Durham Book Festival: the cutting edge of literature

Written by Arts, Exhibitions

If you are going to hold a book festival, Durham is undoubtedly the place to do it. Simply by walking into the festival site at the eleventh-century campus of Durham University, one passes several second-hand bookshops and two branches of Waterstones, all overflowing with bibliophiles.

The atmosphere is convivial; part rock concert and part academic lecture hall, if you could believe it. The list of authors honoured here includes some of the greatest names in the business, such as Roger McGough, David Nicholls, Louis de Bernieres, Colm Tóibín.

At the time of writing, I’ve only had the chance to see the first day of events, with the festival extending for an entire week in early October, but the necessity of a festival in today’s climate has already become perfectly clear. There is a tendency to dismiss events like this as the purview of the elite, or of interest only to older generations. Durham proves this a fallacy; I was surprised by the undercurrent of anger flowing during the panels, and fierce raging at the post-Brexit world. I was able to go to two debates, the first featuring Charles Fernyhough, Louise Doughty and Leila Aboulela’s anthology Others. The second starred Damien Le Bas, Jo Clement and W. John Hewitt’s poetry collection Outlandish. The two events, whether deliberately or not, shared the common theme of those outside of society – in particular, groups who are labelled ‘other’ and discriminated against in thousands of small ways.

Both events took place in the Palace Green Library at Newcastle University, a comfortably cosy and intimate space commandeered from one of the museum galleries. The walls were lined with excavated artefacts from the Roman North East, overlooking the assembled guests, and the speakers perched on a specially-constructed set, with faux wooden trees and branches creating a makeshift forest clearing. There was something curiously appropriate about the set design, like an echo of a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the ancient stones harmonising with the hot-button, modern political issues up for debate.

Image: Simon James via Wikimedia Commons

The first talk concerned society’s nature of exclusion, and the thousands of petty annoyances dealt with by people of colour on a regular basis. Many of these anecdotes had a humorous thread to them, balancing out the bitter truths. The Sudanese author Leila Aboulela shared a story about an Islamic schoolgirl’s first taste of a taboo pork pie on the menu (the verdict? “It tastes just like chicken”). The stories were not always pleasant, however. Louise Doughty, who has a Romani family background, recounted how her father was reluctant to publicise their ancestry, for fear of a brick thrown through the window. Doughty elsewhere revealed her experiences during a trip to the Hodonin Concentration Camp in the Czech Republic, where the Romani people were executed during the war; in a tragi-comic twist, the camp is now a holiday destination, with ping-pong tables visible where people once lay. It was this conflation of humour with horror that made the talks so compelling; the audience themselves frequently broke up the uneasy tension with bursts of, perhaps nervous, laughter.

The theme of dealing with Romani-Gypsy heritage segued neatly into the second talk, in which writer Damien Le Bas joined with our very own poet Jo Clement, who tutors here at Newcastle University in the Creative Writing department. The two were joined by W. John Hewitt, who filled the Outlandish collection with charming illustrations a la Thomas Bewick. The book charted a journey undertaken by following the old routes down St. Cuthbert’s Way, tracing the voyages of weary feet many centuries ago. This way of engaging and communicating with Romani heritage provided a compelling insight into an ethnic minority that is much misunderstood among modern media. The poetry collection was produced by New Writing North, the overarching body which funds the festival.

“By engaging empathetically with other cultures, the ugly knots of bigotry and hatred that currently fill this country are loosened”

The Durham Book Festival and New Writing North is, therefore, not just a celebration of poetry and literature, but an organisation that creates a very unique interaction with the genre. It offers creatives the space to share important and deeply personal works with the public. The festival positions itself at the cutting edge of British literary culture, constantly looking forward and creating its own future. As one of the speakers commented, the visual and literary popular culture has replaced the evangelical sermon in transmitting philosophy and ethics into the mind of the general public. By engaging empathetically with other cultures, the ugly knots of bigotry and hatred that currently fill this country are loosened, whether this be by reading a book of Romani poetry or by hearing Sudanese authors discuss their experience. It is no coincidence that the book chosen for the ‘Big Read’ is Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, a novel about the meeting of two disparate cultures.

The festival continued to play out until the 13th October. Extracts from the anthology Common People were read in the Miners’ Hall on Sunday, displaying the confluence of Durham’s pitman heritage and the modern-day working-class sensibilities of its writers. The literary titans of David Nicholls, Alexander McCall Smith, and Mark Haddon also appeared, showcasing the level of industry clout the Festival can leverageThe week concluded with a display of current writing over a wider range of fields, from ‘Northern Noir’ to feminist fiction.

“The Festival dwells on the current complex questions we must all ask ourselves”

Durham Book Festival is more than a collection of authors. It is a culturally significant display of up-to-the-minute writing talent, of people from groups who do not have their voices heard being able to speak out. The Festival dwells on the current complex questions we must all ask ourselves- questions of identity, of meaning, or determining our place in the world around us. Do we accept the stories and narratives imposed upon us by others, or do we strike out, verbalising our own thoughts and feelings? The Festival is modern, biting and incisive, and you owe it to yourself to go.




Last modified: 11th October 2019

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