As I live and work in Salisbury it seemed only fitting that I should run some regular features on the blog to help support and promote this year's Salisbury Literary Festival which is taking place next month. Over the next 6 weeks I'll be running weekly features on Mondays with guest posts, Q&A's with some of the authors taking part as well as a couple of giveaways for a pair of tickets.
First up it's my my absolute pleasure to welcome festival director Tom Bromley to the blog to talk about how the Salisbury Literary Festival came about, an insight to the challenges faced with organising this year's festival and an introduction to a few of the events.
|Paul Clifton Photography|
The discussion started over why Salisbury had never had a literary festival. There are lots of place near Salisbury that do – Marlborough, Winchester, Bath, even Mere, yet Salisbury was oddly absent, despite having a literary heritage that was second to none, from William Golding to Terry Pratchett, Dorothy L Sayers to Thomas Hardy. That talk became a reality and the literary festival was born.
The inaugural literary festival took place in October 2017. We tried to create a literary festival that wasn’t too ‘literary’ if that doesn’t sound too counter-intuitive, but one that felt friendly and accessible, with writers from across the genres. We wanted to focus primarily on fiction and to avoid the circuit of celebrities selling their memoirs. We wanted, too, to have a strong local content – not just celebrating the writers of Salisbury past, but those of Salisbury’s present and, through creative writing workshops, those of the future too.
There were many highlights of that first year, with a string of fantastic authors including Joanna Cannon, Sarah Winman and Gail Honeyman, but one of the highlights was undoubtedly Philippa Gregory, who drew a crowd of just under 500 in Salisbury Cathedral. We were privileged, too, to have William Golding’s daughter, Judy, talk about her father and Rob Wilkins, Terry Pratchett’s manager, speaking about his long-time friend. We were also lucky in terms of the weather and also the support of those who helped with the festival – the event is one staffed and organised entirely by volunteers, and their passion and enthusiasm helped make the festival the success it was.
Putting together the 2018 Salisbury Literary Festival has been dominated by events that none of us expected to consider – the Novichok poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal back in March. Suddenly, Salisbury was headline news around the globe, with the world’s media descending as the story unfolded. Putting together a festival in those circumstances creates a number of questions – how do you respond to such events? It’s something that is right for the festival to address, but equally you want it to feel respectfully done. Getting the balance isn’t easy, especially when there was the ongoing uncertainty as we put the programme together whether the Skripals would survive or not.
Another challenge, undoubtedly, has been the subsequent drop in numbers of people visiting Salisbury. The continuing ‘Salisbury in Lockdown’ headlines and footage of soldiers in hazmat suits is not great for attracting visitors. As those of us living in the city know, Salisbury is in good shape and perfectly safe (and you even get free parking after midday and at weekends now), but it is harder work persuading people to come and visit in the face of negative headlines.
The Skripal Affair has affected the festival in smaller ways, too: last year, we ran a promotion with the Book Fairies, where we hid books by festival authors around town for people to find. How can you run such a promotion when the official police advice remains, if you didn’t drop it, don’t pick it up? Then there was our short story competition, where we tried to find as neutral a title as possible: we’d settled on ‘Down by the River’, only for TV footage to show police combing the river down by the park for clues.
But there are positives, too. We received money from the official recovery fund, set up to bring visitors back to Salisbury. That has allowed to have three headliners for this year (Val McDermid, Matt Haig and Jonathan Coe) and have a larger programme than for 2018. Among those are two of the country’s leading spy writers in the form of Charles Cumming and Mick Herron – a novelist’s take on all the year’s events will be fascinating to hear, and we think a fitting response.
We’re really excited about this year’s line-up. In a Bruce Forsyth way, they’re all my favourites but if I had to pick out three events to look out for, they’d be the following. Firstly, look out for Kate Summerscale with Richard Beard, whose award-winning memoir The Day That Went Missing is astonishingly powerful. Secondly, there’s Claire Fuller, whose novel Bitter Orange is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and is appearing with the brilliant debut Irish novelist, Caoilinn Hughes. Thirdly, we’ve teamed up with local gallery/café Fisherton Mill and Vanguard Readings for an event of fiction and food. That’s going to be tasty twice over – my only concern is that I’ll be too busy to be able to sit down and eat!
Salisbury Literary Festival is on from 17-22 October. For details and tickets visit www.salisburyliteraryfestival.co.uk I've already bought tickets to 4 events and will be purchasing tickets for a couple more events on payday.
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