Monday, June 01, 2009

Jane Birkin at Hay Festival (and a Yurt!)

Ever since my days of PR-ing at the Edinburgh Book Festival, I've been pining after a yurt. These magnificent Mongolian tents were then used (possibly still are) as the green room area for authors and their entourage in the pretty setting of Charlotte Square gardens. I remember most fondly lounging back on the cushions and rugs, chatting away to all manner of verbose and vivacious scribes, and enjoying the free Glenmorangie and Danish pastries. Certain local authors, who weren't even appearing (you know who you are), would pop in to avail themselves on a regular basis; and who can blame them, because it was a really funky and irresistible little sanctuary.

So when I saw that boutique camping company Tangerine Fields was setting up at Hay Festival this year, I quickly booked a mini-yurt for me and Mr M. It's impossible to get a hotel in Hay unless you book months ahead, and we'd only decided to go when we discovered quite recently that Jane Birkin was appearing, so the yurt was the perfect solution. It was also suitably romantic to fit the bill for our fifth wedding anniversary.

I hadn't been to Hay Festival since 2004 (the year we got married), and never purely as a punter - so it was a totally different experience this time around, with no authors to look after. Also, the site had moved from the school in the centre of town to a field a mile or so down the road, which meant less time mooching around secondhand bookshops and more time people-watching on the grass between talks. After checking into our splendid little yurt - which was carpeted and everything - we hopped on the shuttle bus down to the site just in time for Jane Birkin's packed-out talk. Sometime squeeze of the late French pop legend (and hero of mine) Serge Gainsbourg, Birkin is perhaps most famous (or should that be 'infamous') for her contribution to the risque late 60s classic 'Je T'aime... Moi Non Plus'. She's also appeared in a number ofcult films
and is these days a tireless activist for various causes.

For an OAP with a genuinely Rock 'n Roll history, Jane Birkin is in amazingly good shape, and still sparkles with childlike wonderment when recounting her mis-spent youth. Philippe Sands acted as interviewer, but in reality little prompting was needed to get Birkin to open up, and even if you weren't remotely interested in French music or the Swinging Sixties, you couldn't help but be charmed by her stories.

With a twinkle in her eye, she told of the night she first went out with Gainsbourg - how he took her to all sorts of wacky Parisian clubs and eventually back to his hotel. Fearing she had been too quick to accept his advances, she stalled for time in the bathroom and was relieved upon re-emerging to discover Gainsbourg passed out on the bed. He was so drunk that he didn't hear her sneak out of the room and back in again with a 7" single of 'Yummy Yummy Yummy I've Got Love in My Tummy' - which she tucked between his toes before creeping out again, virtue and dignity in tact. This was apparently the first of many such romantic gestures between the two as love blossomed into a 13 year relationship and creative partnership that also produced a daughter - the acclaimed French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Later the same evening, after a pub dinner at the Three Tuns, we returned to the festival site to see Jane Birkin perform. Although she has written and recorded a significant catalogue of her own music over the last forty-odd years, this particular show was largely dedicated to former lover Serge - who clearly still holds a special place in her heart. The same ingenuous allure shone from the ever-smiling starlet as she lent her own distinct husky charm to many a Gainsbourg classic. The set also had its more serious moments - with a movingly heartfelt call to action over the Burma situation, in particular the imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi, against which Birkin is a high-profile campaigner. This earnest outpouring only made the audience love her more, and even though we all knew we'd miss the last bus back to town, an encore was demanded. There followed a chilly, starry walk back to Tangerine Fields and the yurt, where some of the neighbouring Tipis were quietly buzzing with young literary buffs discussing the day's offerings.

As a special anniversary treat for Ant, the next morning I'd booked us tickets to a lecture by the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, which I actually enjoyed a great deal too. He talked in a most accessible and often humorous way about the possibility of life on other planets, and answered some of the more painfully nerdy questions with surprising grace. I had wanted to ask him who or what had first prompted his interest in the stars, but the microphone never came my way. After a picnic lunch from the festival foodhall, and a final round of people-watching, we said goodbye to Hay and our lovely yurt (which sadly was too big to sneak into the boot) and took the scenic route down to Bristol. But if you want to know what happened in Bristol, you'll have to come back another day because I'm saving that adventure for its own post...

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