Once again, I missed the Hay Festival. You know, even though this esteemed organ sponsors it. Even though I therefore saw the adverts every day. Even though you would think that, as an inveterate book lover, I would have such an event etched in my diary - possibly adorned with some exuberant underlining as I am wont to embark on in moments of great excitement - as the highlight of my year.
But no. And I realised this year that this is not, as I had previously assumed, because of my lack of foresight, planning and organisational ability, but because, deep down, I don't want to go.
This is intended as no slur upon the festival, of course. It is one of those entities that, even if it's not really your thing, you are still happier for knowing it exists - like Wiltshire, perhaps, or Uncle Joe's mint balls. It is simply because books and reading are to me such a fiercely private joy, and a festival is such a public celebration that the dissonance disturbs me.
One of the reasons I hate living with someone is that his presence intrudes so much on the peace and stillness required for the perfect reading experience - the perfect, unbroken communion between book and reader. I used, of course, to be able to read through anything. As a child, I lost count of the number of times I lifted my head to find that the source of the shadow which had suddenly fallen across the page was my mother, who had been calling me downstairs for tea for the past half hour. For much of my childhood, I thought bleeding from the ears was her natural state.
Reading is such a personal thing that I have never even been able to accept the recommendations of others. The words "You must read this!" generally cause me to hiss and spit at the kind, well-intentioned source of the suggestion, who is only trying to share his or her glorious, bubbling passion for an author or book, not slip me a self-improving dose of something. Sorry about that, by the way.
Nor can I ever explain why I like a book - the reasons, only half-articulated at best even in my mind, crash into each other and pile up somewhere between my brain and my mouth, so all that usually comes out is a mumbled "I dunno - just do" - let alone why I like reading. The closest I could come would be to say it slakes a thirst, but then I fear I would rightly be punched for what was known at school as sounding like a total ponce.
When I meet other readers - and ye shall know them, incidentally, by the irredeemable pallor and slightly bowed frame caused by the lack of sunlight in their formative years - all I want to do is have this conversation:
Me: Isn't reading, like, really, really great?
Fellow Unsettlingly Sickly-Looking Individual: It's just... great.
Me: Shall we go and do some more of it?
Me: Bye, then.
But this won't do. I think I am in danger of becoming too solitary a reader. I am already experiencing the first faint stirrings of book fetishism: for the first time ever, I bought an alternative copy of a book because I didn't think the cover of mine "went" with the story, which might be all right as a one-off indulgence but could quite clearly descend into expensive madness if not nipped in the bud. So I think, if Hay doesn't mind being employed as a prophylactic against social decline and mental degeneration, I will put it firmly in next year's diary. After I have dead-bolted the doors and read my new Alison Uttley, of course.