There’s a familiarity to all this now. The cool breeze of evening across plazas flocked with young and old enjoying the paseo; a grid of cobblestone streets; the sun setting over towers and domes; bright stucco walls of yellow and red; tiled roofs and ornate ironwork gates; a bandstand. Yes, Querétaro is a Hay Festival town.
The familiarity is not only in the Spanish colonial architecture that characterises all of the festival’s international host cities. It is there too in the smiles and hugs, the greetings in departure lounges and in the queue for passport control, the air of expectancy in hotel lobbies and minivans. For this seasoned Fellow, Hay’s international festivals have become like family reunions minus the emotional baggage.
Since the departure lounge at Heathrow, I have been in the company of Alys Conran, the writer replacing me in this incredible role. It’s going to be difficult to give this up: four festivals and already I’ve come to expect a trip like this every few months. A long haul flight, ample writing time, cocktails and conversations. Alys and I have not met before but we fall into easy conversation. She comes from the slate town of Bethesda in Snowdonia, and tells me about the link between Welsh slate and literacy around the world. Long before the days of the mini whiteboards I occasionally use in my classroom, children around the world were learning language and arithmetic chalking letters and numbers onto pieces of slate quarried in north Wales. Alys has some such slates in her luggage that she’s planning on distributing to people she meets, a physical connection between her community and writing around the world.
An eleven-hour flight. As we progress toward our destination, the group grows. At the immigration desk, we pick up Kate Horne, the documentary maker. At the baggage carousel we run into Sarah Churchwell and her husband Wyndham. In the morning our minivan collects other writers who are appearing at the festival. A list is checked and rechecked. There’s some confusion about who should be on this particular transport, but eventually we set off, arriving in Querétaro in time for lunch.
At Josefa, one of the restaurants listed in the artist’s welcome pack, Wolfram Eilenberger taps me on the shoulder. Between our tables either side of the restaurant doorway, we share reminiscences of Cartagena. Here we are again – another Hay Festival, another beautiful plaza, another long lunch – and already nostalgia plays through the shafts of sunlight. This life, this tour of festivals, this dream-come-true, is drawing to a close. We order tacos and I hold one up like a baton, making as if to pass this blessing to Alys.
Across the square a band strike up. A tune so familiar words are immediately conjured. Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes. Paul McCartney’s masterpiece of suburban social observation. A classic. On the minibus that brought us here, the driver – a tall moustachioed Mexicano – treated us to Elvis, The Bee Gees and Whitney Houston as the concrete sprawl of outer Mexico City rushed past. If those artists seemed incongruous once we were outside the city, driving out into Mexico’s central highlands, ‘Penny Lane’ seems somehow perfect here.
Substitute the pretty nurse selling poppies from a tray for the girl vending corn snacks from a mobile stall, the banker for the passing businessman, the barber for the barista, the fireman for the street-sweepers with their brooms made of actual twigs of wood (it’s a clean machine!). Replace the ‘four of fish and finger pies’ with enchiladas. Add the old ladies selling technicolour pig-tailed ragdoll Marias and you have the scene.
When Paul McCartney wrote Penny Lane he was writing as much about a state of mind as he was about a suburb of Liverpool. The catchy melody played by the brass section wraps the lyrics’ comforting litany of local sights and sounds in a tune everybody can whistle. It is a song about familiarity.
And here beneath these azure blue Mexican skies, suddenly it’s Querètaro that’s in my ears and in my eyes. Because it’s Hay Festival, because I find myself adrift again among those wonderful people Jan Morris called the Fourth World, the nation of nowhere, and perhaps also because of the Spanish colonial architecture, I feel totally at home.
I put the taco back on my plate, determined to hold on to this baton – sorry, Alys – just a few days longer.
Dylan Moore is editor of IWA's the welsh agenda and Creative Wales Hay Festival International Fellow 2018/19, travelling to each Hay Festival edition, exploring issues of displacement and exile. His debut collection, Driving Home Both Ways, is out now.
Photo: Arturo Ruiz via Unsplash.