Looking for Literature by Peter Leyland
Looking for Literature, an Autofictional Adventure*
I had come to Hay-on-Wye at the suggestion of a friend. You could say, I suppose that I was looking for love as well as literature, although the two things in my mind were very close together. It was the Whit half-term, and I was eager to fill the space imposed on me by the five-day holiday. For busy parents it was always too full, but for me, who normally had charge of their offspring, it was often empty.
The Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival at the time had been going for about a year and was still very much a work in progress. It had been organised at a number of venues in the centre of a town which was famous for its many second-hand bookshops. The most well-known of these was that of Richard Booth, the King of Hay, and some of the booksellers there were not always too keen on the influx of literary tourists, me being one. I had, however, managed to get a single room in a wonderful hotel called The Seven Stars in the centre of the town and from there I could access all the venues quite easily.
At breakfast I met a couple called Gwyn and Joan. They were a lecturer and a teacher from Cardiff, who knew Hay well and were eager to tell me everything about the town. Although they were there for the festival, they also had an interest in rare books for which there were many sources. Gwyn was very keen on William Blake and had already tracked down a favourite to add to his collection of first editions.
Anyway, I decided to start the first day with The Kilvert Walk on which I had already booked a place. This was named after the young curate, Francis Kilvert, who in 1865 worked in Clyro. As we followed our guide the tour group heard the story of his love of the Welsh border region where we were walking, and of how he wrote diary entries about his own walks. We also heard the tale of his love affair with the beautiful Daisy and of his cruel rejection by her father. One of the saddest things we were told was that after leaving Clyro, and later becoming vicar of Bredwardine, Kilvert did eventually find someone to marry, but died with peritonitis shortly after returning from his honeymoon.
The next day I joined a poetry group in the grounds of one of the pubs which was acting as a festival venue. At first, I didn’t really notice Anja, blonde and early twenties, I was too interested in acquitting myself as a reader of my own poetry. Yes, I had done performance poetry, but this was much more intimate. It was only at the end as we were walking up to the picnic spot at the bridge over the Wye that we started talking. It transpired that she was from South Africa and was a student in her final year at the University of Johannesburg. She was staying with her aunt in Hereford a few miles away. Her aunt had wanted a few days away herself and had thought the festival would be a useful literary experience for her niece.
We had our sandwiches at one of the benches at the top of the river path and began to talk about books and Bob Dylan, who she liked. I asked her if she knew about Kilvert’s walks and the diaries he had written. She said that she didn’t and on a sudden impulse I offered to show her the walk that I had been on the previous day.
And so we set off - me with my heart in my mouth, because I have the most dreadful sense of direction. Would I get us both lost in the Welsh foothills, or would I fall and possibly break my neck? And what about Anja, what was in it for her? A walk with an older brother, a father figure, or just a nice guy who was on his own for his first visit to Hay-on-Wye? As we walked up and down grassy and rocky slopes, past some sheep, across a few easily fordable streams, and beside a church, I told her a little of what I had learned about Francis Kilvert. She listened and asked a few questions. We seemed to be getting on famously. I was soon to find out, however, that she had a problem at the hotel where she was staying.
I was never quite clear what had really happened at The Baskerville Arms. Perhaps there was some Gothic undertow, an echo of General Tilney that I had missed, but for some reason the manager had taken against her. She had been staying there for the last few days and didn’t have enough money left to be able to stay for another night. She could not go back to her aunt’s house because her aunt was still away, and Anja didn’t want to worry her. It was in the days before mobile phones had made it so easy to track someone down.
Or maybe Anja just wanted an adventure in a new country with an engaging older man? On reflection I think, or rather hope, that it was that. We eventually agreed that I would drive her back to her hotel in Clyro, she would collect her things, sort out what she could about the hotel bill and return on the bus to Hay. We would meet up later for a supper at The Granary. The question of what she was going to do that night wasn’t really resolved between us. I had a single room and I supposed that I could always sleep on the floor. Something would turn up, I thought, as Mr Micawber might have put it.
And so it happened that Anja came back to Hay at about 7 o’clock with a rucksack. We had our shared meal at The Granary, which was a spare, wood-beamed and benched cafe, with a number of helpers climbing steep stairs and bearing trays of delicious food chosen from the blackboard menu. One of these was the most exquisite lamb curry, probably the fate of some of those sheep that we had passed on our walk that afternoon.
Anja and I talked non-stop. At the time South Africa was still an apartheid state: I knew that Steve Biko had been murdered by the security forces; I had given a school assembly about Nelson Mandela’s long confinement in a prison cell on Robben Island and a colleague had criticised me for being "political"; I had watched the Bhundu Boys giving a compelling performance at an anti-apartheid concert near where I lived. We had lots to discuss, and during our conversation it turned out that Anja’s parents were white liberals who were very concerned about what was happening in their country. As we talked the evening gradually grew dark, and the moon and stars began to come about.
And what of Sir Galahad then reader, what happened to him? It was all quite simple really and not at all what you were expecting. After some discussion Anja and I decided that she would spend the night in my car while I remained in my room at The Seven Stars. In the morning when I went to find her there was a note attached to the steering wheel, thanking me for my kindness, and saying that she had had to leave early to catch her bus back to Hereford.
I have to admit that I was a little disappointed. Over breakfast I told the story to Gwyn and Joan. They listened, as parents might, and nodded wisely without making any judgement. Sometime later I persuaded The Baskerville Arms to give me the aunt’s address and I wrote to Anja, asking her how she was. She replied from South Africa, telling me about her university life and her English Literature studies. We exchanged a couple of letters which I still have somewhere. I went many more times to Hay-on-Wye for the Literary Festival, sometimes with a girlfriend, sometimes on my own. I often bumped into Gwyn and Joan, and they were always pleased to see me.
*This piece was inspired by a memory and a new course I am teaching on “African Novels”. Some names have been changed.
Good news for me. My article on The Companionship of Books, much trialled in these blogs, is now published in INSTED (Interdisciplinary Studies in Education and Society)