Friday, 13 March 2009


Just a quick note to let you know I've started flagging up festivals in the sidebar here.

How useful are literary festivals for writers?

I'm not sure. Yes, great if you're paid to appear. And they're great for readers, and publishers (if they have their act together) and retailers ... but us ordinary, slugalonga writers?

When an earnest newbie in the 70s I used to trek along to Cheltenham Literature Festival; by the mid-80s I was on the board of Lancaster Literature Festival.


Well, I moved to Lancaster principally because of its literature festival. When an undergraduate on the Creative Writing course at Alsager the tutors organised annual visits to the Festival.

One year, when attending a day-long workshop with playwright-screenwriter Trevor Griffiths (excellent, one of the very best events I've ever attended) I took a stroll during the long lunch break. I wandered through the old Market Square up to the Castle/Prison and down to the Quayside.

Before the following year's festival I re-visited the town* (for an event at the regional film-theatre) and discovered the canal and the Whittle (aka The Golden Lion).

I became enamoured with the place. It had a repertory theatre, a youth theatre, a theatre-in-education company, a regional film-theatre, an upcoming contemporary dance company, a lively music co-op, an artists' studio collective, a bit of a gay scene, and a wholefood store. And John Angus's distinctive posters splashed around the streets made it seem like a happening place. And chatting with Kurt Vonnegut in the theatre bar heightened that sense of possibility.

And so it went ...

With no ties, and wanting to experience life in the North, I sort of half made my mind up to re-locate to Lancaster when I finished college. Then, unexpectedly, I was invited to apply for the MA Creative Writing course at Lancaster University.

I stayed on in Lancaster for five years after completing the MA, helping form a gang of artist-activist-makers, conjure up performances and spectacles, agitate and irritate, and along the way, convene the first ever Lancaster Arts Forum, which went on to successfully lobby for better and more co-ordinated support for the arts and artists in the town, leading eventually to the creation of the arts development section within the City Council.

All good fun.

And so on it went. And somewhere along the line I was asked to join the board of Lancaster Literature Festival.

At the time practical co-operation with the University was non-existent. There was, I recall, a board member who was regarded as the University representative, but they worked in the Drama (not English and Creative Writing) department, and only attended meetings when looking for contributions towards sending their theatre company to the Edinburgh Fringe.

A few members of the board wanted to steer the festival in a more populist direction, while others complained (I'll never forget the phrase) that the Festival was beginning to "lack bottom, or gravitas".

Publishers too were a bit slack with their efforts. Most publishers just let the writers get on with it, often refusing to supply additional books for signings etc, while others would send Jacintha and Tabitha to micro-manage 'their' writer.

And so on it went.

It was all good fun.

Part of my job was to chaperone writers to the venue and, usually via a bar or restaurant, to their hotel afterwards. Thus I had the privilege and pleasure of meeting a good many talented, personable writers (as well as a few pompous fuckwits).

My favourite person? Liz Lochead. We'd met a couple of years previously, when she was the resident writer at a weekend retreat I'd attended. A lovely, bubbly person. She missed the train and, being the very personable person she is, got talking to a stranger while waiting for the next train, and missed that one as well. She missed her slot. Carol Ann Duffy, who was imminently due to give her reading, graciously agreed to double up with Ms Lochead. It was a good, memorable, gig.

And there was Henry Normal (then a Goth and a great laugh) performing with Ian McMillan, (a really nice bloke) under the Circus of Poets banner. And Melvyn Bragg, Tom Paulin, and the late Edgar Wilson. All decent, hard-working, human beings.

At the time Salman Rushdie was a patron of the Festival so a colleague organised an after-hours cabaret venue called Salman's Hideaway. (The Gravatii were horrified)

All good fun.

With festivals such as the Hay (on Wye) Festival - things have certainly got a lot more corporate since the 80s.

If you have a literary festival in your area - and you've got skills and/or ideas to contribute - it's always worth asking if there's a space on the board - a good many arts organisations are keen to recruit new blood.

What's your experience of literary festivals? Good, bad, indifferent?
Are there one or two you could recommend for writers?

I went to a really good festival, BCNegra '09, here in Barcelona, just a few weeks ago. Sparked me up a bit. I wholeheartedly recommend it to crime fiction writers. Check out the links in the Festivals sidebar.

And so it is as was, tempered with the why of it, still restless with the way of it and how it could have been.

* Although it is officially a city Lancaster is really a large market-town - which adds charm to its character.


  1. Many thanks for the link to your blog Haarlson. Loved reading your Litfest memories of times gone by, and thanks for the link!

  2. Hi Jonathan, thanks for calling by. Things have certainly changed in Lancaster. I'd be interested to know whether you see LitFest as aimed more at writers than readers. From the outside looking in via the blog it seems that way. Thanks for your comment, regards.

  3. Hi Haarlson, we have a remit to both, we moved towards a literature development aim in the 90's, launched Flax publishing a couple of years back, and are now about to move into a refurbished home at the Storey Institute which includes an auditorium and a litfest bookshop, both of which will see us developing more reader-centred activities.

  4. Hi Jonathan, thanks very much for that. Sounds like you're working hard to achieve a good balance between meeting writers' and readers' needs. Best of luck with it all. Regards.