Hay Festival 2021 closes after a fortnight of wonder

Hay Festival 2021 came to a triumphant close on Sunday 6 June after a fortnight of live and online conversations, debates and performances brought thousands of writers and readers together. Events were streamed by festivalgoers in 135 countries for a combined running total of 9 years, 236 days, 5 hours, 51 minutes, 43 seconds and counting.

Full Festival events can be enjoyed on Hay Player now at hayfestival.org/hayplayer. Annual subscriptions cost £15 per year and offer access to the Festival’s audio and video library of 8,000+ events.

From Wednesday 26 May to Sunday 6 June, events were broadcast live from temporary studios in Richard Booth’s Bookshop, Hay-on-Wye, and featured more than 300 acclaimed writers, global policy makers, poets, historians, pioneers and innovators, launching the best new books and interrogating some of the biggest issues of our time. 

Speakers who appeared in person from Hay-on-Wye included poets Simon Armitage, Hollie McNish and Owen Sheers; novelists Monique Roffey, Tahmima Anam, Sarah Winman, Dylan Moore and Alice Albinia; politicians Ed Miliband and Vince Cable; journalists Laura Bates, Caitlin Moran, Jennifer Lucy Allan, Pete Paphides andHoratio Clare; scientist Dr Pragya Agarwal; geographer Danny Dorling; environmentalists Ray Mears, Patrick Barkham, Jay Griffiths and Mya Rose Craig; historians Natalie Haynes and Kehinde AndrewsTalk Art hosts Russell Tovey and Robert DiamentStill Breathing editors Suzette Llewyllen and Suzanne Packer with athlete Colin Jackson; and Global Teacher Prizewinner Andria Zafirakou

Meanwhile, a galaxy of stars beamed in from around the world including novelists Ali Smith, Isabel Allende, Ethan Hawke, Maggie Shipstead, Brit Bennett, Marian Keyes and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa; artist David Hockney; former Bank of England governor Mark Carney; journalists and commentators Anne Applebaum, Gary Younge, Bonnie Greer and Ash Sarkar; the world's first human cyborg Peter Scott-Morgan with Festival President Stephen Fry; historians Alice Roberts, Malcom Gladwell and Sathnam Sanghera; philosopher Noam Chomsky; former Australian PM Julia Gillard with journalist Mary Ann Sieghart, former British PMs Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and COP-26 president Alok Sharma spoke to Christiana Figueres and Espinosa Patricia; comedians Mel Giedroyc and Graham Norton; actors Kate Winslet, Romola Garai, Jessica Raine Michael Sheen, Dafne Keen and Amir WilsonReverend Richard Coles; children’s writers and illustrators Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Patience Agbabi, Cressida Cowell, David Walliams and Radzi Chinyanganya; along with HRH The Duchess of Cornwall.

While events couldn’t have ticketed audiences in person, the booktown of Hay-on-Wye embraced the Festival spirit. The Festival provided a free WIFI network throughout the town centre to offer unlimited event streaming for visitors. Meanwhile, all events were closed captioned and available free to view, making it the most accessible and inclusive event yet.

A free digital Programme for Schools, captioned in English and Welsh, ran 24-28 May for KS2-4 pupils, mixing storytelling and live performances broadcast to schools all over the UK to inspire reading for pleasure. Meanwhile, partnerships with the Living Knowledge Network, Calibre Audio, LitHub and Monocle24 brought event highlights to thousands more. 

Hay Festival Medals were awarded to honour exceptional work in drama, poetry, journalism and prose: writer, director and actress Emerald Fennell was awarded the drama medal to celebrate her directorial debut, Promising Young Woman; poet Benjamin Zephaniah’s poetry medal marks four decades of tackling some of the biggest social issues through his work; George Monbiot's journalism medal salutes his climate activism; and Ali Smith's prose medal was for the culmination of her seasonal quartet. 

Caroline Michel, Hay Festival chair, said: “This has been another extraordinary Hay Festival. To welcome the world's greatest authors, thinkers and world-changers back to Hay-on-Wye to appear live on our stages has been a triumph, not just for the Festival and the town, but for our audiences around the world. With increased engagement around our Programme for Schools and new partnerships, this is our most accessible yet. And if we can celebrate something wonderful in this challenging time, it has been the expansion of our Festival to a truly global event, with an audience spreading from the UK to book lovers across 135 countries.”

Reverend Richard Coles said: “Having a worldwide stage like Hay Festival where you can speak so candidly about the most intimate issues is extraordinary.”

Jini Reddy said: “The combination of book-browsing heaven and cafés, all of them independent, as well as the surrounding natural landscapes, and welcoming locals, means I’ll definitely be returning to Hay-on-Wye, and likely not only during the Festival.”

Ali Smith said: “Hay Festival is one for all seasons, balm in a calm, a mainstay in a storm.”

Hay Festival 2021 was supported by lead sponsors Visit Wales and Baillie Gifford, and by grant funding from Arts Council England’s Cultural Recovery Fund. 

Bestsellers in the online Festival shop were:


The Soul of a Woman by Isabel Allende

Ancestors by Alice Roberts

Magnetic Field by Simon Armitage

Around the World in 80 Plants by Jonathan Drori

Who Speaks for Wales? by Raymond Williams

The Gododdin: Lament for the Fallen by Gillian Clarke

The Madness of Grief by Rev Richard Coles

Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum

Pandora's Jar by Natalie Haynes

Many Different Kinds of Love by Michael Rosen


The Puffin Keeper by Michael Morpurgo

Windrush Child by Benjamin Zephaniah 
Xtraordinary People: Made By Dyslexia by Kate Griggs

Coming to England by Floella Benjamin

When We Went Wild by Isabella Tree

The Festival is part of a global series of digital initiatives to connect, inspire and entertain book lovers and educators throughout the year. These include the Hay Festival Podcast, a monthly book club, and release of the free Programme for Schools archive and Beacons Project workshops, while Hay Player continues to offer access to the full Hay Festival audio-video archive.

Free Hay Festival Book of the Month events coming up include science writer Jordan Ellenberg discussing Shape: The Hidden Geometry of Absolutely Everything on Tuesday 29 June; neurologist Suzanne O'Sullivan presents The Sleeping Beauties on Thursday 22 July; and in August bestselling novelist Leïla Slimani discusses her latest book The Country of Others on Tuesday 17 August.

This autumn, hybrid Hay Festival events are scheduled to take place in Querétaro, Mexico (1-5 September 2021), Segovia, Spain (16-19 September 2021) and Arequipa, Peru (28 October-8 November 2021), while Hay Festival Winter Weekend returns to the heart of Hay-on-Wye live and online 24-28 November 2021. 



Hay Festival 2021 began at 8pm on Wednesday 26 May with the Hay Festival Opening Gala – A Night of Hope, hosted by classicist Natalie Haynes and featuring readings of inspiring works of literature, theatre and poetry from HRH The Duchess of Cornwall; actors Richard Eyre, Theresa Lola, Romola Garai, Jessica Raine, Stephen Fry, Charly Arrowsmith and Louise Brealey; comedians Sindhu Vee and Rob Brydon; writers Elif Shafak, Juno Dawson, Clemency Burton-Hill, Simon Schama, Rufus Mufasa, Hafsa Zayyan and Margaret Busby; poets Hollie McNish and Karl Nova; rapper Guvna B; scientist Maggie Aderin-Pocock, and more. 

On Saturday 5 June at 9pm, the From Women to the World Gala saw another stellar cast share writing by influential women, drawing on work from two important new books, The Penguin Book of Feminist Writing edited by Hannah Dawson, and Elizabeth Filippouli’s From Women to the World: Letters for a new Century. Performers included actors Kate Winslet, Vanessa Redgrave, Juliet Stephenson, Suzette Llewellyn, Bishop Rose and Suzanne Packer, music star Skin, campaigner Hellen Lunkuse and novelist Elif Shafak


The Festival launched some of the best new fiction with an exclusive film screening by Ali Smith (Summer) and conversations with Lisa McInerney (The Rules of Revelation), Lionel Shriver (Should We Stay or Should We Go), Rachel Cusk (Second Place), Ethan Hawke (A Bright Ray of Darkness), Jo Lloyd (The Earth, Thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies), Val McDermid andKathryn Briggs (Resistance), Robert Jones Jnr (The Prophets), Brit Bennett (The Vanishing Half), Tahmima Anam(The Startup Wife), Sjón (Red Milk), Mel Giedroyc (The Best Things), Annie Macmanus (Mother Mother), Jon McGregor(Lean, Fall Stand), Monique Roffey (The Mermaid of Black Conch), Sarah Winman (Still Life), Rivers Solomon (Sorrowland), Hafsa Zayyan (We Are all Birds of Uganda), Jessie Greengrass (The High House), Dylan Moore (Many Rivers to Cross), Maggie Shipstead (Great Circle), Alice Albinia (Cwen) in conversation with Lily Cole, and Graham Norton launched his new book club with Marian Keyes (Grown Ups) and Richard Osman (The Thursday Murder Club). There was standout poetry with Simon Armitage (Magnetic Field: The Marsden Poems  and A Vertical Art), Hollie McNish (Slug) and Creative Wales Hay Festival International Fellow Mererid Hopwood. Plus, critically acclaimed writers shared their memoirs including Horatio Clare (Heavy Light) and Deborah Levy (Real Estate). The Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize-winner Raven Leilaniappeared in conversation with Bryan Washington.


Each night of the Festival celebrated the best debut fiction, showcasing the Festival's selection of future award-winners alongside some established interviewers at 10pm:

  • Catherine Menon (Fragile Monsters) in conversation with Colm Toíbín
  • Raven Leilani (Luster) in conversation with Pandora Sykes
  • Ailsa McFarlane (Highway Blue) in conversation with Thea Lenarduzzi
  • Natasha Brown (Assembly) in conversation with Meena Kandasamy
  • Sam Riviere (Dead Souls) in conversation with Megan Nolan (Acts of Desperation)
  • Rebecca Watson (little scratch) in conversation with Thea Lenarduzzi
  • Robert Webb (Come Again) in conversation with Georgina Godwin
  • Julianne Pachico (The Anthill) in conversation with Rosie Goldsmith
  • Caleb Azumah Nelson (Open Water) in conversation with Candice Brathwaite
  • Patricia Lockwood (no one is talking about this) in conversation with Nina Stibbe.


Morning sessions for children and young adults featured Baroness Floella Benjamin, David Walliams, Radzi Chinyanganya (Move Like a Lion), Pamela Butchart (The Broken Leg of Doom), Michael Morpurgo (The Puffin Keeper), Dapo Adeola, Cressida Cowell (The Wizards of Once), Benjamin Zephaniah (Windrush Child), Nadia Shireen (The Slug in Love), Angie Thomas (Concrete Rose), Julian Clary and David Roberts, Michelle Paver (Skin Taker), Isabella Tree (When We Went Wild), and Laura Dockrill, while Joe Wicks presented Joe's Family Foods in conversation with The Happy Peartwins David and Stephen Flynn and the winner of The Bookseller YA Book Prize 2021 Alice Oseman (Loveless) talked to Sarah Crossan. The creative team and star cast from the television adaptation of Philip Pullman’s bestseller, His Dark Materials, discussed adapting the work from page to screen: executive Producer Jane Tranter led a panel discussion with Dafne Keen, who plays Lyra, Amir Wilson, who plays Will, and screenwriter Jack Thorne. A series of digital workshops ran throughout the Festival at hayfestival.org/education where audiences were encouraged to get creative at any time. Meanwhile, the digital Programme for Schools ran 24-28 May (see below). 


Collaborations with Hay Festival events around the world included conversations with Chilean writer Isabel Allende; Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis; Peruvian Nobel Prizewinner Mario Vargas Llosa and Canadian politician Michael IgnatieffGranta Magazine presented a special showcase of Spanish writers and the winner of the International Man Booker Prize 2021 discussed their work; Book Aid International hosted a conversation between Lord Paul Boateng, pioneering library founder Ahmed Dahir Elmi and Somali-born British journalist and writer Rageh Omaar; and the Festival marked 100 years of English PEN in a discussion around free speech with writers Lydia Cacho, Samar Yazbek and English PEN president Philippe Sands.


Author and poet Lemn Sissay curated a special three-part Festival series to mark the one-year anniversary of George Floyd's killing: diaspora writers Maaza Mengiste and Aida Edemariam discussed the ways fiction can change the non-fictional world; acclaimed memoirists Nadia Owusu (Aftershocks) and Hannah Pool (My Fathers’ Daughter) discussed the power of writing one’s own story; and American-British playwright, novelist, critic and broadcaster Bonnie Greer OBE spoke to Ash Sarkarabout her life in writing and activism. Meanwhile, a Still Breathing event featured actresses Suzette Llewellyn and Suzanne Packer and athlete Colin Jackson.


The latest environmental science, sustainable policies and creative responses to the climate crisis were brought into focus in a 22-part Hay-on-Earth series with COP26 president Alok Sharma along with researchers, writers and campaigners Suzanne Simard (Finding the Mother Tree), Owen Hewlett and Emily Shuckburgh, Jemma Wadham (Ice Rivers), Helen Scales (The Brilliant Abyss), Ray Mears (We Are Nature), Jojo Mehta, Chris Packham and Megan McCubbin (Back to Nature), Danny Dorling (Slowdown), Dieter Helm (Net Zero), George Monbiot, Jay Griffiths (Why Rebel?), Elizabeth Kolbert (Under a White Sky), Patrick Barkham (Wild Child), Anna Jones (One: Pot, Pan, Planet), Diane Cook (The New Wilderness), Imbolo Mbue (How Beautiful We Were), Rob Penn (Slow Rise), Lucy Jones (Losing Eden), Jonathan Drori (Around the World in 80 Plants), Colin Tudge (The Great Re-Think), Richard Walker (The Green Grocer), J. B. MacKinnon (The Day the World Stops Shopping) Tim Jackson (Post Growth), Martin Shaw (Smoke Hole), Anne Karpf(How Women can Save the Planet), Cassandra Coburn (EnoughSarah Bridle (Food and Climate Change without the Hot Air), Derek Gow (Bringing Back the Beaver) and Sam Lee (The Nightingale). Festivalgoers were encouraged to share their own creative responses to the climate crisis via the new Write for Change project at hayfestival.org/wales/hay-on-earth/countdown-to-cop26.aspx, a campaign that continues into the summer.


Festival speakers discussed the impacts of the pandemic and shared their thoughts on our post-Covid future as Reverend Richard Coles (The Madness of Grief) led an event on grief in the time of Covid-19; Peter Ricketts (Hard Choices) joined shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy and Matthew D’Ancona (Identity, Ignorance and Innovation) to discuss the future of global politics; Noam Chomsky presented Consequences of CapitalismRachel Clarke presented Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a Time of Pandemic alongside Michael Rosen (Many Different Kinds of Love) and Jim Down (Life Support); Andria Zafirakou (Those Who Can, Teach) discussed the future of education; Ed Miliband presented Go Big: How to Fix Our WorldJess Phillips joined Gina Miller and Francesca Martinez for a discussion on This is how we Come Back Stronger with James PlunkettPandora Sykes talked How Do we Know We’re Doing it Right?Martin Robinson (You’re Not the Man You’re Supposed to Be) and Guvna B (Unspoken) discussed toxic masculinity with poet Owen Sheers; former Culture Minister Ed Vaizey chaired a Country & Town House discussion on the future of arts funding with The Whitechapel Gallery’s Iwona Blazwick, the government’s Commissioner for Cultural Recovery and Renewal, Lord Neil Mendoza and Nina Plowman of CulturalComms; and Alastair Campbell (Living Better) and Ruby Wax discussed mental health.


Everyday Sexism founder Laura Bates led a series of discussions around motherhood and the ways Covid-19 has impacted it: data scientist Pragya Agarwal, journalist Caitlin Moran and activist Joeli Brearley joined Bates to look at the growing gender divide; and writers Margaret Reynolds, Nell Frizzell and Donna Freitas talked to Emma Gannon about how our ideas of motherhood are changing. Meanwhile, author Becky Cooper shared her account of a long-unsolved murder of a Harvard graduate student in 1969, We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence.


It's 300 years since the UK first appointed a Prime Minister. A Festival series drew on lessons from the past to inform solutions to the global crisis in democracy in conversations with former Australian PM Julia Gillard (Women in Leadership), Mary Ann Sieghart (The Authority Gap), Sir Anthony Seldon (The Impossible Office) and Jim NaughtieSteve Richards (The Prime Ministers), Vince Cable (Money and Power) and Grace BlakeleyCarole Walker (The Lobby Life) and more. Tony Blair reflected on his time in office, the role of the PM, and the challenges facing leaders across the world.


Historians shared their fresh takes on past events: Alice Roberts talked AncestorsMalcom Gladwell talked The Bomber Mafia: A Story Set in WarSathnam Sanghera (Empireland) and Kehinde Andrews (The New Age of Empire) discussed Britain's hidden history; Simon Schama previewed his new book, GroundedLucasta Miller (Keats) and Jonathan Bate (Bright Star, Green Light) marked 200 years of Keats with Miranda SeymourNick Crane talked LatitudeHelena Attlee talked Lev’s Violin; and the Wolfson History Prize presented this year’s shortlisted writers.


The world's first human cyborg Peter Scott-Morgan talked to Stephen Fry; a special event with The Royal Societyshowcased the best new science writing with Gaia Vince, Jim Al-Khalili, Camilla Pang and more; Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony and Cass R. Sunstein talked to Angela Duckworth for the British Academy Platform; Jennifer Lucy Allan talked The Foghorn’s Lament; and Nick Hunt (Outlandish) and Emma Gregg (The Flightless Traveller) discussed the future of travel.


Thought leaders delivered headline think pieces throughout the Festival, tackling some of the biggest questions of our times, including the Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist Anne Applebaum (Christopher Hitchens Lecture); Gary Younge (Aneurin Bevan Lecture), Gordon Brown (Raymond Williams Lecture) with Seven Ways to Change the World, former Bank of England governor Mark Carney (The Friends Lecture) with Values, Welsh poet Gillian Clarke (Anthea Bell Lecture) with The GododdinJojo Moyes (The Reading Agency Lecture), Heidi Larson (John Maddox Lecture), Jini Reddy (the inaugural Jan Morris Lecture) with Wanderland, and Margaret McMillan (British Pugwash Lecture). 

Leading universities shared their latest research in the Festival's new Lunchtime Lectures series: actor Michael Sheen joined Daniel G. Williams and Leanne Wood to discuss Raymond Williams at 100; Nobel laureate Didier Queloz talked exoplanets; Michael Bresalier, lecturer in the history of medicine, talked living with Covid-19; geography and earth sciences expert Siobhan Maderson talked about designing a post-pandemic future; professor of history Suzanne Schwarz talked histories of enslaved Africans; politics lecturer Jennifer Mathers talked women in leadership; neuroscientist Becky Inksterlooked at the mental health of young people; Duncan Westbury talked sustainable food production; Abigail Rokison-Woodall, Tracy Irish, Angie Wootten and Charlotte Arrowsmith presented Signing ShakespeareRebecca Ruth Gould and Kayvan Tahmasebian discussed translation as a form of activism; and cultural historian Karen Harvey explored an early example of #FakeNews with The Imposteress Rabbit Breeder.


A series of Festival sessions encouraged audiences to get creative with Sarah Raven (A Year Full of Flowers) and Carolyn Dunster (Cut & Dry); Robert Diament and Russell Tovey presented Talk Art in conversation with Olivia LaingDavid Hockney and Martin Gayford talked Spring Cannot Be CancelledCharles Saumarez Smith (The Art Museum in Modern Times) spoke to Erica Wagner about the art of curation in our Eccles Centre Platform; and Meadow Arts presented a discussion between artists Tom Jeffreys, Alex Hartley and Anne de Charmant.


Leading comics presented their latest work in evening events with Pippa Evans (Improv Your Life), Tom Allen (No Shame), Frank Skinner (A Comedian’s Prayer Book) and Marcus Brigstocke, while musician Pete Paphides talked Broken GreekSam Lee presented The Nightingale: Notes on a Songbird and the QI Elves closed the Festival with an evening of trivia.


KS1 pupils enjoyed performance poetry from Joseph Coelho, outdoor adventures with Michael Holland (I ate Sunshine for Breakfast), timely tips on How to Change the World with Rashmi SirdeshpandeSimon Mole (I Love My Bike) and Maria Vegara (Little People, BIG DREAMS).

KS2 pupils were invited to get creative in events with Matt Lucas and his Very Very Very Very Very Very Very Silly Book of Pranks, to go on location with Frank Cottrell-Boyce (Noah’s Gold) and Abi Elphinstone (The Crackledawn Dragon), to join Robert Winston as he explored the world of science, to discover the Earth’s Incredible Oceans with Jess French, and to take part in conversations with Patience Agbabi (The Time Thief), Zanib Mian (Planet Omar), Alex Wharton (Daydreams and Jellybeans), Adam Kay (Kay’s Anatomy), David Baddiel (Future Friend) and Konnie Huq.

And KS3 and 4 pupils found inspiration in dynamic events led by authors, poets, illustrators and performers exploring important issues for young people to consider today, from the environment and sustainability to inclusivity, wellbeing and the importance of reading for pleasure. Guests included Benjamin Dean (Me my dad and the end of the Rainbow), Robert Muchamore (The Cherub Series), Liz Kessler (When the World Was Ours), Phil Earle (Surrounded by Stories), Liz Hyder (Bearmouth),Manjeet Maan (The Crossing), Jeffrey Boakye (Musical Truth), Lisa Williamson (First Day of My Life), and Patrick Ness on adaptation and screenwriting.

Catch Hay Festival 2021 on Hay Player now.