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Ticket to ride: Eugenie Evenko with her successful appeal to meet her hero at Hay-on Wye
Photograph: Peter Florence
It was a perfect rock'n'roll moment. "There's a girl here who's hitch-hiked all the way from Russia
to see you," the poet Adrian Mitchell told Paul McCartney on stage at the Sunday Times Hay Festival
last Wednesday. Without missing a beat, Sir Paul spotted her in the audience, beckoned her up on
stage, and threw his arms around 20-year-old Eugenie Evenko. The 1,300-strong crowd erupted into
"I forgot everything. My Russian, my English. I couldn't speak. Before I came here, I hardly could
dream even of seeing him," an emotional Evenko said afterwards.
Hers is an extraordinary story. Until three weeks ago Evenko, a student from the Urals, had never
left Russia, yet she made a 3,000-mile journey to the small Welsh border town of Hay-on-Wye, where
McCartney was reading from Blackbird Singing, the poetry collection he published earlier this year.
"My mother thinks I am visiting friends near Moscow. I said I would be away for 20 days. When she
finds out where I am, she's going to kill me," admitted Evenko.
A Beatles fan since the age of 10, she started making plans to visit Britain in the spring. "I
organised a visa on spec. I got myself onto a working students' programme. I'm doing
strawberry-picking on a farm near Taunton [Somerset]. When I discovered that Paul was in Britain
reading his poetry I had to be here. For me, the Beatles are more important than eating and drinking."
With a sleeping bag and a backpack, Evenko started hitch-hiking from her home city of Cheliabinsk to
Taunton after she had been tipped off about the event in an e-mail from another Beatles fan. But she
had no idea where in Britain the reading was taking place. And she had no ticket.
"So I went to Liverpool last Sunday. I thought, this is the place to find out anything about the
Beatles. Some people told me maybe it happens today, maybe the middle of June. Everybody here is so
friendly. I never heard people say I can't help you."
Inaccurately informed that Hay was "somewhere in the middle of Wales", Evenko left Taunton's
strawberry fields at 4am last Wednesday on the last leg of her epic journey. Seven lifts later, and
having charmed her last driver into a detour that brought her right into Hay, she joined the fans
lining the streets of the town and brandished her placard appealing for a ticket. A man whose friend
was ill sold her his spare ticket for its cover price.
In a festival accustomed to celebrity, which had already hosted Bill Clinton, Frank McCourt,
Margaret Atwood, Louis de BerniÉres and David Lodge, Evenko's openness and enthusiasm had already
opened doors. McCartney's entourage were so touched by her story that they are sending her a signed
copy of his poems.
And her moment in the spotlight has brought her a tiny taste of the rock'n'roll lifestyle: festival
organisers arranged accommodation and a square meal for her, then a rather more luxurious return
journey to Taunton in one of the festival's limousines.
Now Evenko, who presents a 15-minute rock programme on local television three times a week in her
spare time, has one ambition: to invite McCartney to play in her home city. "The Beatles never came
to Russia. Maybe after this day he might visit. The Beatles are so popular that every day on TV you
can see video footage of them. In my city we have renamed one of the roads John Lennon Street. Next
will be Paul McCartney Street."
Evenko's favourite Beatles track, however, is a choice that might not appeal to McCartney. Expertly
playing the crowd last Wednesday, he told a story of relaxing under the hands of a Japanese masseuse
but being jolted awake as she started to hum Yesterday over him. Evenko's collection of "thousands of
tapes, thousands of records" includes many of that track, including a once rare recording of John
Lennon singing it.
In a year when ticket sales at the Sunday Times Hay Festival exceeded last year's total before it
even started, and when good weather and record numbers of tourists are boosting a rural community
threatened by foot and mouth, the happiest visitor must still have been Evenko. "I have no words to
explain my feelings. You know, when your dreams come true?" she says.
"That girl will go far," festival organisers were saying last week. She already has.
Speakers for the last day of the Sunday Times Hay Festival today include Nick Hornby (1pm), Gitta
Sereny (2.30pm) and David Starkey (5.30pm). For tickets, telephone 01497 821 299. A full report on
the festival will appear in the Books pages next week
The Sunday Times Hay Festival