I once met…King Richard Booth of Hay

Actually, I’ve met him twice. The first was in 1970, not too long after the Book Town of Hay-on Wye had started up. I was 18 and had only been collecting second-hand books for two years and could hardly pass up the prospect of a place entirely devoted to them. Back then there were only three shops—the Castle, where Booth lived, the Old Fire Station and the Old Cinema. My first visit, I seem to recall, had been with my parents, who had driven me up from Swansea. After that first taste of Hay I was hooked. It was on the second visit, again a day trip from home, but one that involved three buses, that I met Booth.

I was an impoverished schoolboy back then and spent all my pocket money, baby-sitting money and newspaper round cash on books. Because of this I justified to myself my nefarious practice of taking a pencil stub into the Old Cinema and writing my own prices on the books. As I saw it, if the experts at the counter didn’t challenge my prices that was their problem. Most didn’t, but on this one occasion the man at the desk turned out to be Booth himself. I recognised his face from a photo in the local paper, but there was nothing I could do. He had my book in his hand (I think it was a seventeenth century pocket Bible) and he suddenly looked very puzzled at something on the flyleaf. I heard him mutter 'This doesn’t look right' and he scribbled over my price, replacing it with his own, which was only a couple of pounds more. I remember going bright red, but I duly paid up, still content with my purchase.

Fast forward thirty five years to 2006.I had been sent to interview Booth for a magazine. By now second-hand books were no longer the major attraction in Hay. The annual author love-in that was the Hay Festival had arrived. Nor was Hay the only Book Town in the world. Since my last meeting with Booth smaller versions had sprung up all over the UK and Europe, including one just down the road at Blaenavon. As I made my way towards his office in the Castle I wondered what Booth felt about all these rival attractions. I also wondered how he was coping with the stroke that had left his face lopsided and his speech impaired.

I needn’t have worried. The passion for book dealing on an industrial scale that had made him a national figure, though less marked, was still apparent. But thirty-five on from the radicalism of that initial idea, a new radicalism had grown that was turned on the corporatist notion of literary festivals in general and the Hay festival in particular.  When he argued that the Hay Festival organisers had deliberately relegated him and his Book Town to the sidelines I found myself nodding in agreement. He still saw his duty as broadcasting literature to the world through second hand books, not new ones. He spoke of sending lorry loads of unwanted books to the developing world and of founding new Book Towns in Eastern Europe as a way of promoting Western values. So naturally to someone like him, the sight of some wealthy writer of chicklit or detective stories signing copies of their new books in the shadow of Hay Castle was a sort of betrayal of the values that had underpinned the notion of the Book Town all those decades ago.

Referring to his popularity in Eastern Europe he announced without a trace of vanity that 'One day they will erect a statue of me to replace the one of Lenin'. [RMH]

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