FESTIVALS I HAVE KNOWN AND LOVED
I felt enormously privileged to serve as host of The Annual Literature and Ideas Festival in my home town of Rochdale during the first four years of the festival before I ´retired´ over here to Lanzarote. The strong line ups we enjoyed each year cemented the reputation of a literary festival that today undoubtedly has established its unique selling point amongst the plethora of such events on the UK´s arts and culture calendar.
Leading poets like former laureate Dame Carol Ann Duffy, and current holder of that post, Simon Armitage, as well as Ian and Andrew McMillan, Lemn Sissay and Tony Walsh have all appeared at Rochdale Literature And Ideas Festival. Star names of film and theatre too, such as Simon Callow and Willy Russell have also spoken at the festival that is held in October each year. Even comedians have given a turn, with people like Mark Steel, Helen Lederer, Jenny Éclair and Ed Byrne delivering hilarious and often curiously thought provoking routines. There have been authors, too, like Joanne Harris, of Chocolat renown, Bonnie Greer, and crime writer Mark Billingham who have given readings or talks in previous years and even politicians such as Alistair Campbell and Gyles Brandreth have turned out at the festival that is now helping Rochdale´s re-branding.
The work itself was so much fun for me. Conducting live exclusive interviews in front of five or six hundred people with the likes of Corrie stars Jane Danson, Kevin Kennedy and BBC radio presenters like Liz Kershaw and her brother, freelance journalist and broadcaster Andy, was a real adrenalin kick. Having the opportunity to join in a live debate with rapper and once-in-a-while Question Time guest Akele was really exciting and taking part in and reporting on the all across the arts fringe festival was heady stuff.
Robin Parker, a former mayor of Rochdale, author of The Edenfield Scrolls, and an artist who was a constant force for good on the local art scene would argue that any fringe worthy of that name has to be organic rather than organised.
However, the aata fringe came about because in the inaugural year of the Literature And Ideas Festival, Rochdale Borough Libraries wisely acknowledged the great number of diverse artists and disciplines in the town who enjoyed local revenue funding. These artists in turn often used their art as an agent for change to help improve certain social conditions by, for example, creating greater awareness of tolerance of various cultural attitudes. Recognising what such artists might bring to the festival the ´authorities´ consulted with us, and several of us joined a festival steering committee. That committee then invited several revenue-funded arts organisations and local freelance artists to submit plans for their own contribution to the first event and gave us licence to create a Sunday fringe, which we held in the Vibe Radio Station as a somewhat faint replica of an American speakeasy. We had poetry readings, live one to one interviews, story-telling, and stand-up comedy all being delivered by Rochdale artists like Robin, and Eileen Earnshaw and Catherine Coward, and Seamus Kelly and Sid Calderbank and Andrew Moorhouse and Louis Brierley, all hosted by my aata partner Steve Cooke.
The great thing about the Borough inviting us to create our own events, and helping us apply for funding if needed, is that many local arts organisations and freelance artists took the opportunity to work together on projects for the first time. The Edwin Waugh Society (a commemorative of a famous dialect poet of the region) gave a performance and Can´t Dance Can and Skylight Circus delivered wonderful collaborative projects and in my own field I recruited many local poets and writers to collate The Choir Of The Unspoken Voice to set our own material against lines of Shakespeare or the lyrics of Summertime and Its Raining Men.
I not only enjoyed the Literature And Ideas Festival, when serving as its host and but also when strolling round the locations, whilst ´off-duty´ and enjoying being simply one of the thousands of attendees who strolled through its comfortably literary ambience.
In the events first year´, Rochdale town centre was in some disarray and it was subsequently realised that if the Festival was to bring inward investment in the future and attract people from beyond our borders, with spending power, then events would need to be more widespread around the Borough with many more venues involved.
The Festival grew from finance provided in a bequest from a local couple, Frank and Annie Maskew, who first met in Rochdale Library and went on to share a happy and life-long marriage. They left funding to the Borough Library Services, with certain caveats about encouraging the townsfolk to engage with philosophy in their reading and debate. In one of the early Festivals Ian McMillan was commissioned to write a poem celebrating the Maskews and in that poem he had a line which I paraphrase here about how they might have ´shared a kiss behind the adult fiction.´
It was a great line, and one I wish I had thought of a couple of years previously when commissioned to write a piece celebrating the opening of the award winning new build library at Number One Riverside, in the centre of the town. Still, I was proud when my work. On This Day The River Sings, was placed on permanent display in the section of the library that was identified as The Maskew Philosophy Collection. It was still there when I ´emigrated´ on November 9th in 2015, though much of that ground floor of the new library was then washed away in the floods of Boxing Day 2015 when the River Roch burst its banks.
It is the Maskew bequest, and its rigours, though, that perhaps lend Rochdale Literature And Ideas Festival its unique selling point.
The Lit And Ideas, as it is colloquially known, is a little bit more than your average literature festival. The ideas part is the unique selling point, and, rightly so in a town in which a seed of an idea was sewn into a crop that grew around the world and is still known today as The Co-operative Movement.
The inaugural Lit And ideas event was cleverly directed by a Borough Libraries staff member, Suzy Heslan, despite the fact that in 2012 the event was then crammed into a weekend whereas this year´s will last for a whole week. Looking back, I recall how many times Suzy and I seemed to lock horns over various issues, but she was rightly fiercely protective of Frank and Annie Maskew´s legacy and determined that its terms and conditions would be adhered to. Thus, she ensured that philosophy and ideas shared the spotlight of the festival with the arts. Suzy planned and commissioned events like a mediated debate, before a live audience, about whether or not poetry is enhanced by accompanying music, and perhaps to get me out of her hair, she put me on the debating panel.
Other panellists were Akela and fellow poet Mike Garry and a couple of academics from Manchester University. The audience threw all sorts of questions at us and individuals came up with powerful arguments for whatever opinion they might hold, and it became pretty dynamic, pretty quickly. The following year the debate was just as philosophical, even if the chair ´simply´ asked the audience why Batman didn´t just kill The Joker. That argument raged long into the night, as I recall.
By the time Punam Ramchun took over the reins as Festival Director, literature, drama, music, comedy, dance, current affairs, creative writing and spoken word were all in the melting pot. Her ability to attract laureate poets and professors, stage performers and stand-up comics and circus acts and scientists ensured that the Festival would always be recognised as the Literature And IDEAS festival that the Maskews seemed to have envisaged. I vividly remember that the last time I saw Punam was at the Lit And Ideas Festival I went back home to the UK to attend, a year after coming her to Lanzarote. I sat and watched Ian McMillan and his son Andrew give incredibly powerful and moving readings in an atmospheric church on the Sunday evening that closed the event, and sought out Punam afterwards to congratulate her on yet another very successful Festival. To my continuing chagrin, emotion got the better of me and I tearfully told her how wonderful she was and how proud she should be. If you´re reading this Punam, I’m sorry about the embarrassing histrionics kiddo, but I do wish you every success in everything you undertake in the future.
Punam would, I know, be the first to say how much support she had from RMBC officers and library staff, like Philip Cooke and Joanne Eaves and Ray Stearn and I remember clearly how passionate she and they were about delivering excellence to the town through this festival. The borough´s communications team, with a great staff of writers, and guided by Mark Roberts, created a real buzz about the event each year,
After several successful years as Festival Director and as a popular work colleague with Rochdale artists and Council staff alike, Punam has moved on to even greater challenges and a new director is in post for this year´s event. The new incumbent certainly seems to have created a festival as diverse, challenging and entertaining as any of the past events and that could cement the L & I event´s place amongst the country´s best assembled festivals.
In our next post here on Sidetracks And Detours on Friday 10th October, we will bring you event details and profiles of all the star names taking part Rochdale Literature And Ideas Festival 2019, running from 14th to 21st October.