Framing the conversations

From Ilkley to Manchester, Richard Smirke previews the fabulous literary festivals now getting underway

In what has become a sadly familiar annual trend, many regional arts have felt the squeeze in 2013 from government and local authority funding cuts. But despite the tough economic climate, the abundance of literature festivals in the north this autumn remains a strong cause for celebration and demonstrates the vigour of the region’s creative and cultural industry.

One calendar highlight that should need no introduction to seasoned book lovers is Ilkley Literature Festival, which this year commemorates its 40th anniversary. As befits one of the largest and most cherished UK literature gatherings, a reliably heavyweight bill of internationally-recognised writers, journalists, academics and broadcasters has been assembled to mark the occasion, including a new commission from the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, who will premiere the work in a joint performance with Edinburgh-based composer and actor John Sampson.

“This is obviously a very historic year for us.”

“This is obviously a very historic year for us and one of the things that I wanted to do was to reflect some of the important themes that have been running through this festival since 1973,” festival director Rachel Feldberg tells The Big Issue in the North.

She cites the Women and Literature strand, which includes the welcome return of Germaine Greer, as a key component of this year’s “culturally diverse” programme, which also boasts dedicated showcases to South Asian poetry and an examination of contemporary Greek fiction starring novelist Ioanna Karystiani and translator David Connolly. Other anniversary landmarks to look out for include Making Waves, a free exhibition of rare letters, photos and artefacts culled from the festival archives, and founding director Michael Dawson looking back on how it all began.

Political activist George Monbiot outlines his radical vision

For anyone interested in modern British politics the opportunity to hear Dame Shirley Williams talk about her distinguished 40-year career is not to be missed. She heads an impressive list of politically-themed talks and debate that spans the reign of Disraeli – as discussed by one-time Tory cabinet minister Douglas Hurd and David Cameron’s former speech-writer Edward Young – right up to today’s fractious coalition government, which is the focus of Matthew d’Ancona’s new book In It Together. Elsewhere, political activist George Monbiot outlines his radical vision of a new approach to environmentalism, as proposed in his latest work Feral.

Literary fiction is represented by Costa Award-winning Northern Irish author Maggie O’Farrell, who will be talking about her 1976-set novel, Instructions for a Heat Wave, while Booker Prize-nominated author and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg will be presenting his latest book, Grace and Mary, about a 92-year-old mother struggling with dementia.

Other highlights of this year’s 17-day programme, which encompasses more than 220 events over 20 venues, include Inspector Morse creator Colin Dexter examining what makes a successful crime novel, Jeremy Dyson’s spine-tingling true life ghost stories and an appearance by legendary songwriter Graham Nash, who will be sharing anecdotes from his candid biography Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life.

Reflections on a lifetime in music, albeit of a less salacious nature, are also on the menu at Morley Literature Festival, just a short drive away, where veteran BBC broadcaster and world music enthusiast Andy Kershaw is one of the key speakers.

Joining him are top-selling historian Alison Weir and former BBC chief news correspondent and current Radio 4 presenter Kate Adie, whose latest book, Fighting on the Home Front, examines how millions of women emerged from the shadows during the First World War.

Kate Adie's latest book is about women in the First World War
Kate Adie’s latest book is about women in the First World War

The offer of free smoothies and a bike health check, meanwhile, awaits cyclists who make their way to Morley Town Hall for what should be a fascinating discussion by Team Sky’s Rod Ellingworth and cycling journalist Ned Boulting on what made Team GB cycling world champions. Festival patron and celebrated raconteur Gervase Phinn, dubbed the “James Herriot of school inspectors”, brings the event to a suitably jovial close.

Across the Pennines, Manchester Literature Festival presents an equally impressive roster of famous names and specially commissioned work, such as the fourth Manchester Sermon, which is this year delivered by Lionel Shriver, and Lancashire-born poet Lemn Sissay’s response to the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.

“I find the commissions the most exciting activities partly because they are a bit risky and you never quite know what’s going to come out of them,” says festival director Cathy Bolton, who oversees a programme of 80 events spread over 30 venues, theatres, galleries, bars and museums.

Alongside original work from established writers, the festival maintains a strong commitment to promoting new and emerging authors and poets through its World Literature strand and Rising Stars programme of talks, workshops and competitions. The Big Issue in the North New Writing Award and Commonword Superheroes of Slam Final are just two of the many opportunities open to the public.

It is, however, the presence of household names that generally dictates the calibre of any literary shindig and in Helen Fielding and Roddy Doyle – promoting new Bridget Jones and Jimmy Rabbitte (The Commitments) novels, respectively – Manchester boasts two of the best known.

Special mention must also go to: legendary American crime writer Walter Mosley, who will be discussing his new Easy Rawlins crime thriller Little Green; Ali Smith reading from her fictionalised essay collection Artful; and multi-award winning novelist and professor of creative writing at Manchester University Jeanette Winterson in conversation with Audrey Niffenegger, the best-selling author of The Time Traveller’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry.

If none of those pique your fancy then why not head over to Sheffield’s Off The Shelf Festival of Words, which is currently in full swing and features provocative US novelist Chuck Palahniuk, music critics Simon Goddard, Paul Morley and Bob Stanley, Chilean novelist Carmen Rodríguez, TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, historian Lucy Worsley, Pakistan-born, Manchester-raised writer Qaisra Shraz and much-loved British poets Simon Armitage and Pam Ayres among its many distinguished guests.

A similarly lofty roll call of figures is booked to appear at Chester Literature Festival. Chief among the spoils are Derek Jacobi expounding on his recently-published autobiography As Luck Would Have It, Clive James discussing Dante’s The Divine Comedy, the ever-popular Fay Weldon and stand-up comic Tim Vine talking about his forthcoming Bumper Book of Silliness.

What’s on

4-13 Oct, Morley Literature Festival

4-20 Oct, Ilkley Literature Festival

4-20 Oct, Knutsford Literature Festival

5-12 Oct, Wirral Bookfest

7-20 Oct, Manchester Literature Festival

10-13 Oct, Beverley Literature Festival

12 Oct-2 Nov, Off the Shelf, Sheffield

13-27 Oct, Chester Literature Festival

16-20 Oct, Litfest, Lancaster

25-27 Oct, Rochdale Literature & Ideas Festival

Short people

The winner of The Big Issue in the North’s first New Writers Award will be announced at a special event as part of Manchester Literature Festival.

The Big Issue in the North is media partner to the festival.

A shortlist of 10, whittled down from 111 short story entries, has already been released. They will be published in an anthology produced by Valley Press, available to buy at the event. The winner will also receive a prize of £1,000.

The competition raised funds for The Big Issue in the North Trust, the charity arm of the magazine.

The award received sponsorship from Creative Industries Trafford and Waterside Arts Centre and has been run in conjunction with workshops across the North West, promoting the breaking down of barriers through creative projects with vendors.

Tickets from

Charlie says

In the summer of 2011, Charlie Caroll lost his teaching job. With no money but suddenly all the time in the world, he decided to travel from Cornwall to London on foot, sleeping rough.

The journey was filled with memorable encounters – from Stan who once saved a boy from being raped but whose homelessness stemmed from a paralysing addiction, to Ian, who lived in a tent on Parliament Square.

Caroll’s resulting book, No Fixed Abode, sheds light on a side of the UK few ever see from within and he will be appearing at an event at Off The Shelf, the Sheffield literary festival, organised in conjunction with The Big Issue in the North.

Caroll will talk about his book at the event, followed by a Q&A chaired by a member of staff from The Big Issue in the North, who will also talk about our work with homeless people.

Domino Hall, Sheffield Cathedral, 7pm, 28 October (

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