Saturday, 25 May 2013

Festival Time

The festival season has begun.  Well, to be honest, the festival season never really stops.  There may be a bit of a lull over Christmas, when we're all busy doing other things, but for the rest of the year you can normally find a cultural festival of some kind, somewhere, to attend, if you feel so inclined.  It seems to have become big business.

Even the small market town of Cowbridge (population approximately 4000), which is the nearest place of any size to my house, has two festivals - a Food & Drink Festival in October, and a Book Festival which takes place, er, all year round.  Yes, that's right.  It began as a summer event but has turned into "a calendar of events running throughout the year offering more flexibility to both authors and organisers".  Rather a novel idea (if you'll forgive the pun), and perhaps not so difficult to understand when you bear in mind how heavily potential speakers' time is committed.  To get the best names, an organiser has to be prepared to wait.

"Names" are not really something the SSF has ever bothered too much about.  We look for interesting speakers on interesting subjects when planning our events, and don't chase after big names, although it can't be denied that they attract big audiences.  The Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival, which is in progress as I write, takes place in a town half the size of Cowbridge and has been going since 1987.  This year's speakers include Will Self, Lionel Shriver, Melvyn Bragg and Mark Haddon, to name but a few.  The town is swamped with visitors (including the Prince of Wales) for the duration of the festival, but booking popular writers who are in such great demand has its hazards.  Just a couple of years ago, one notable speaker failed to turn up because he had gone to Ross-on-Wye "by mistake".  Since the two towns are only 35 minutes apart by road, this does sound awfully like an excuse; presumably the audience would have been prepared to wait.

In general, though, festivals are making a lot of money for a lot of people and there is no shortage of potential audience members.  The only thing that stops some of us spending most of our year attending festivals is the cost.  I've just paid over £90 for tickets for a few events at the Chalke Valley History Festival next month, and I don't begrudge it - organising a festival is not exactly an easy job, and the financial outlay must be considerable.  At the same time, I can't help thinking how lovely it would be if such events were more within the reach of the less well-off.

The audiences for these events - if the ones I've attended are anything to go by - are not restricted to the wealthy classes, although they do tend to be educated people.  Certainly all age ranges are represented, though I did cringe when Niall Ferguson, speaking at the Oxford Literary Festival a couple of years back, singled out his teenage offspring from the audience for an embarrassing father-to-son mini-lecture. Chalke Valley is a particularly good example of a community event, since it takes place in a field in the middle of nowhere, is attended by the inhabitants of nearby villages as well as a wider audience, and donates most of its profits to charity.  The organisers, James Heneage and James Holland, have the advantage of being well-known historians in their own right and being able to call on eminent friends and colleagues to speak at their festival. 

Nor is mere attendance a major earning opportunity for most of the speakers.  If you have ever tried to book a speaker, you will know that some relatively obscure "celebrities" insist on a large fee, whilst others who have a far greater right to expect one will do it for virtually nothing, recognising the opportunity to sell books.  Let's face it, people will queue up to get almost anything signed by Ian Hislop or Dan Snow (I just plucked those two names out of the air, knowing that both make frequent appearances on the festival circuit).  Let it not, however, be said that these celebrities don't earn their money.  I was simply astounded by the sheer stamina shown by Michael Wood in the first year of CVHF - speaking for an hour, signing books for another hour (pausing to chat to every single customer and never hurrying anyone along), and then, after only 30 minutes in which to eat his own dinner, chairing a one-hour debate before dashing off to the railway station so he could be in Norfolk at 8am next day to film "The Great British Story".

It has to be admitted that one or two of the speakers you will see and hear at the major festivals will turn out to be a disappointment, but in general it's a very rewarding experience and well worth the £10 or so that is the typical entry fee.  Just look at what's on offer later this year in the quaintly-titled Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate, for example: Jo Nesbo, Ian Rankin, Ruth Rendell and Susan Hill, and furthermore visitors can stay at The Old Swan Hotel, where Agatha Christie was found suffering from amnesia in 1926.   Or, if crime writing is not your scene, there is always the Stratford Poetry Festival, unbelievably in its 60th year, where for the second year running the SSF will be putting on a war poetry session on "Poetry Sunday", entry completely free.  For further details see the website: or just turn up on 7 July.

It's festival time and it's never far away.  If you haven't been to one yet, add it to your bucket list.

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