New Book: Oliver Balch on The King Of Hay, Richard Booth

19 May|Oliver Balch

Author Oliver Balch sent us this wonderful portrait of the self styled King of Hay, Richard Booth. There is more on some of the eccentric and inspiring characters who populate Hay and the surrounding area in his new book, Under the Tump: Sketches of Real Life on the Welsh Borders. You can buy the book from our online shop; simply click on the link to the right.

THE ANCIENT WELSH border town of Hay-on-Wye has its very own king. His name is Richard. Richard III. I find him one evening sitting with a merry band of courtiers in the back room of The Swan. White haired and bespectacled, he is wearing a threadbare woollen jumper flecked with brilliant fandango pink. On the large table in front of him lies his red and white polka-dot walking-stick, an unconventional sceptre for a most unconventional monarch.

King Richard’s reign began as an April Fool in 1977. Born Richard George William Pitt Booth to a military family on 12 September 1938, he set up Hay’s first second-hand bookshop on returning to Hay after university. His proclamation of regency, the story goes, was inspired by the chance sighting of a pair of journalists in the pub and the prospect of some cheap publicity.

The stunt worked. After appointing his horse as prime minister and issuing his own passports, the eccentric new sovereign won his fifteen minutes of fame. Television crews came from as far away as South Korea to tell the story of the book salesman’s who would be king. To keep up the part, he even bought the town’s castle.

Other bookstores soon followed. At one stage, there were over forty in this tiny market town. Quickly, Hay became known as Britain’s ‘Town of Books’ – an artful piece of branding that has since gone global thanks to the huge success of Hay’s eponymous annual literary festival.

Today, copycat ‘booktowns’ borrowing from the Hay model are popping up the world over. There’s even an International Organisation of Booktowns nowadays, set up by Richard III himself to recognise the crème de la crème of urban bibliophilia. This privileged hand-me-down elite currently number seventeen at present, stretching from Sysmä in Finland to Paju in South Korea. All reflect a similar fierce independence of spirit and maverick intent.

Approaching his fortieth year on the throne, Richard III’s appetite for the eccentric remains as zestful as ever. The Royal University of Cusop Dingle represents his latest venture. This august seat of learning meets in The Swan once a month. Faculty members, all of them townspeople, are invited to choose their own professorships. Tim, a gardener who lives in a caravan, gave the inaugural address on The Iliad. His title: ‘Was Homer Taking the Piss?’

Tonight, it’s the King’s turn to take to the lectern. His subject is characteristically Quixotic: ‘You Cannot Make a Silk Purse from a Sow’s Ear.’ Peppered with anecdotes and slanderous asides, it proves an entertaining affair. One minute, he’s discussing Sidney Nolan’s art (“good bloke, old Sidney”). Next, we’re on to Hay’s Twinning with Timbuktu and Doris Lessing (‘Now, Lessing, of course, is the originator of Rhodesian communism…’).

The university remains in its infancy. It has a crest in the form of a cartoon snail with a cinnamon-whirl shell. It also boasts a motto, lifted from ‘Irish Fairy Tales’ (from the 1920s Wordsworth Children’s Classics series). ‘We get wise by asking questions . . .” the academic apothegm runs. ‘… and even if these are not answered, we get wise, for a well-packed question carries its answer on its back as a snail carries its shell.’

After an hour, the King draws to a halt. We all applaud generously. Then a man in a tweed jacket, who I take to be the dean on account of his stately eyebrows, steps up. “If I may.” It is not a question. In his humble opinion, the University would do well to avoid the grand theories spouted by the Orthodox Academy. “Mere chimeras, anyway.” Far better to chart our own path. Dedicate ourselves to the misfit and magical, search for what’s been lost down the “rabbit holes of history”.

A triumphant cheer goes up. Glasses chink. The idea of excavating the odd and the offbeat from the dustbins of academia appeals to all. The King is especially taken, picturing himself marching at the head of an expeditionary force no doubt, the University’s very own White Rabbit. “Here’s to nonsense!” he declares. “‘And sod everyone else, I say.” The motion is passed.

Hay’s septuagenarian regent suddenly looks tired. It is late. We have feasted on folly; we have chased the snail. Now, it is time for bed. And so off into the night we go, one by one, the town’s permanent Lord of Misrule leading the way.



Oliver Balch is author of ‘Under The Tump: Sketches of Real Life in the Welsh Marches’, published by Faber & Faber on 19 May, available to order through the Idler bookshop. Click HERE.