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The unstoppable rise of the literary festival, from Devon to Dubai

Anthony Gardner | September/October 2015

On a warm March evening, a black double-decker full of writers pulls up at the vast Cultural and Scientific Association in Dubai. Purple spotlights bathe the palm trees; lime-green banners flutter in the breeze; a white-robed male-voice choir chants a welcome. The writers enter the gilded-marble atrium looking faintly baffled.

Thus begins the 2015 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. Authors have flown in from Britain, America, India and Iceland, as well as the Middle East. In the sumptuous auditorium, partly modelled on an Arab fortress, I find myself next to the novelist Joanna Trollope, who admits to “an edge of misgiving”.

“You don’t associate Dubai with literary festivals,” she says, “and being cosseted like this is not what writing is about.” She insisted that she visit a school. “If there are just two or three children whose lives you affect, that will touch hundreds of other people.”

The opening ceremony, conducted mainly in English and attended by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, involves some confusion about whether to stand up every time a member of the royal party arrives. We are sung to by 400 schoolchildren and welcomed by the festival’s British-born director, Isobel Abulhoul, who aims “to encourage as many young people as possible to read for pleasure”. The minister for culture, youth and community development gives an unexpectedly entertaining speech, and a turn by the Handspring Puppet Company, of “War Horse” fame, is rapturously received. By the end, Joanna Trollope has been won over. “They could certainly teach a few English festivals a bit about sincerity,” she says. “There’s this absolutely authentic belief in the power of culture, and it’s admirable.”

A few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine a literary event sharing a sponsor with Arsen­al FC. Literary festivals now stretch from Vancouver in Canada to Franschhoek in South Africa and Byron Bay in Australia. There are festivals devoted to history (Chalke Valley in Wiltshire), travel writing (Etonnants Voyageurs in St-Malo), biography (the Boswell Festival in Ayrshire) and individual authors (Tennessee Williams in New Orleans). Some collapse after a year or two, but many more take root, and new ones spring up: Write on Kew, coming to Kew Gardens in London in September, looks especially promising.

“There’s been an extraordinary mushrooming,” says Nick Barley, who runs the Edinburgh International Book Festival. “I took some writers to a new festival in Brazzaville recently, and Iasi in Romania has just set one up. It’s a tidal wave, right across the world.”

But why? Bookshops have closed left, right and centre; publishing is supposed to be on its knees; leisure hours are spent staring at screens. For literary festivals to thrive in this climate seems counter-intuitive. To find the answer, I devised a 550-mile road trip.

Britain is blessed with festivals. A much-quoted statistic says there’s one for every day of the year, though they peak in the last week of September and the first week of October, when 20 festivals haul up their marquees. I took in four of them over four days.

First stop was Henley-on-Thames, whose week-long festival is now in its ninth year. It’s no surprise that its media sponsor is the Daily Mail: with its mock-Tudor houses, tradition of high-profile Tory MPs (Michael Heseltine, Boris Johnson) and the world’s most punctilious regatta, this is Middle England writ large. “People think we wear boaters all day,” says the press officer, Tom Ryan, “but Henley’s much more diverse than it’s given credit for. We just had Doreen Lawrence here, and someone in the audience gave £5,000 to her charitable trust.” Still, it’s hard to think of another festival where an interviewer would ask the audience’s permission to remove his jacket.

Henley is a family affair: Ryan’s mother founded it, and his sister manages the events. “We have a real impact on the town,” he says, as a front-page story in the local paper quotes delighted restaurateurs. Ticket sales for the 150 events stand at 16,000, up by a third in two years. Henley’s USP is a motor cruiser that hosts readings. “You have to pause for two minutes when it’s turning,” Ryan says, “or you can’t be heard.”

A glance at the programme suggests that a definition of terms is required. Some literary festivals insist on their difference from book fairs (trade events for publishers) and book festivals (embracing anyone who’s been published). But these distinctions are now blurred: book fairs are expanding their “author programmes”, and while Henley clings to its literary label, many of its speakers – such as the cricketer Geoffrey Boycott – are not famous for their writing. Tom Ryan is unapologetic: “We use the better-known names to subsidise young and local authors. We had Graham Nash last year, though trying to find parking for a rock-star tour bus in Henley was a bit of an operation.”

Among the real writers is Hugo Vickers, the biographer of Cecil Beaton. The venue is the upper chamber of the town hall, all stucco and gilt; the audience is 150, mostly women with sunglasses on their heads. Vickers is polished and mildly risqué. “Publishing PRs tell you you have to go,” he says afterwards, “and I think it does help. Even if someone doesn’t buy a book on the spot, they might remember you and buy one later. You can sell quite a lot of copies if you’re the sole speaker. The great mistake is to appear with someone like [the BBC reporter] Kate Adie – a lot of people will queue for her signature afterwards and only one or two for yours. But I enjoy it. Writing is a solitary business; it’s a chance to get out and about. I’d like to stay the whole week and listen to all the other talks.”

I pictured my next stop, Havant in Hampshire, as a pretty seaside town with sailing boats riding proudly at anchor. The truth is rather different. With a quarter of its 120,000 inhabitants living on one council estate, it is little more than a down-at-heel suburb of Portsmouth. The outskirts are ruled by superstores; the ped­estrianised high street is like a thousand others. But at the end of a boarded-up parade of shops stands an oasis of culture: an airy, modern arts centre called The Spring, the hub of the literary festival.

The festival director, Tim Dawes, has an agenda far from Henley’s. The idea is to engage non-readers, “providing them with something they wouldn’t otherwise have in their lives”. Past exercises have included displaying poems on telegraph poles and building a “time machine” out of books in a shopping centre.

“I went into the local laundrette and said to the lady in charge, ‘Are we OK for the guerrilla poetry?’,” Dawes reports. “And she said, ‘Yeah, my mum loves that, she’s coming in specially.’ That, for me, is success: you reach people who would never come to a normal poetry reading.” Education is another priority, with events in all Havant’s secondary schools.

Well-known writers are optional, though Will Self glowers from the cover of the programme. “We didn’t want to be a pale imitation of the larger, better-funded festivals,” says Dawes. “We like to push the boundaries a bit.” Tonight the boundaries are being pushed by a “performance trail”: a play staged in a variety of unlikely locations, from a street corner to an industrial estate. It goes well enough until we reach the Parchment Makers pub – a lively place on a Friday evening, with a youthful clientele inclined to heckle. We exit with some relief, following an actor who pretends to pull a girl out by her hair; but as luck would have it, a police van is passing on the other side of the road. There is a screech of brakes as it does a U-turn; only the audience’s intervention saves the actor from arrest. The experience, however, is a bonding one, and the evening ends cheerfully in the Havant Brewery, with the spectators crowd-writing the final scene.

“The thing we need to prove is how important art is to the community,” argues the festival’s co-founder Lucy Flannery, using a word that is central to this whole phenomenon. Kay Dunbar, who started Ways With Words at Dartington Hall, Keswick and Southwold, says that “a sense of community” is what she sets out to create. “People don’t go to church for that any more, but at a festival there are lots of people interested in what you’re interested in, some very different from you, and you can laugh and even cry together.”

Nick Barley cites Shirley Williams, who feels literary festivals have replaced political rallies. “They’re the best expression of a community you can get,” he says. “They’ve become a central part of society.”

For Joanna Trollope, they are “community glue: they’re inclusive, educational, and they bring out all the people who are really good at organising things.”

But all communities have their problems, and someone has just cut down three of Tim Dawes’s festival banners. “I think I know who it is. In a town of 120,000 people, there has to be someone who hates us.”

Next day I drive 170 miles west, under a louring sky, to Appledore in Devon. Sitting on the Torridge estuary, with steep little streets running down to the harbour, this is the charming seaside town that Havant is not. Dinghies compete with cars for parking spaces; on the promenade, crowds of excited children take part in a crabbing competition. The festival’s main venues are the Victorian church and its adjoining hall, hung with bunting in the form of Penguin Classics covers. Here too community looms large: the festival’s origins lie in a campaign to save Appledore’s library.

Three local ladies are having tea in the village hall. “I love this festival because it’s so homely,” Pat Glover says. “It’s a chance to discover that the authors you put on a pedestal are real people. A friend shared a bus shelter with Jeremy Vine and his family, eating fish and chips. It’s that level of familiarity.”

“We normally have to travel for a day to hear speakers like this,” says her friend Penny Jackson, “so it’s wonderful to have something so close to home.”

Pat Milner, the festival’s co-chair, emphasises education. “This is an area with a lot of small, far-flung primary schools, who couldn’t get an author to visit on their own. The festival brings them together and gives them access to writers like Malorie Blackman.”

Tonight’s main draw is Richard Madeley, the television presenter who has influenced countless readers with Richard and Judy’s Book Club and is now marketing himself as a novelist. I find him sitting in a yurt.

“Books are personal,” he tells me, “but the writers are usually distant. At a festival you can say to them, ‘Why on earth did you make your character do that?’ and the itch is scratched. As an author you get tremendous feedback, so it’s mutually beneficial. The only worry for festivals is that the audience is ageing.”

British festivals do seem to attract a lot of over-60s. Children may be well catered for, but unencumbered young adults are in short supply. “I’ve come to accept that younger people don’t want to be structured about their free time in the way that older people are,” says Kay Dunbar, “but the ones who come have so enjoyed it that I don’t feel pessimistic.”

Peter Florence, founder of the Hay Festival, surprises me by claiming that 40% of its audience are under 30, while some of its overseas offshoots go even higher. “All our festivals are free to students, which really helps with the energy; and the more intense the political context, the younger the audience. In Bangladesh it’s 50% students, and in Mexico it’s 75%.”

“Our average age is 25,” says William Dalrymple, co-founder of the Jaipur Festival in India. “We’re packed out with earnest kids asking searching questions. Most British festivals are like stationary Saga tours, but there’s nothing wrong with that.” Indeed, it may be just the right business model.

The old guard 
Cheltenham, established in 1949

The final leg takes me to Cheltenham. Founded in 1949, it claims to be the world’s oldest lit fest, as well as one of the largest, with a dozen marquees sprawling across two Georgian squares. The main tent holds 1,500 people, while the town hall – where four Times journalists discuss the coming general election – could pass for an opera house, with its marble columns and balustraded balconies. The line-up is an A-Z of writers, from Margaret Atwood to Benjamin Zephaniah.

In the hospitality tent, which could swallow the Havant and Appledore festivals combined, I ask the head of programming, Nicola Tuxworth, how a journalistic debate qualifies as literature. “People who love books also love this other stuff,” she says. “We’re broadening the definition of literature to include great writing – which could be sports writing – and ideas.” And how does she account for the rise of the festivals? “In a digital world, everyone likes to see people in the flesh. It’s the only rational explanation.”

This theory comes up again and again. “It’s the reason younger people spend so much time at music festivals,” says Dalrymple. “There’s a great interest, now that people live virtually, in the tangible. It applies from stand-up comedy to Intelligence Squared.”

The broadcaster Paul Blezard, who has chaired 5,000 literary talks, argues that festivals connect audiences to the creative process. “The rise of book clubs shows not only that there is an appetite for literature, but that people want to talk about it. Everyone has a different interpretation of a book, but at a literary festival you can hear the author’s own words in the author’s own voice – in the cadences and metre in which they write. There’s something magical about that.”

Nick Barley is not so sure. “What makes festivals work is that they’re festivals of ideas – they’re very rarely about the writing process. People tell me they love Edinburgh because it makes them feel more intelligent. The talks are like short, sharp educational courses, a counterweight to dumbing down.”

Alongside the rise of digital culture, he argues, “we’ve experienced the rapid demise of trust in the state, and the privatisation of lots of institutions. We’re seeing a reaction to that Thatcherite atomisation – an urge to come together and share ideas.”

Peter Florence agrees: “Festivals work best where the conversations need to happen. The more the year-round arts venues are undermined by funding cuts, the more we depend on seasonal gatherings.”

The young pretender 
Jaipur, where events are free

The great strength of the British model is its ability to lure big names to small towns. Most of the leading festivals overseas are in big cities – the New Yorker Festival, the Lahore Literary Festival, the Jahazi Literary and Jazz Festival in Zanzibar, the Internationales Literaturfestival in Berlin. William Dalrymple calls the chance to escape city life “the magic element”. Kay Dunbar echoes him: “I tend to choose beautiful rural environments, because if people go to a festival they want it to be uplifting in every way.”

If there is a worm in the bud, it is a sense, among some writers, of being exploited. Appearance fees are rare, and at best modest; often the reward is “wonderful hospitality”. Sometimes it’s neither, as the critic Rupert Christiansen found when he spoke at Althorp. “I wasn’t offered a fee, and my publisher paid for my train fare. Afterwards I was standing outside the beautifully laid dining room when lunch was announced, and I was about to go in when Charles Spencer said, ‘Actually, you’re in the servants’ hall.’ ”

It’s true that most festivals are charities, relying on volunteers; but as the crime writer Val McDermid told the Society of Authors’ magazine recently, writers “get very angry when all the professionals…get paid except the people who do the performance.”

Organisers say they’d like to pay higher fees, but it would mean fewer festivals. There are some signs of progress: Hay, long criticised for fobbing authors off with bottles of wine (reputed to appear every year because nobody could be bothered to lug them home), now offers a share of profits from internet streaming. But the festivals worry that the big names may decide they can do without them. “If you’re Michael Palin or Stephen Fry,” Tom Ryan says, “you don’t need to turn up for little or no money at a 300-seater, when you can book your own hall without risk.”

As festivals tackle controversial topics, they run risks – the murder of the humanist writer Avijit Roy at the Amar Ekushey Book Fair in Dhaka being gruesome proof. And festivals such as Sri Lanka’s Galle and Kashmir’s Harud have faced boycotts by writers saying they give a false impression of cultural freedom.

“This is a police state,” one expatriate claims in Dubai. “There are cameras everywhere, and anything that criticises the regime is taboo.”

“Nobody denies the problems,” says Rosie Goldsmith, a regular Emirates Airline Festival interviewer, “but if this didn’t exist, there’d be no hope. The festival is doing what it can. There are lots of panel discussions on big topics, and there’s nothing I can’t ask.”

Dubai has a talk on the Sykes-Picot Agreement, by three outspoken experts: Scott Anderson, Eugene Rogan and Charles Glass. Headsets provide instant translation, part of Isobel Abulhoul’s vision of “an international meeting of minds, in which language would be no barrier”. Mixing historical sweep with seismic events unfolding on the doorstep, it’s thrilling stuff.

“Sykes-Picot was a conspiracy,” declares Glass. “The West wants to keep this region in its pocket, and I don’t know what you can do about it, because it’s so easy to buy off the best people.”

Anderson: “How do you separate conspiracy from incompetence? History says it’s usually the latter.”

Two other memories stand out from my lit-fest odyssey. One is of the performance trail at Havant – a gallant little festival struggling to bring literature to people who don’t even know they want it.

The other is of an elderly couple leaving a Cheltenham marquee with the autumn leaves blowing around them, weighed down with books.

He: “Have you had enough, dear?”

She: “Yes, I think so. Let’s go home and read.”

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