Last updated: June 9, 2012 12:06 am

The Diary: Matthew Engel

The Hay Festival, the diamond jubilee river pageant and disappointing coverage by the BBC
An illustration depicting familiar faces at the Hay Festival©James Ferguson

It is a wonder that anyone took any notice of the Queen’s diamond jubilee given that it clashed with the 25th anniversary of the Hay Festival. It is also surprising that Buckingham Palace did not take heed of the time of year, realise that it always rains during Hay Week and find another date.

Hay is the lovely, remote, endearingly bonkers little town on the Anglo-Welsh border that vies with cyberspace for the title of second-hand book capital of the universe. The annual festival, which Bill Clinton, a former guest, once called “the Woodstock of the mind” has now become undisputed No. 1 in its own business, and has spawned its own Hay-run offspring in 15 even more improbable places, from Budapest to Bogota.

It works on the Olympic principle. If the world taekwondo championship was staged in your back garden, you might not get enough spectators to fill the shed. Roll it together with everything else and call it the Olympics, people fight for tickets. Same at Hay: beneath the headline writers and performers – Stephen Fry, Hilary Mantel, Salman Rushdie and that lot – are hundreds of authors one has never quite heard of (I know this, some years I have been one of them) and somehow, miraculously, they all draw an audience.

For a fragile author’s ego, the tension is unbearable. Why has my event been moved? Is it a bigger tent or a smaller one? Why is that queue for signatures 10 times longer than mine? (Because she’s Malorie Blackman and sells millions of books, you dolt.) But it works for us all and gets bigger every year: more than 600 separate events now, together with a complementary/ fringe/ rival (Hay politics is complicated) philosophy-and-music festival that takes the total of separate gigs to well over a thousand.

There has, however, been what appears to be a major cultural change at the main festival, which now has the Daily Telegraph as its main sponsor rather than The Guardian. Among the less secret codes of British life – which will die when print dies – is the one whereby one’s first judgment of a person is formed by seeing what newspaper they read. The phrase “Telegraph reader” conjures up something totally opposed to that of “Guardian reader”. For a start, when Telegraph readers hear the word Woodstock, they see a pretty town in Oxfordshire with plenty of options for cream teas.

The rainwear that’s usually essential at Hay makes it hard to judge whether the audience has changed much. One senses the programme may have more wartime nostalgia and less anti-capitalism, but that judgment might not stand up to statistical analysis. One leftie local, in contrarian mood, whispered that the crowd seemed less pretentious.

I went along to the big tent – “the Barclays Pavilion”, no anti-capitalism there – to hear Jeanette Winterson, who does not fit the Telegraph stereotype. It was packed, so perhaps the truth is that the change has made very little difference. Her new fictionalised memoir at the expense of her religious-fanatic adoptive mother was received rapturously by the women present, more coolly by most of the men, and very sourly by me.

I couldn’t help thinking that (a) Jeanette Winterson is awfully pleased with Jeanette Winterson, and (b) it was a great shame Mrs Winterson never had a right of reply.

Still I learnt something. “Sit on the right,” a friend advised as we went in. “On the right, it smells of damson jam. On the left it smells of toilet cleaner.” I couldn’t actually smell the damson jam, but the principle fits with the current sponsors’ view of the world.

. . .

Hay felt subtropical compared with London 24 hours earlier at the diamond jubilee river pageant. The banks were thronged with Telegraph readers, though I had privileged access to an enclosure on Waterloo Bridge for Slightly Important People, most of whom worked for Westminster Council.

My suffering was nothing when set against what the 86-year-old queen and nearly 91-year-old husband have endured and were enduring in the line of duty, though I found myself wishing I had chosen a more wintry jacket and been advised, as the council staff were, to bring a folding chair.

The detail that transfixed me from that vantage point was the river itself, normally ever-changing, which on this occasion lapped the same level on the bank for hours on end. The tidal flow – or to be more precise, the ebb – was halted by closing the Thames Barrier, which for the second half of the Queen’s reign has been guarding the capital against the possibility of inundation from the capricious North Sea.

This made the day a great deal easier for those participants inexperienced in the complexities of navigating the Thames. It also subverts the first story many of us learnt about British monarchy: King Canute discovering (or proving to his courtiers), circa AD1000, that he could not stop the tide coming in. Now the Queen can stop it going out.

. . .

The only TV screen visible from the bridge was hidden by the trees which, unlike the weather, were in summer mode. So I have no first-hand knowledge of the BBC’s coverage, though there was widespread agreement that it was fatuous and obsessed with irrelevant celebrities. Certainly, the following night’s broadcast of the Buckingham Palace concert was partially wrecked by insanely hyperactive intercutting. On this form, the Olympics could be ghastly.

The BBC has convinced itself that all stories have to be told by someone famous for something entirely different – while the concert was on the main channel, BBC2 had the actor Ewan McGregor on the Battle of Britain.

The once-brilliant history of British broadcasting rested on the belief that if you respect the intelligence of the audience they will respond. Thus, 30 years ago even ITV – now a wasteland – showed Brideshead Revisited, in which a single hour-long episode covered, faithfully, just 20 pages of Evelyn Waugh’s novel. It was both an artistic and a commercial triumph.

Last Christmas the BBC did Great Expectations, condensed into three wretched hours that would have baffled the original author. If the BBC can’t do Dickens properly, what’s the point of it? Why does all the most admired drama on British TV now come from Scandinavia?

I hope the new, shortly-to-be-appointed, director-general restores the founding principles of artistic integrity that made the BBC even more the envy of the world than the monarchy. I recommend a trip to Hay for a lesson in how to achieve this.

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