This year’s Swindon Festival of Literature surpassed all expectations, writes festival director Matt Holland.
Not only did it not rain at the Dawn Chorus, but the sun shone, as it did, figuratively-speaking, throughout the rest of the festival fortnight.
Between the 4 and 16 May, more than 5,000 people took part in over 50 events in and around Swindon, a quarter of which were sold out.
Most events took place indoors, at the Arts Centre, Wyvern Theatre, four libraries, three pubs, and outdoors under the sun and stars at Lower Shaw Farm.
But this year, the festival also went to new venues. The wonderful Great Western Hall at the STEAM Museum was chosen as the perfect venue for the appearance of national natural history treasure Sir David Attenborough. New events also took place at the National Trust’s Heelis headquarters and the Prospect Hospice.
And at the heart of this year’s festival, there was an exciting ongoing exhibition of photographs by Ben Cavanna, which included a selection of author pics from previous years but also had blank frames to be filled with pictures from this year. Every day, festival followers would come in to the Arts Centre keen to discover what picture had filled the day’s blank. And every new picture told a story.
The festival proper began with big bubbles, big poems, and big juggles under the Big Screen as a warm up for the BBC Radio1 Big Weekend, in Swindon; and in the evening, at the Wyvern Theatre, Julian Clary warmed up people’s extreme parts in the way that only he can.
Highlights were many but particularly memorable, at least to this organiser, were a couple of days part way through the festival.
When Irish novelist Josephine Hart, author of Damage, graced the stage at the Arts Centre, she took our breath away. In a serious, eloquent, and highly-informative talk on four books, writing, and life, she established her appearance as one of the festival’s highspots. Here were words charged with meaning that went to the very heart of Literature and its role in life. In the evening, poet Simon Armitage took us further down the same road, with delightful diversions along the way.
Next day, journalist Nick Davies mixed it with the press and media and told how often the facts are not allowed to get in the way of a good story, and why. This was an unwritten code-breaking dog eat dog session, but the people loved it! As they did at a sell-out event for the delightful Colin Dexter in the evening. His use of English, irony, timing, and wit made this man of more than Morse another festival highlight. He was followed by festival virgin Jake Chapman, who was keen to do in fiction and writing what he has done in sculpture and art, make a meaningful disturbance.
The penultimate day brought the ultimate big name to town, Sir David Attenborough, for whom tickets had sold out in one afternoon, graced the specially-constructed stage at STEAM’s Great Western Hall. What a night it was, with not only Swindonians but fans from all over the UK and as far away as Edinburgh cheering, clapping, and camera-flashing as if they were at a rock concert. Meanwhile, across town, also sold out, psychologist Oliver James was explaining why bad health can come from too much wealth.
The curtain was brought down on the final day of the festival at the Town Hall, with poets, jugglers, and dancers. Sold out and full to bursting, this was a fitting finale to a fabulous fortnight.
There’s no question: Swindon’s got culture.
Plans are already being made for the next festival: 3 – 15 May 2010. For further details, to suggest authors, or to go on the mailing list, mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos: Ben Cavanna