HAY Festival has responded to criticism that its online programme has ‘abandoned Wales’, outlining the breadth of its ongoing engagement with Welsh culture, and underlining the importance of its global audience in a digital age.

Founded in 1988, the festival has long established itself as a platform for writers and thinkers from around the world.

After former US president Bill Clinton appeared in 2001, the festival – famously dreamt up around a kitchen table in Hay-on-Wye and founded with the winnings from a poker game – became a global brand, spawning new iterations in more than a dozen countries including Colombia, Mexico, India, Lebanon and the Maldives.

But this global vision and the geographical location of its original version, tucked just inside Powys near its border with Herefordshire, has led to claims the festival is insufficiently Welsh.

Last week, Richard Lewis Davies of Parthian Books – one of Wales’ leading publishing houses – wrote a detailed critique of Hay’s 2021 programme, questioning the festival’s commitment to Wales in light of funding it receives from Welsh Government, the Arts Council of Wales and British Council Wales.

Published on nation.cymru and later abridged in trade paper The Bookseller, the article recounts Davies’ enjoyment of the festival over many years, as well as acknowledging its significant contribution to Welsh culture.

But it also accuses organisers of ‘a colonial attitude’, ‘abandoning Wales’ and ‘outsourcing our children’s reading culture to another country’.

Now writer and broadcaster Guto Harri, a member of the Hay Festival board, has responded to the claims, saying: “Richard Davies is a great guy, with the best of intentions, but his article doesn’t give the full picture, and is heavily laced with nostalgia”.

The National Wales: Guto Harri, Hay Festival board memberGuto Harri, Hay Festival board member

Harri says: “I remember Hay’s early days very fondly myself. One of the great things about it is that it always felt – because it is one of the most inaccessible places in Britain – like people were more indiscreet, more frank, less guarded than they would be in Cardiff, London or a Radio 4 studio. Even politicians can’t filibuster for an hour.”

Harri admits that publishers like Davies do Hay a big favour by contributing their ideas – but denies Welsh fiction writers are missing out on appearing at the festival because of their nationality.

He explains that for many years now the festival has not only been focused on literature. “It’s a festival of ideas, usually articulated in books – but not always. A lot of what we do is now around innovation, science and tech.”

A festival statement in response to Davies’ attack also underlines this diverse programming, highlighting events that will feature Welsh actress Suzanne Packer, athlete Colin Jackson, scientist Dr Camilla Pang, and Barry-born former Australian PM Julia Gillard as well as writers Jo Lloyd, Gillian Clarke, Gareth Bonello and Horatio Clare.

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Actor and activist Michael Sheen, comedian Rob Brydon, storyteller Tamar Eluned Williams and the former Hay Writers at Work participant, poet Rufus Mufasa will also appear.

Other Welsh writers and journalists will moderate events rather than taking centre stage. Guto Harri himself will chair an event as part of the festival’s PM300 series, marking 300 years since the first British prime minister.

Oliver Bullough will interview Sathnam Sanghera and Kehinde Andrews about how modern Britain, and the West in general, is rooted in colonialism. And Jenny Valentine, one of Wales’ leading writers for young adults, will talk to one of the world’s best YA novelists Angie Thomas, author of ‘The Hate U Give.’

Defending the festival’s commitment to Wales, Guto Harri also draws attention to its development work – ‘I’ve done sessions with young Welsh-speaking journalists on the Hay Academy programme’ – and other initiatives that ensure a pipeline of Welsh talent will continue to participate in what he calls the ‘world class offer of the festival’ well into the future.

Hay runs a free ‘Scribblers Tour’ for schools in Welsh and English, and the Beacons Project for young writers aged 16-18.

Harri also sings the praises of poet Mererid Hopwood, this year’s Creative Wales Hay Festival International Fellow.

“We are committed to doing more in the Welsh language, with the help of people like Mererid,” he says, explaining that Hay’s Welsh-language audience has traditionally been limited by its annual timing clash with the Urdd Eisteddfod.

“Due to the strength of the Urdd, many natural Hay-goers, people who are interested in culture and literature who speak the Welsh language – if they have children between five and 25 – they’re likely not to go.”

Harri says that the Hay team, “virtually all of whom live locally… welcome any reminder that this is a Welsh festival, that its site sits on one side of the Wye and not the other.” But he also says: “We’re not just beaming people in from inside the M25 – we are drawing on our engagement all over the world, whether it’s Colombia or Mexico or Croatia.”

Challenged on Richard Davies’ assertion that because Welsh Government sponsors Hay Festival there should be more Welsh content in the programme, Harri says: ‘That would be a very mechanistic view. Hay is a world-class event with a global audience. There’s not a lot the Welsh Government or the Arts Council could sponsor that could reach a global audience from Wales like Hay.’

n Hay Festival’s 34th spring edition broadcasts free online from Hay-on-Wye, until June 6. All events will be closed-captioned and available to watch for free 24 hours from their live broadcast. Find out more at hayfestival.com