About three years ago at an AGM at the Nottingham Writers’ Studio we asked members what things they would like to see happen at the studio and within the wider community. Quite a few members, such as John Lucas and Michael Eaton, mentioned their desire to see a city-wide literature festival. To our astonishment, we realised there hadn’t been one for over thirty years.
Plans were quickly drawn up and in 2013 we put on the inaugural Festival of Words in collaboration with Nottingham City Council and Writing East Midlands and the two universities. The festival had many flaws in that we had over programmed, events competed with each other, and we were simply a little too ambitious. But this was hardly surprising given how long we had had all waited. There was no funding, either, which meant we ran completely on goodwill and the incredible effort of many volunteers.
2014 was a completely different beast. We went for a more devolved approach whereby both universities planned and coordinated specific events that saw the likes of Ali Smith and Will Self on the streets of Nottingham. We received a grant from Arts Council England (up to 15k) and at the very last minute additional funding came through to put on an international series of talks from writers from afar afield as Hungary, China, and Afghanistan.
It was an incredible week (with additional fringe events that are still going on, such as Judith Allnatt talking about her WWI novel The Moon Field) and was generally very well attended, which the first festival was not. In between the meetings and emails there was also time to be creative. For the first Festival I did a literary walk with Michael Eaton and for this one ran a game of Masterbwainz, whereby we brought back dead writers from Nottingham’s past to raise awareness of local literary history.
There were teething problems with the festival which were inevitable given the small turnaround in which we had to structure the programme and market events, but overall I think it was fantastic and something I feel very proud to have been involved with. There are still areas in which we need to improve; in particular defining roles and how we communicate internally and externally. Agreeing on the identity of the festival and its function is important too, but we’re nearly there in that we are a Festival of Words rather than a Literature Festival. And the website desperately needs tarting up so it has a bit of magic. These things are possible with time, the thing all of us are chasing.
I stepped down as a director of the Festival on Wednesday because I feel as if my work is done. Although stepping down doesn’t mean I’m free. There are still ways in which I will be involved but not at the forefront or in an official capacity. More of a gobby backseat driver.
The Festival is in great shape and with a bit of preening here and there will become a handsome devil. NWS is already represented by Anne McDonald so there is no need for two of us to be involved. At NWS I have slowly tried to devolve roles for the Board and Anne’s role has been working on the Festival, so it makes complete sense for her to carry on in this capacity. And she has done an incredible job and deserves full credit, alongside Jacqueline Gabbitas, Sarah Dale, Pippa Hennessy and many many others. Nottingham, you don’t know how lucky you are.
There are quite a few reasons for stepping down, which I expressed with a few people prior to the festival. Firstly, I am worried that the local literary scene is getting too incestuous. I have too many ‘hats’ on and this could create the impression the literature scene is closed off. It’s not. You get sucked into a lot of things through being the Chair of NWS. Secondly, wearing too many hats can create a conflict of interest which can lead to miscommunication. Thirdly, the devil is in the detail. It is simply not possible to give things your full attention when there is so much else going on. My priority is now with the UNESCO City of Literature bid – which is something that, in many ways, has been born out of the festival as it helped to bring organisations closer together. And lastly, I’m sick to death of emails and meetings and so need to trim these away a bit to concentrate on my two very needy children who I love dearly. They are Dawn of the Unread and Being Arthur (The Sillitoe Trail: II).