It’s the world-famous Hay Festival this week when the small Welsh border town becomes the centrepiece for literary A-listers, creatives and politicians. And it’s about this time of year that this provocative quote from Richard Booth always springs to mind. I’m interested in Booth because he was a renowned British eccentric and pioneer of town regeneration – a placemaker as we now call it. His quirkiness and detested for bureaucracy were at the heart of his methods when he turned around the fortunes of Hay on Wye, a pretty but otherwise unremarkable Welsh border town.
Hay is often referenced as an example of successful town regeneration and for the obvious reasons of becoming a world famous Town of Books and a centre for the secondhand book trade. It’s also equally famous for Hay Literature Festival founded in 1988 – although Booth was said to have resented the festival because it was worlds apart from the dusty jumbled book shops he had created.
I’ve been visiting Hay all my life, rarely during the festival, but often on visits to see family or as a perfect coffee stop on a long cycle through the Black Mountains. I’ve observed Hay as an example of personality-led regeneration frequently overlooked in contemporary ideas yet can be the vital ingredient for some otherwise ordinary towns. Booth appears to have been a genuine visionary, entrepreneurial, brand aware, deep-pocketed, and strong-willed with his roots in the community and ability to lead others.
Booth was no politician – “policies not politicians” was another of his anarchic phrases. He built a following through unconventional means buying up cheap empty buildings during the 1960s and 1970s, opening bookshops, and forging relationships with employees that led to them opening bookshops of their own. At its height, the Hay had 30 secondhand bookshops whilst not quite so many remain today.
Booth became a pioneer for the British high streets several decades before Portas or Grimsey. The experience of seeing faceless shopping malls on a book buying trip to the US apparently made him fear the future of market towns. His vision was founded on tradition, opposing modernisation and creating a vibrant, local economy free of big-brand. Sounds familiar?
Arguably one of Wales’s and the UK’s finest placemakers, Booth became an almost accidental expert in regeneration and exporter of ideas creating a model copied in over 50 towns across the world. He singlehandedly turned around the fortunes of Hay leading a highly effective global publicity with whacky and wonderfully eye-catching campaigns. In April 1977, he famously declared his hometown a sovereign independent state and made himself king.
Booth’s property-led spotlight-seeking self-publicist and non-conformist approach might also have something to do with the tolerant and experimental influences unique to the 1960’s and early 1970’s and therefore are unlikely to be fully repeated. Today, Hay thrives as a tourism hot spot throughout the year, although the town has a more boutique than book town feel to it. At a time of increasing sameness and uniformity on the high street its widely recognised that the future of town centres is about being distinctive, memorable, entertaining and independent – just like Booth’s vision of Hay.