Making Hay in 2020 - Katherine Roberts

The Hay Literary Festival is something of a pilgrimage for me, dating from the days I lived an hour's leisurely drive across the border and along the River Wye. One year I was even invited as an author to talk in a big tent about my first 'Seven Fabulous Wonders' adventure THE GREAT PYRAMID ROBBERY (and Hay must have worked its magic, since that is still the best selling title of the seven in the series). I don't think I've missed a Festival in 20 years, except of course this year when it, like pretty much every other event where literary folks mingle to exchange ideas, was cancelled "due to Covid". Well, dear Dictator Covid, this month I decided to risk the rising number of cases in Wales and the threat of a last-minute local lockdown, and drove across the border anyway to visit Hay and see if there were still any ideas knocking around.

The experience was, as expected, a little sad. Half the smaller bookshops seemed to be closed (though hopefully just temporarily). The ones that were open for browsing had huge signs asking me to wear a face covering, be sure to sanitise my hands on entry, and keep 2m away from everyone else (I thought it was either 2m or face coverings, according to WHO, but I guess it pays to be safe if you are a business at risk of shutdown over a single confirmed case of the virus on your premises) - and this was before Wales officially joined England in the current mask wearing insanity, which seems to be based on fairly dodgy science plus a Covid-strength dose of political lobbying. Anyway, there were very few other browsers to avoid in the large Booths bookshop, so I dived safely downstairs into the SF/Fantasy basement and grabbed a few random titles as fast as possible so that I could dash back up the stairs and exit the shop before I ran out of breath. One of these hard-won books turned out to be a collection of short stories by he-of-the-wild-imagination Michael Moorcock, published in 1969 with this lovely 60s fantasy cover:

THE TIME DWELLER is, like much SF/Fantasy, way ahead of its time. As I read these stories, I couldn't help seeing parallels to our current Covid crisis - for example, in this (edited for length) passage from The Deep Fix, which introduces the concept of 'hallucinomats' - machines designed to interfere with people's brainwaves and change their behaviour, in the same way as hallucinogenic drugs. Originally devised to help people whose brains are damaged, it is not long before the machines start to have unforeseen effects on the healthy:

Seward was the first to put it to his team. He remembered his words. "Gentlemen, as you know, our work on hallucinomats for actual curing of mental disorders is going too slowly... I have an alternative proposal." The alternative proposal was Experiment Restoration. It should have been called Experiment Diversion. The existing hallucinomats would be set up throughout the world and used to induce passive disorders in the minds of the greater part of the human race. The co-operation of national governments and World Council was sought and given. The machines were set up secretly at key points all over the globe. They began to 'send' the depressive symptoms of various disorders. They worked. People became quiet and passive. Others - a great many others prone to melancholia - committed suicide... Even Seward had not suspected the extent of the potential suicides. He was shocked. So was his team. 

Hmm, I've noticed people becoming quiet and passive around my neighbourhood lately... are we quite sure this is science fiction??? Michael Moorcock is not alone in predicting a frightening future for the human race. Many SF/Fantasy authors imagine dystopian futures, and maybe we shouldn't be so keen to put our wilder ideas into our books. Thankfully, Moorcock's hallucinomats do not (as far as I know) exist. However, I understand some of the new 5G frequencies - coming soon to a town near you! - can be used, and indeed are already used by the military, to affect mob behaviour. Even without any sinister-brain-zapping agenda, I am aware of having to guard my mental health just as fiercely as my physical health during this horrible pandemic summer with its isolating, unpredictable, and often nonsensical and contradictory rules. I appreciate we have a nasty flu virus circulating at large in the world, and I'm 90% certain I had the thing at the end of March (no doubt infected during the UK's optimistic "herd immunity" period, just before the university where I was working shut down for the year). I recovered successfully at home during lockdown, while my immune system worked up a response to what felt like a weird form of flu. I'm rather glad I had it back then, since consequently I've never been quite as afraid as everyone else seems to be of catching and spreading it. I suspect I might have been exposed a couple of times since and fought it off with a normal mild flu-type reaction, rather than the weird symptoms I experienced the first time... or perhaps the Covid propaganda machine merely made me believe I had the virus, which was why I developed symptoms in the first place? After all, the brain is strongly linked to physical health, or voodoo would not work.

But I won't go on about symptoms I've largely forgotten now and that obviously did not turn out to be life threatening. Suffice to say I am still here, and my personal experience of the virus - not only of my own bout of flu, but my elderly father's continuing good health (I drove him to A&E without passing it on to him, after he had a fall in his greenhouse during lockdown), and my 'vulnerable' mother's condition (she tested positive in her securely-locked-down nursing home about a month ago, but has so far shown zero symptoms and is now miraculously showing signs of recovery from the stroke she had two years ago) - have left me questioning whether the government's response to the virus and their Emergency Coronavirus Act that removes pretty much all of our human rights potentially until 2022 is, in fact, still justified? The current stats might look alarming at first sight, but we have to remember cases are NOT deaths. Many more people are now being tested than earlier in the year, and some of those positive tests are symptomless - so what exactly are we testing for? Healthy people? Potential carriers? Of what? A virus that was downgraded in March? We all carry hundreds of viruses around in our gut every day of our lives, and quite a few of them are beneficial so getting rid of those might not be the greatest idea... what if this coronavirus is being triggered by something alien in the environment, and is in fact just doing its job and trying to protect us? Wouldn't that be ironic?

As for those masks (which I understand can actually spread disease if used unhygienically), read this poem by Spike Milligan and then ask yourself what you want to wear on your face in public, possibly for the rest of your life?

I'll leave you with this video by Rachel from Dragon's Den, who is a mother of five sons recently back at school so has a different experience from me yet comes to some of the same conclusions. It's about half an hour long, so grab yourself a cup of coffee and have a listen. The UK Government will vote to extend their Emergency Coronavirus Act on 30th September, which means yet more restrictions on our lives for another 6 months... ask yourself is this the world you really want your children to live in?   


Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young (and older) readers. Find out more about her books at


Peter Leyland said…
Hi Katherine - I started going to Hay in about 1987 when it was just starting and loved it. My interest however has tailed off during the las few years. I watched Rachel’s video which was quite compelling but where to put I? I don’t know.
You're right, Peter, the Festival did change when it got bigger. I can also remember the smaller, friendlier days when children's authors did talks in the local primary school... am wondering if we might find a general return to smaller Festivals post-covid?

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