By the time you read this, I should be in Heaven. This is not to say that I expect to be dead. Were that the case, the destination is far from certain. In my case, I suspect sweet death to be followed by a locale with enormous and eternal heating bills.
No, I expect to be in Wales, attending one of my all-time favorite events: The Hay-on-Wye Festival.
The festival has been around for several decades. Hay-on-Wye has been around forever. Indeed, the castle at the town’s center is crumbling and in disrepair. But this does not stop the structure from being used. Richard Booth sells used books out of the usable portions of the castle. You can find some real bargains there if you are willing to overlook the cobwebs.
Booth is my kind of guy, an eccentric who in the 1970s declared the town independent of Great Britain. Of course, this declaration of sovereignty did not go far. Sure, he and some buddies floated a boat up and down the Wye River, and called it a navy. But few others were impressed.
Hay-on-Wye is not a separate nation. But the town is a tiny island of sanity in a world gone mad. It is a book lover’s paradise. Although the town has but 1,500 full-time inhabitants, it has dozens of used bookstores. You can spend days browsing aisles of old books on every conceivable topic. I am still smarting about having left behind an annotated bibliography of works on Anthony Trollope two years ago. I’ll be heading to that shop straightaway to see whether the poor volume has languished there, rejected and unloved by hunting eyes and hungry minds.
My favorite shop is Addyman’s Annex. I once found a nice copy of James Caufield’s The High Court of Justice; Comprising Memoirs of The Principal Persons Who Sat in Judgment on King Charles the First, and Signed His Death-Warrant, ... The work was written in 1820. It illustrates one of history’s great lessons: Payback is a, well, brother-shucker. Once Charles II took the throne he saw to it that each and every man who signed the death warrant as to Charles I in 1649 was himself honored with an appointment on the gallows.
The Hay-on-Wye Festival is not a celebration of old books, however. And it is more than a mere celebration of books, although authors from around the world flock there to give readings. The festival is simple joy. Singers, dancers, poets, artists from the far-flung corners of the world flock to the tiny town. Nearly 100,000 people will tromp through the almost inevitably muddy fair grounds.
Where do all these folks stay? One year, I slept in an attic a couple miles from town. This year, I am better organized. I have a bedroom. And it isn’t just any room. I have the master suite in a medieval castle a few miles from town. The owners put it up for rent. I am not sure where they will be staying.
So while you sit behind a desk wondering why a legal newspaper would print this sort of column, I may well be walking from my castle to the fair. The route takes me along country lanes, and hedgerows tight on the road. I’ll be listening to sheep munch turf, from time to time bleating at one another in a language only they, and border collies, truly know.
Once at the fair grounds, I will have a choice among hundreds of events to attend. A make-shift bookshop on the premises will offer autographed copies of works by the speakers. I still treasure a signed copy of a murder mystery I scored some time ago by a young author who has yet to find success on this side of the Atlantic.
And when the fair proves overwhelming, I’ll walk into town to browse in bookstores. Sure, the food in Wales leaves much to be desired, but even there, there is one spot in Hay-on-Wye that does wonders with guinea fowl. If I lose a few pounds all the better.
Now tell me, if you well and truly can, what more can a person want? Heaven, I say. And I will be there for ten days.
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.