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It’s all talk

Skip the corporate literary festivals and root out the gems, says Sophie Elmhirst.

You could spend the long, wet summer navigating Britain’s lanes in quest of the latest boutique literary festival. (Boutique: once a term for a distinguished shop for ladies’ clothes; now, like bespoke, used in marketing bumf and hotel brochures to conjure up feelings of exclusivity and refinement, to make you feel special). They are ubiquitous: every town, if it has enough gung-ho organising types, has its own, and authors if they wish can fritter half the year away in chilly town halls, addressing a bookish throng.

A writer at Ways with Words’ literary festival in the Lake District –Words by the Water – held in early March, told me how last summer, to negotiate his way through the mass of festivals into which he’d been marshalled by his publicist, he pre-crafted a series of tweets months before the events themselves and scheduled them to be sent out to his Twitter followers shortly after each one: “Wonderful time in Stratford; brilliant questions”; “thank you Manchester! Shame about the weather” and so on.

Authors, nowadays, can’t rely on a publisher to do their publicity for them: they are usually contractually obliged to engage gamely in interviews, Facebook, Twitter, festivals and signings. The message is clear: get out there and sell (both yourself and your book). A literary publisher tells me that some of his authors have rather taken to life on the road, loping from hotel to hotel and lunch to dinner and sending the hefty bill to their editors. He now limits his authors to Hay-on-Wye, Oxford, Edinburgh and Cheltenham, the only festivals worth doing from a publisher’s point of view, he says, as they’re the only ones likely to gain enough press coverage to make the expense worthwhile.

Perhaps that’s true, commercially speaking, but the itinerant author would be missing some treats tucked away in the corners of this island. Take the Laugharne Weekend – a festival of three years’ standing in Dylan Thomas’s old home town, where he wrote (and partially set) Under Milk Wood. Here, among the lanes and squares, in the shadow of a ruined castle that overlooks an estuary, are talks and concerts staged in the town hall, a chapel, upstairs at the pub, in a makeshift tent with the rain pattering down on the roof – anywhere that can seat people in rows. There is a comforting theme of organised chaos running through the weekend, which lends a conversational intimacy to events – each well-attended – from the singer Cerys Matthews in the village church to the cartoonist Martin Rowson unleashing a tirade of filth in a mini-marquee. Compared to those corporate-sponsored hyper-events – the Hays and the Oxfords – with their green rooms and VIP areas and media parties, Laugharne feels open, easy and happily small.

The literary festival is now such an unavoidable part of the publishing calendar that no one really questions whether they’re good for books, writers or audiences. Publishers say they do nothing for sales (the post-reading signings don’t quite attract rock-star snaking queues). And, more poignantly, not all writers are that good at it. Authors, who mostly happen to be the kinds of people who are very comfortable spending long hours alone in a quiet room, are routinely thrust on to stages and instructed to engage an audience. But they’re not necessarily the world’s natural entertainers.

One of many exceptions at Words by the Water in Keswick was the poet and Edward Thomas biographer, Matthew Hollis. Standing at a lectern, Hollis delivered a beautifully written talk, aided by a meticulous PowerPoint presentation (unusual terrain for a poet), which flashed up old photographs of Thomas’s friends and drinking holes. He played spoken recordings of Thomas’s poems, including one by the poet’s wife reciting “Adlestrop”, which left the room vibrating with emotion. The novelist Helen Dunmore successfully warmed her audience, too, able to talk to 100 people as though she was talking to one. But then there was the double act who wrote the book of The King’s Speech (one of whom was the speech therapist Lionel Logue’s grandson). They were friendly and chatty but as they trotted through a familiar chronology, you wondered if they’d given one too many talks.

This new breed of little festival, as it grows and multiplies across Britain, will have to work hard to attract an audience who face plenty of competition for their time and money. (In Keswick, you worried that the audience wouldn’t be around much longer: a talk about the 1958 Antarctic expedition undertaken by Edmund Hillary turned into a reunion, as no fewer than three people in the crowd revealed that they were either married to someone who went on the expedition or on it themselves, which gives you an indication of the average age in the room). But the Ways with Words team is an enterprising, lively outfit (they now run four festivals annually across Britain) and while Keswick caters to a certain demographic, their new festival in Holland Park – with speakers such as AA Gill, Alain de Botton, Mary McCartney and Sophie Dahl – seems designed to attract another type entirely.

And then there’s Laugharne. There, amid the real ale and the damp, were people from near and far, in a wistful town that, though far along the south Welsh coast, evidently has a magnetic pull for artists (Patti Smith is returning for the second time this summer). Its most famous resident, Dylan Thomas, described how he came to live there in his last BBC radio broadcast in 1953: “some, like myself, just came, one day, for the day, and never left; got off the bus, and forgot to get on again”. He continued, unwittingly explaining the lure of the place to festival-goers years later: “Whatever the reason, if any, for our being here, in this timeless, mild, beguiling island of a town with its seven public-houses, one chapel in action, one church, one factory, two billiard tables, one St Bernard (without brandy), one policeman, three rivers, a visiting sea, one Rolls Royce selling fish and chips, one cannon (castiron), one chancellor (flesh and blood), one port-reeve, one Danny Raye, and a multitude of mixed birds, here we just are, and there is nowhere like it anywhere at all.”


The NS Recommends: Small Literary Festivals

Stoke Newington Literary Festival, 1-3 June

Features local beers and performers including the punk poet John Cooper Clarke.

Wigtown Book Festival, 28 Sep-7 Oct

Ten days in Scotland’s “national book town” on the Solway Coast.

Appledore Book Festival, 29 Sep-7 Oct

Takes over the Devon fishing town.

Bridlington Poetry Festival, 8-10 June

Held on 50 acres of landscaped garden surrounding Sewerby Hall in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

Guildford Book Festival, 18-27 October

Lionel Shriver and Jeremy Paxman will be among the guest authors here.

Ilkley Literature Festival, 28 Sep-14 Oct

This has a lively fringe that accepts submissions from local writers.

Budleigh Salterton Lit Fest, 21-23 September

The Devon seaside town hosts the likes of “a walk with words”.

Compiled by Charlotte Simmonds

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Halal: Britain’s most feared food