Literary festival caters for all tastes

Benjamin Zephaniah
Benjamin Zephaniah
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Off The Shelf is underway – and the literary festival is already a hit. Nick Ahad finds out what’s happened and what’s left to come.

It’s been up and running for a week, but the events just keep coming at the Sheffield literature festival Off the Shelf.

The South Yorkshire literary festival got underway last weekend and after a week of events organsiers are delighted with both the turnout and the quality of events experienced around the city.

“The event with Richard Wilson on Wednesday was really special,” says Maria de Souza, Sheffield City Council arts officer, which organises the festival.

The special ‘in conversation’ event saw the One Foot in the Grave actor Wilson discuss his work as an actor and as associate director at Sheffield Theatres. It is one of dozens of events happening across the city as part of the festival.

While the Sheffield festival is city wide and receives a number of high profile guests, it is easy to wonder if it suffers because of its timing. Ilkley Literature Festival, which remains the longest running literary event in the North, scuppers its Sheffield equivalent by beating it to the punch by a couple of weeks.

Not so, says de Souza.

“We work very closely with other festivals and far from being in competition, we actually help each other,” she says.

“For example, Richard Ford appeared at Ilkley Literature Festival in the afternoon last weekend and later that day he came to Sheffield to do an event here. To have a writer of his calibre, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is great for the festivals and it’s really useful for us to be able to get a guest like that by pitching together. It makes it a more attractive prospect for him to be able to appear at two festivals in the North in a single day and the fact is, that’s great for all literature fans in Yorkshire.”

Ford is certainly an impressively big fish to land, but he is far from the only big name lured to Sheffield.

Last year the festival asked Simon Armitage to curate a strand of events for the programme and it proved so successful that the festival has invited another writer to curate a strand for this year.

“We were really pleased when Benjamin Zephaniah agreed to curate a strand,” says de Souza.

“We have already had two of his events, involving young people from around Sheffield, and we’re really excited about the big event he is planning which is still to come, on November 3, when he’ll be performing at the Sheffield Lyceum along with some young poets who he wants to lend his support to.”

Zephaniah said: “As a poet and performer you quite often get invited to festivals but it’s not often you get the opportunity to create something like this,” he says.

“I’ve been able to come up with ideas and not have to worry about the admin side of things. It’s great because it’s allowed me to concentrate on my ideas and give talented young writers a chance.”

Most of the region’s established literature events are concentrated around smaller towns – Ryedale, Morley, Harrogate and Ilkley, while Sheffield is, clearly, based around the city. That gives it, according to de Souza, its own unique appeal. “It’s incredibly eclectic,” she says.

“Rather than basing the programme around a single theme or idea, the ‘theme’, such as it is, is probably best described as having something for everyone.

“When you look at the programme, you can see that there really is something for you if you are into serious literature, crime fiction, poetry, or writing for children.”

The festival has reached its 21st year and is celebrating by staging a digital slam poetry event, with 21 poets around the city ‘slamming’ against each other. The difference is that they perform their poems in different venues, are recorded digitally and audiences can vote for their favourite. Add to that mix Cressida Cowell talking about How To Train Your Dragon and the word is eclectic.

Highlights still to come

Tonight: Susan Hill, the author of The Woman in Black, makes a rare personal appearance. Crucible Studio, 7.45pm.

Oct 22: The Journalist behind the expenses scandal Heather Brooke on the digital age. Showroom Cinema, 7pm.

Oct 23: Sharon Olds, considered one of America’s finest living poets, makes a special appearance. Sheffield University, 7.30pm.

Oct 29: Posy Simmonds unveils the first complete collection of her comic strip for the Guardian that made her famous. Sheffield University, 7.30pm.

Off The Shelf, to Nov 3. 0114 2734400.