Also you expect to have a quick glimpse round a room upon entering it, but Hitchcock denies us that in the Vertigo scene. He spent time with the German film makers as his careeer was starting, and was influenced by Fritz Lange. Apparently a director who likes to control everything is called an auteur, though interestingly, once Hitchcock had had full control over the casting, he tended to give the actors surprisingly free reign. KBW showed the use of shadow and colour in the form of a green mist, harking back to a graveyard scene earlier in the film. Also, there were three doors in the bedroom in the later part of the scene, which was supposed to be ominous. One of them seemed to have a window in it, a bit like some kind of hospital or something.

The music was compsed by Bernard Hermann, who also scored Psycho and Taxi Driver, and as KBW said, the music made a huge contribution to Hithcock’s films – for example the stabbing music in the stabbing scene in Psycho. Bernard Hermann was a topic in Radio 4’s The Film Programme this week, discussed by composer Neil Brand, with Francine Stock. I was surprised to hear Hermann described as “minimalist”; even I noticed the huge triumphant Wagnerian crescendo in the central point of the scene.

I have to say the full effect of the scene was never going to work for me because though I could see the woman was affecting Stewart’s character, the style in which Hitchcock likes to portray his central women characters usually drains them of all sex-appeal for me, for example in this clip. Should say though that Anna Massey in Frenzy was an exception. I was also pleased to hear that though Martin Scorsese (or was it the other one?) had this as one of his favourite films, he often felt quite confused by it – as I often am with some Hitchcock films. Probably was Scorsese since he’d used the same composer …who died the day after finishing recording the Taxi Driver music.

Anyway, Fan TASTIC Day out, and not a single Y chromosome between any of the main people who made it for me what it was. And what made it perfect was that there actually is a frequent bus service back to Hereford during the festival 🙂 .

Hay bus timetable.  Click to enlarge.

Hay bus timetable. Click to enlarge.

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