Review of 'The Hay Festival 2021'

Hay Festival Logo When the pandemic hit last year the literary Hay Festival was forced to rethink how they would proceed. Obviously, meeting in person in tents at the normal festival site in Hay-on-Wye was not going to be possible and, hats off to the organizers, they quickly pivoted and moved to having their events online. Now, a year later, they continue with their online presence with a large number of online events with an impressive list of guest authors, musicians, actors, environmentalists, and professors. The 2021 festival was from May 26, 2021 to June 6, 2021.

I have always wanted to go to the Hay Festival but there are a number of logistical issues most seriously the issue of finding accommodation in the small town of Hay which is simply crawling during the two weeks of the festival. Additionally, taking two weeks off to attend a festival is a big ask so I would be forced to pick a shorter time period, missing out on many events. With their move to online all of these issues disappeared and I was able to attend any event I wanted…

How did it work?

All events were free to attend (though donations encouraged – less pleading this year than last) and broadcast live on a dedicated event for a web page where the event was shown along with a chat facility (and the ability to ask questions). If you were registered for the event you were free to watch a recording up to 24 hours after it occurred after which it was made available only to those that subscribe to “Hay Player” (£15/year).

What did you attend?

Quite a number of events this year for me, several of which I had to watch after the fact due to travelling:

  • 2021 Opening Gala: A Night of Hope (Wednesday 26 May 2021, 8pm – 9pm BST) - This was a series of short recorded readings and greetings from various festival speakers presented from the British Library in London.
  • Peter Scott-Morgan talks to Stephen Fry (Saturday 29 May 2021, 6pm – 6.50pm BST) - An interesting interview of “Peter Scott-Morgan” by the festival president (and erudite entertainer) Stephen Fry. Scott-Morgan is suffering from ALS but has refused to let the condition stop him from enjoying life, utilizing technology as much as he can. In this case his answers to Fry's questions were pre-recorded vocalisations from a software application he uses to communicate (much like Steven Hawking used). The voice of this application is based on samples of his real voice taken when Scott-Morgan was able to talk. I found the discussion a bit too fantastical in it's talk of one's consciousness being transferred into the Internet (we are far, far from this) but otherwise it was an interesting talk.
  • Mel Giedroyc talks to Andy Bush (Saturday 29 May 2021, 8pm – 8.50pm BST) - A fun talk with comic Mel Giedroyc who has written her first novel “The Best Things”. This included her struggles with finding her voice for the book and how she ended up coming to write it.
  • Bad Wolf (Sunday 30 May 2021, 11am – 11.30am BST) - This was a discussion with the cast and directors of the next season of “His Dark Materials” television series based on the Philip Pullman books. Interesting and provided some hints about what is to come.
  • Alastair Campbell and Ruby Wax talk to Francine Stock (Sunday 30 May 2021, 2pm – 2.50pm BST) - An interesting discussion about how to cope with depression with two that suffer with the disability. It was a bit of a surprise to learn that both of these well-known people, politician (and writer) Alastair Campbell and comedian Ruby Wax, suffer from this disease.
  • Graham Norton Book Club with Marian Keyes and Richard Osman (Sunday 30 May 2021, 7pm – 7.50pm BST) - A live version of Graham Norton's literary radio show featured comedian and TV host Richard Osman (author of “The Thursday Murder Club” and, now, a sequel) and popular fiction author “Marian Keyes” which was quite relaxed and interesting with the more experienced Keyes providing her perspective contrasting with Osman's inexperience as an author. As always, Norton was ebullient and highly entertaining.
  • Ethan Hawke talks to David Mitchell (Monday 31 May 2021, 8pm – 8.50pm BST) - Quite a serious conversation focusing primarily on Ethan Hawke's writing rather than David Mitchell's with Mitchell performing the interview. Learned a lot more about Hawke's work here.
  • Noam Chomsky talks to Gary Younge (Thursday 3 June 2021, 7pm – 7.50pm BST) - The most serious of the talks I attended, Chomsky discussed not only his book “Consequences of Capitalism” but also, in general, more the impact the pandemic has had on our way of life. Chomsky, despite speaking in slow, calm, measured tones is extremely well spoken and very persuasive in his arguments. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend part of this talk…so I have picked up the book to read more (the tickets are free so the least we can do is buy some books from Hay or give a donation).
  • Chris Packham and Megan McCubbin talk to Andy Fryers (Saturday 5 June 2021, 6pm – 6.50pm BST) - A pre-recorded talk with environmentalist Chris Packham and his collaborator Megan McCubbin (authors of “Back to Nature: How to Love Life - and Save It”) filmed in their backyard…in the rain. An fun and interesting discussion about their new book and what the average person can do to improve our environment both for ourselves and wildlife. Packham can be quite dry and distant seeming but intently takes in everything that is said and delivers a considered and extremely appropriate answers.


As always, an extremely professionally produced festival with some interesting speakers that not only discuss their works but how they think. A tremendous variety of speakers, at various times of the day over several weeks made this a very successful event. Here's hoping the organizers continue to offer an online version of the festival so everyone can benefit rather than only those that can attend in person (many of the attendees would never be able to attend in person).