The book has become a luxury item, production is costly, and then there is Amazon which has radically changed the publishing landscape. A prize, a gift, a gorgeous object: the book has an irresistible allure. Publishers have learned that it is well worth sending their writers on tour around the country to promote their work and engage with readers at live events.
While the bigger book festivals like Hay, Cheltenham or Oxford have something of a showbiz atmosphere, with audiences queuing to see their favourite ‘celebrity’ author, the smaller festivals like Bridport are more ‘real’ and benefit readers who can get more from an intimate event.
Once a thriving centre for the rope and net making industry, Bridport has much to offer visitors. The Dorset market town is in rolling, gorgeously green countryside – romantic even when its blustery and grey. Apart from unmissable sea views, there are two markets a week (Wednesday and Saturday), three butchers, four bakers, a fishmonger selling delicious fresh fish, a couple of greengrocers and, luckily, very few predictable chain stores which kill off the indie diversity of an area. For book lovers, the high street is a shopping mecca for rare and second-hand bookshops.
My conversation with Philip Mansel about Lesley Blanch and her bohemian life was scheduled for day three of the book festival, but I went a few days earlier to sample the delights of Hardy country. The festival organizers and sponsors look after their writers well – we were entertained and made to feel special. I was staying in Frome St Quintin, with views from my bedroom window of its delightfully stumpy little Norman church in the corner of a field. This year, for the first time, the writer-participants received a nominal fee and travel expenses.
Tanya Bruce-Lockhart started the Bridport Literary Festival eleven years ago in conjunction with Bridport Arts Centre, and broke away four years ago, turning the festival into a charity with five trustees. She moved to Beaminster, six miles north of Bridport, in the 1990s, having worked for almost twenty years in independent TV. As a researcher for popular programmes like the David Frost Show, the arts magazine programme, Aquarius, working with Russell Harty; and then as a producer for the South Bank Show and at Granada TV, her experience packaging programmes proved invaluable in her new life – initially as impresario of the Beaminster Festival of Music & Arts.
@BridLitFestival is promoted through the local press and Wessex FM. @BridlitTanya has a good network of local supporters who sponsor events, ranging from passionate individuals like @venetiadolce, to Specsavers, Kitson Trotman – a local firm of solicitors – and Jackson Stops the estate agent, among others. Twenty-four to twenty-eight events are spread across one week. They do not overlap since it can be problematic for the audience in terms of which to go for, and lesser-known speakers can get antsy. This year an eclectic range of fiction and non-fiction titles were featured, with World War Two and Waterloo le plat du jour during my visit. Star turns topping-and-tailing this year’s festival include Alexander McCall Smith and Sebastian Faulks. And for the first time, there’s a writing workshop run by Robert Twigger and Jason Webster.
The Bull Hotel is at the centre of the activities. Its ballroom seating 100 people was packed out when I went to hear James Holland’s exposé about the war in the West which challenges myths about World War Two. He peppered his talk with nuggets of fresh insight: the Nazis had just nineteen operational U-boats on the eve of war in 1939 . . . Germany was the nation with more radios per person – even more than the USA – which were used not only for propaganda, but by Panza tank platoons backed up by motorised and mechanized infantry, artillery and air, to co-ordinate their initially successful war of annihilation . . .
Jane Wellesley spoke with erudite charm about characters, connections and places from her personal family memoir, starting with her great-great-great-grandfather the Duke of Wellington, tracing his legacy and revealing the private man behind the public figure. The Napoleonic theme was continued by Philip Mansel in his talk about the grandeur and extravagance of the court of Napoleon which surpassed even that of the Sun King.
Festival events are held at different venues around town with the aim of benefiting the local community. I was lucky enough to find myself in the clifftop Seaside Boarding House, opened by Mary-Lou Sturridge and her business partner Anthony Mackintosh. The décor is one of minimalist elegant chic. I faced an audience of 80 people, all keen enthusiasts of living life #OnWilderShores. Delicious fish cakes and sticky toffee pudding were enjoyed in the library afterwards.
The cab driver taking me to Yeovil Junction station was a former bookseller who went bust when the Net Book Agreement (NBA) was abandoned, then ruled illegal in 1997. It had meant that publishers and booksellers could set the prices at which books were to be sold to the public; and it enabled publishers to subsidise the printing of the works of important but less widely read authors using money from bestsellers. Mr. Cab Driver had been running three successful bookshops. But when the bookstore chains began to slash prices, paving the way for large supermarket chains to take a chunk of the book business, their ability to offer best-selling titles at deeply discounted prices undercut indie outfits run by entrepreneurs. “It was Delia’s big Christmas which did for us,” said a sad voice. “Customers came into our shops to browse and then went and bought the books cheaper at Asda . . . 33% was as far as we could go and not run at a loss.”
Hundreds of independent bookshops have closed since the demise of the NBA. Those who have survived have developed a wide range of survival strategies. More than ever there is a strong appetite for the printed word and meeting writers in the real world, not cyberspace. The rise and rise of book festivals seems unstoppable.
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James Holland – The War in the West: A New History
Jane Wellesley – Wellington: A Journey Through My Family
Philip Mansel – The Eagle in Splendour: Inside the Court of Napoleon
Lesley Blanch – On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life