Like many of the best ideas, the seeds of Halifax Festival of Words were sown in a conversation over a couple of drinks in a bar.
Launched in 2017, the festival, which returns in October, was co-founded by Sarah Shaw, manager of the independent bookshop Book Corner situated in the Piece Hall, and Michael Ainsworth who owns and runs the independent bar Grayston Unity in the town.
“We were talking one night with a couple of regulars about how it would be good to have a cultural festival in Halifax and it just grew from there,” says Ainsworth. “I spoke to Sarah and she could see from the success of the bookshop that there was an appetite for that sort of event locally. We are both ‘get on and do it’ kind of people, so we just cracked on and the first festival was organised fairly quickly.”
Ainsworth has more than three decades of music promotion and event management behind him and the Grayston Unity has been a hub of cultural activity since it first opened in 2016. There are regular live music and spoken word nights as well as occasional theatre performances and film screenings. It is, according to Independent Venue Week (IVW), the UK’s smallest music venue and it was the connection with that initiative which helped Ainsworth to secure Arts Council funding.
“I had never thought of applying for it before but because we were part of IVW, we qualified for it and we were successful – it saved the Grayston and therefore the festival.” This year there are around 40 events in the festival, most of them free, with a mix of live music, poetry, spoken word, talks, in conversations and DJ sets, plus family events and workshops.
“It seems to have mushroomed,” says Ainsworth. “One of the aims of the festival was to engage others, so in addition to The Grayston and the Book Corner we have added more venues.” These include the Albany Arcade in Halifax Borough Market, the Square Chapel Arts Centre and the Temperance Movement café.
“When we organised the first festival we didn’t really know how it would go, to be honest, but there is a demand for this and the programme has grown to reflect that,” says Ainsworth. “This is still a grassroots event, though, organised by just two of us. I have always been driven to help improve the cultural life of the town, that has been my main motivation.” Ten years ago he set up the Halifax Music Heritage Trail which celebrates and visits some of the many music venues that used to exist in the town.
“It’s not really known that a lot of big stars played here, people like Dusty Springfield, The Jacksons, The Kinks and Shirley Bassey, to name just a few. Halifax has a lot going for it culturally and the recent revival in its fortunes, a lot of it has been led by culture. I think the arts will be a major contributor to the future of high streets. It is definitely the way forward and we have lots of creative people living here. We hope the festival will highlight the important role that culture has to play in helping the town recover from the pandemic.”
Halifax Festival of Words, October 22-24, details halifaxfestvalofwords.com