Durham Book Festival 2011: An Insider’s Perspective, Part 2

Halfway into the 2011 Durham Book Festival seems a good time to reflect on how things are going. The two weeks since my last blog post have been rather hectic for the Book Festival team, who have had to ensure the smooth realization of events that have been months in planning. For my own part, this has involved a mixture of co-ordinating volunteers (of which there are around 60, many drawn from the University student body) and preparing detailed schedules for each day (many of which feature a busy and overlapping timetable, with multiple authors and multiple venues). This whirlwind tour of event management has been quite tiring and a little bewildering for someone unfamiliar with its frantic pace and pressure; though in practice, getting events running in situ has been enjoyable. Events that have for weeks been little more than paperwork and emails have by and large come to fruition without a hitch (some little hitches of course keeping things lively and staff on their toes).

Inclement weather did little to spoil a well-attended and spirited opening night of events on Monday; in fact, the darkness, howling wind, and teeming rain lent a dramatic atmosphere to proceedings as Festival Laureate Don Paterson read a generous selection of his poems to a riveted audience in the Monk’s Dormitory at Durham Cathedral. Mere mintues after Don answered his audience’s last question and signed his last book (many of them the well-thumbed possessions of loyal fans), Hilary Spurling was taking to the stage to take us back to the early 20th century China known to the American Nobel Prize-winning author, Pearl Buck. Hilary’s own fascination with Chinese culture and society was evident throughout, and allowed for interesting comparisons between the China(s) known to Pearl Buck, to her Western contemporaries, and to us today (I don’t think I’ll be the only one present following her suggestions for further reading). Both Don and Hilary managed to make the cavernous (and it must be said, quite chilly) Monk’s Dormitory seem very intimate, treating their audiences to in-depth question and answer sessions, littered with anecdotes.

After a Festival-free Tuesday – taking in Sander Gilman’s excellent talk on the histories of posture – I was back to Book Festival office work on Wednesday, tying up loose ends and chasing up volunteers for the Festival’s packed weekend schedule. Wednesday evening however allowed me my first opportunity to attend the Festival as a punter, as I was one of the small crowd packed into the chapel at St Chad’s College to hear poets Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley read and discuss their joint literary venture, Edgelands. Freed from selling books and tickets, I could enjoy undisturbed the insights into their work the authors were able to provide. It was quite surprising, and inspring, to hear just how well the two poets had been able to collaborate, exchanging passages by email and building up their text progressively in such a way that for both of them, the sense of their ‘own work’ had dissolved into a single, shared voice. Edgelands, with its subject matter of neglected and ignored spaces and their place in our consciousness, seemed to strike a chord with many in the audience, who were keen to offer their own experiences and thoughts on the project, to which the authors responded with enthusiasm.

Sidestepping the noteworthy events of this evening (Thursday) whilst my brain is still whirring, and looking ahead: Friday is set a busy day at the Book Festival, with twelve events taking in everything from folk singers and local novelists, to the war in Afghanistan and former Foreign Secretary David Miliband in conversation.

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