The future of the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts, one of Britain’s oldest and most esteemed annual cultural landmarks, was thrown into confusion this weekend after the resignation of its co-founder and director, Peter Florence.
His decision to quit follows what the board described as the unanimous endorsement last Thursday of the findings of an independent investigation that upheld an internal complaint of bullying against Florence.
Florence’s decision to step down after more than three decades at the helm follows a troubled year for the event, held every summer in the Welsh border town of Hay-on-Wye.
Florence was suspended last October following accusations of bullying from a staff member, and he has been signed off sick since then. Florence claims he has “repeatedly reached out to the board with the aim of resolving matters amicably but this was rejected”.
In an internal announcement seen by the Observer, Florence, 56, writes: “I consider that my role had become untenable due to the conduct of the board and its insistence on holding a disciplinary hearing in my absence whilst I was off sick after a breakdown.”
Members of the Hay festival board are said to be dismayed this weekend at “such a sad resolution” of a dispute that threatens to damage the standing of an event that is hugely popular – and crucial to the book trade.
Florence’s statement went on: “In order to protect my wellbeing I had no other choice but to resign. I was not afforded the opportunity to fully address or counter the internal issues raised and the board sought to entirely isolate me from the process. I am incredibly proud of the achievements of the Hay festival over the past 35 years and hope that it continues to go from strength to strength. I do not wish to comment further at this time and continue to take legal advice.”
The board said its decision followed “a thorough and extensive process, which considered substantial supporting evidence”. Florence resigned with immediate effect and the board are seeking a new director.
Since Florence’s suspension last year, finance director Tania Hudson has led the team, running digital events in December and May.
Florence’s departure comes after a period of expansion, with outposts set up in countries including Spain, Mexico, Colombia and Peru. Over decades, the festival has partnered with the Guardian, Sunday Times, Telegraph and Sky Arts. Hay Festival International will continue to be run by director Cristina Fuentes La Roche.
The reputation of the festival, which in normal times runs over 10 days in May and June and takes over most of the bookshop-heavy town, was seriously tarnished last autumn when curator Caitlin McNamara alleged that she was sexually assaulted that February in the United Arab Emirates by a member of a key UAE family, Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan. Nahyan has denied the allegations.
McNamara had been sent to Abu Dhabi to set up an inaugural franchised literary event, allied to the UAE state. Finding herself working directly for a government department, the Ministry of Tolerance, McNamara attempted to raise human rights and feminist issues and was invited to the home of Nahyan, who runs the ministry. She immediately claimed she had been seriously sexually assaulted there, and Florence flew out to help. She left the country before the festival went ahead and has since attempted to highlight the British government’s failure to press her case.
McNamara has not suggested the festival failed to support her, but critics have argued that the literary organisation should not have worked with a state accused of substantial failures in citizens’ rights and freedom of expression.
The chair of the festival board, Caroline Michel, said last year the event would not return to Abu Dhabi, in support of McNamara, whose allegations against the minister were reported to the British Crown Prosecution Service last November.
The pandemic has put paid to plans for an in-person festival for two years now, and during that time Florence is believed to have struggled with poor mental health. In March, the festival launched a crowdfunding appeal after the event had to be moved online.
The accusations of bullying that led to Florence’s resignation come from a Hay staff member and first came to light shortly after news of the alleged attack on McNamara, but the issues are not believed to be connected. At the time, Florence’s lawyer said: “My client is involved in an ongoing internal process and, in accordance with his duty of confidentiality with the Hay festival, he is unable to provide further comment.”
Since its founding in 1988 by Florence and his parents Rhoda and Norman, the festival has hosted many top names in world literature, from Mario Vargas Llosa and Jung Chang to Martin Amis and Hilary Mantel, to say nothing of global statesmen such as Bill Clinton, who famously called it a “Woodstock of the mind”.
Florence, a Cambridge graduate who lives in Herefordshire, was also at the centre of controversy in 2019 when he chaired the Booker prize jury. That was the year the prize defied a foundational rule and awarded the prize to two authors jointly. Bernardine Evaristo was the first black woman to receive the award, for Girl, Woman, Other, but she shared it with Margaret Atwood, for The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.