There was one year, 2003 I think, we kept him onstage all day at Hay. He started on Waugh with Bill Deedes, the model for William Boot in Scoop. He argued the influence of the Congress of Vienna with Eric Hobsbawm for a couple of hours. Instead of lunch, he delivered an extraordinary lecture on Tom Paine and constitutional law. There was a 20-minute Rothmans break. About eight cigarettes. He hadn’t stopped drinking Johnny Walker Black Label at any point from 10 a.m.
In the afternoon, he and Stephen Fry kicked around ideas and language shared by the spiritual siblings Wodehouse and Wilde. Then he reported from his recent tour of the badder lands of Afghanistan. Typically he talked of the Afghani people, of friends there who were writers and journalists, of teachers he’d met. At some point there was a dinner down the road at Madresfield, the real house and family on which Brideshead was based. He wore a borrowed dinner jacket in which he looked impossibly glamorous. We got him back onstage at 10:30 p.m. for what was billed as Late Night Hitch. He’d talked for a few years about wanting to do stand-up, so we gave him a mic and another bottle of whisky, and 750 people crowded in to share an hour. His routine was terrible. Labored jokes. Tired delivery. After half an hour he gave up and said, “I’ll just take questions. Anything at all. I promise to tell the truth.”
And he did. And it was hilarious and savage and shocking and mesmerizing. Mother Teresa, Clinton, and Kissinger were indicted, of course; he did bisexuality, his relationship with his brother, and even his mother’s suicide. The darker it got, the funnier he was. He was much, much harder on himself than ever he was on the bad guys. He recited (dead-letter perfect) from Jefferson and Kapuscinski and Catullus; he improvised the filthiest, bawdiest limericks you can possibly imagine. Chaucer would have loved it. He finished the bottle at about 1 a.m. No one had left, and in all that time he’d never lost a thread of thought or slurred a single syllable. It was a great day. Not an assumption was left unchallenged, no orthodoxy tolerated.
I loved him. And for Hay, he was our MVP, here and at all our festivals around the world. How astonishingly lucky to have been alive with him, to have that provocation in print forever. And in a strong field, line for line the finest prose stylist of his generation. Pretty much everything we do is inspired by him. So what do we do now? How do you follow or live up to your heroes? Those are mighty shoulders to stand on.
A couple of years after his marathon day, we set him up to discuss blasphemy with Stephen Fry and Joan Bakewell. May 28, 2005. It’s up online in our archive at www.hayfestival.org and freely available. On this day of all days, treat yourself to the superheavyweight bout of a lifetime between two of the greatest talkers of our age. It’s fascinating to hear the ideas and the language that drove God Is Not Great “in performance.” It’s good to hear his voice.