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Escape: Woodstock for the mind has gone digital, Hay Festival’s chair explains

WHAT do you do when, in the week you are due to announce the programme for one of the world’s most venerable annual literature festivals, it becomes obvious that, thanks to the coronavirus, the festival will have to be cancelled?

The answer for the team behind Hay, held each year since 1988 in the small Brecon town and once described by Bill Clinton as the ‘Woodstock of the mind’, was to go digital.

‘The timing was critical,’ says long-serving festival chair Peter Florence. ‘We had huge financial obligations to partners and contractors and writers and audiences. We wanted to survive to keep the company together and viable. And I think we were fired with adrenaline at the prospect of reinvention. This is a catastrophe but it’s also a wild-ride adventure, it’s just that we have no option but to innovate at warp speed.’

Award-winner: Wolf Hall author Hilary Mantel will be offering her thoughts

Innovate at warp speed is exactly what has happened. In a matter of weeks, the entire festival has moved out of the marquees and on to the web, including the festival’s annual Programme For Schools. It means regulars can put aside the wellies necessary for any physical trip to Hay and enjoy it from their living room instead, with nearly 100 free live broadcasts and interactive Q&As with writers and thinkers from Hilary Mantel (May 30) to Roddy Doyle (May 27). And it means that, just as the festival organisers have had to rethink what a literary festival can be, audiences have an opportunity to forge new ways of engaging with their favourite authors and books.

‘Every hour is a learning hour,’ says Florence. ‘It’s a new frontier that no one has mastered yet so everything’s to play for. Writers have embraced the idea enthusiastically. They are communicators and this is a new medium for them, too.’

Florence is hopeful that people who might have usually balked at a trip to Hay — with all the travel and accommodation costs that entails — will now be able to attend for the first time. ‘Social media suggests that new people who have never made it to Wales are signing up to the crowd-cast platform to tune in,’ he says. But what about the town itself, which depends so heavily on the trade generated by the annual influx of visitors?

Going interactive: Roddy Doyle has embraced the digital idea PICTURES: GETTY

‘The festival brings in £25million-plus each year to the town,’ agrees Florence. ‘But the digital edition keeps us alive long enough to plan for a return to our green field next year.

‘The community of Hay is responding to the lockdown with imagination and solidarity. Many bookshops and clothes shops have also opened up online.’

Like many art forms in the wake of Covid-19, the books industry is facing an immense crisis. But Florence believes that literature also has a crucial part to play in our recovery. ‘The challenge the pandemic poses to humanity is one of mortality and depression,’ he says. ‘The mental health damage will be deep and ubiquitous. We will need people to understand it and to imagine a response. We have never needed stories more urgently.’

Hay Festival Digital runs from today until May 31 (online events from May 22),