It used to feel like book festivals were just something that happened down in Wales. You read about them in the weekend supplements, heard about them on Radio 4, but they may as well have been happening in a different world. No more. They’re now thriving in the North East and new ones are springing up all over the region.
Susie Troup is one of the pioneers of this boom. She launched Hexham Book Festival 10 years ago (this year it’s running from April 20 to May 4) and one of the first big hurdles she faced was simply getting authors up to the North East.
‘It was hard,’ she says. ‘It was hard. I mean, it was hard.’
She was busy working as a freelancer back then, doing theatre work mainly, including at Hexham’s Queen’s Hall, but she also loved reading, so she started a book group and with her fellow readers travelled to the Wigtown Book Festival in Dumfries and Galloway.
‘Which is,’ she laughs, ‘The back of beyond. I mean, it takes forever to get there. It’s a long, long way from anywhere. And I thought, “You know, Hexham is such a fantastic location, why don’t we have a book festival there? It’s got the Queen’s Hall, it’s well connected, it’s a beautiful place.”’
She applied to the Arts Council for funding, carried out some market research, and in 2006 ran a pilot festival. Luckily there was immediate support from Hexham’s Queen’s Hall, which became the primary venue (there are lots of venues now, including the abbey, galleries and cafés). That first festival attracted an audience of 500 in the first weekend; now 5,000 people come each year and about 50 authors appear over two weeks.
Despite its success, Susie says it’s still very hard keeping the festival going and ensuring ends meet. She spends a lot of her time applying for funding, and if you look through the archive of the Hexham Courant newspaper you’ll find various stories over the years suggesting the festival’s future ‘hangs in the balance’ due to a lack of cash.
‘Yeah, it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster,’ explains Susie, ‘We were really fortunate that the Northern Rock Foundation supported us in the early days for three years. That was a real turning point I think, because if somebody invests in you for three years that really helps you to grow.’
After the Foundation pulled out, the Gillian Dickinson Trust stepped in for a further three years and now Susie’s built up sponsorship (though they’re always looking for more) as well as that bigger box office income. Combine that with being very lean with regards to costs (she runs it with just one colleague, Gil Pugh) and they manage to get by, though persuading authors to make the trip to Hexham is still tricky.
‘The majority of authors are based in London or the South,’ says Susie. ‘So it is hard. They’ve got to either have an affinity with the area, know the area, be on their way somewhere, or want to come here. It is a battle. We spend from early September until January persuading authors to come. That’s what we do for five months.’
This year they’ve persuaded Simon Armitage, Mona Siddiqui, David Starkey, Alexander McCall Smith, Wendy Cope, Paula Hawkins, John Lanchester, Andy Kershaw, Jonathan Powell, Chris Mullin and Terry Waite. Not bad. As well as that, BBC Newcastle have signed up as a media partner, further raising the festival’s profile.
‘One of the funny things we always said when we were starting up,’ Susie tells us, ‘Was that we’ll end up as Hexham-on-Tyne – Haye-on-Wye, Hexham-on-Tyne. And just yesterday I saw a story online about the best book festivals, and it says in the header, “From Hexham to Hay”. Oh my God, I was so excited. Ten years ago I would not have believed it.’
No doubt Hexham’s success is a source of encouragement for other book festivals around the region, of which there are a rapidly increasing number: Berwick launched last year, as did Crossing the Tees in Middlesbrough and Stockton, there’s Books on Tyne, Northern Children’s Book Festival, Newcastle Noir, and the biggest in the North East, the Durham Book Festival.
For the past three years the Durham Book Festival, which started in 1990, has been run by regional arts organisation New Writing North, and they’re doing well: over 10,000 tickets were sold last year (nearly double the number sold in 2011); over a third of events sold out last year; media coverage reached over 25 million people (it was covered by BBC Radio 2, 6Music, The Times, The Guardian, The Mail on Sunday and The Independent); and 80 percent of those attending came to Durham especially for the festival. So yes it’s a big deal, but it’s still not easy.
Rebecca Wilkie has the task of managing the festival. Originally from Liverpool, she previously worked for a literary agency in London, then at a reading charity, before moving north after her husband took a job teaching history at Durham University. That was in 2012, which is when she joined New Writing North. Just like Susie at Hexham, she arranges authors, venues, hotels, travel, tickets and everything else, with the help of her colleagues.
‘It’s a big project,’ she says, ‘So of course it’s just making sure all the pieces of the jigsaw fit together and that we’re on top of everything and there aren’t clashes in timings, which means lots and lots of detailed spreadsheets.’
She always tries to ‘build in an element of risk’ with the programme, knowing that not everything is going exactly to plan, though nothing so far has gone too wrong, other than last-minute illnesses. She says the biggest disaster was when one big name author didn’t show up. They tried phoning. They emailed. They texted. They went to the station to see if the author was lost. Nothing.
‘I will not name the author to protect his reputation,’ Rebecca laughs, ‘But that was very, very stressful. Luckily there were other authors taking part in the event.’
Generally, the story of the Durham Book Festival is nothing but good news. Authors like doing the event, which is very important for attracting names. The Gordon Burn Prize, one of the highlights of the festival, is gaining national attention. Work commissioned for the festival is being performed across the region. And of course readers love it, grabbing the opportunity to hear their favourite authors speak, ask a question or two, and get their book signed.
‘Last year our fastest selling event was Jung Chang, the author of Wild Swans,’ says Rebecca. ‘About 500 people came to that. It was one of the biggest book signing queues I’ve ever seen. People were so emotional and overwhelmed. They were crying. We’ve never seen anything like it.’
Yes, people in the North East were crying at a book festival event. So next time you speak to someone from outside the region and they do that thing of dismissing our cities and towns as mere drinking dens, remember to retort: don’t judge a book by its cover, on the contrary, the North East is a den of literature.
North East Book Festivals
Hexham Book Festival runs from April 20 to May 4. For full programme details and to book tickets go to www.hexhambookfestival.co.uk
Newcastle Noir is a crime-writing festival that takes place each May. Follow @NewcastleNoir for details
Crossing the Tees ran in June last year. Keep an eye on www.visitmiddlesbrough.com
Durham Book Festival usually runs in October. Further details will be announced on www.durhambookfestival.com closer to the event
Berwick Literary Festival ran in October last year. See www.berwickliteraryfestival.com for updates on future events