Hay at Kells: And then there were three
Strong women grab Kells by the book
She raged and she declaimed and she recited. She called Romeo a dork and Bertram, I think it was, a dickhead. She showed slides of Justin Bieber and Harry from One Direction so that we’d know what she meant by “beautiful boys”. She sang a snatch of a Peggy Lee song. When she invited questions, a man in the front row stood up. “No men,” she snapped. “I’m not taking the first question from a man.” She’s a legend.
Imagine being Jeanette Winterson - and having to follow that. Where would you even start? With a speech condemning consumerist culture, it turned out - followed by a virtuoso reading from her memoir of growing up with Pentecostalist adoptive parents, interspersed with nuggets of wry Manchester wit, plus the details of Mrs Winterson’s electric corset, regular Apocalypse drills (“most people have fire drills”) and the revolver in the duster drawer. “It’s definitely worth the €9.99,” she declared, waving the book at her non-consumerist audience. The more we heard her read, the harder it was to disagree.
Tiny and charming she may be, but Winterson is cut from no-nonsense female fabric. When a gentleman hogged the microphone, not to ask a question but to mount a longwinded and irrelevant defence of religion, she ordered him to let go and move on. When he wouldn’t, she invited the usher, politely but firmly, to hand the microphone to the next questioner- and the well-mannered, well-dressed Hay Festival Kells audience cheered.
“Do me a favour,” Winterson concluded. “Go home and read a poem. Or a paragraph of something that’s new to you.” By the look of the queue in the foyer afterwards, most people were happy to go to bed with a copy of her barnstorming book.
Dwan’s Beckett, with its central metaphor of childbirth, presented a woman’s scream of pain. Greer’s Shakespeare looked at youthful female desire. Winterson’s memoir offered a way to come to terms with a difficult life - with compassion and humour rather than bitterness. It was an object lesson in practical feminism: three strong women who grabbed Kells by - well, by the book.