Festival of words returns to Leeds

Emily Mayhew
Emily Mayhew
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The Headingley LitFest is back with this year’s event inspired by moving stories from the First World War. Chris Bond reports.

IT may only be March but already the literary festival season is up and running with the return of Headingley LitFest.

This annual celebration of words, books and the local community was set up in 2008, since when it’s attracted a string of well known literary figures including Blake Morrison, Beryl Bainbridge, Roger McGough and the Bard of Barnsley himself, Ian McMillan.

Inspired by their research for a book about the hospital at Beckett Park, which was used to treat wounded soldiers during the First World War, organisers have taken “surviving” as the theme for this year’s LitFest, which started on Monday and runs until the first week of April.

Their war project culminates next Friday with the launch of a new book – Stories from the War Hospital – which contains stories they’ve unearthed about some of the nurses, soldiers and doctors who spent time there.

This year, of course, marks the centenary of the start of the Great War and a series of events relating to the conflict are being held over the coming weeks.

Emily Mayhew, whose book Wounded – From Battlefield to Blighty 1914-1918 has been shortlisted for the prestigious Wellcome Prize, is appearing at Headingley Library next Tuesday, when she will talk about the sometimes agonising journey made by casualties from the battlefield to hospital.

The war has become synonymous with poetry and in “Echoes of War”, on March 22, Leeds playwrights Stuart Fortey and Peter Spafford will talk about the lives of Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas, neither of whom survived the war.

But the LitFest isn’t only focusing on stories from the war. There are well over a dozen events being held at venues across Headingley including the local library and several cafes.

Among the highlights are Gillian Clarke, the National Poet of Wales, who is headlining this year’s poetry event at the Heart Cafe next Thursday, while writer Ivan Cooper is appearing at Headingley Library on April 4 when he will read extracts from his book Tibet: An Accidental Pilgrimage.

Headingley itself has some interesting literary links. Swallows and Amazons author Arthur Ransome was born here, while both JRR Tolkien and Alan Bennett are among its famous former residents.

It’s something the LitFest founder Richard Wilcocks has tried to tap into.

“From the beginning we set it up as a way of celebrating Headingley’s literacy legacy and also getting the local community engaged with what’s going on today.” The festival holds events for adults and children and part of its appeal is the fact it isn’t some big, corporate behemoth.

“It’s very much become part of the community but we’re not just a parochial festival we’re much bigger than that, we get people coming to our events from across Leeds as well as Harrogate and Bradford.

“We try and offer something a bit different,” says Wilcocks. “We use people’s houses for some events. When we first started that some people thought it was a bit odd but it’s actually become really popular.

“It’s intimate and outgoing 
at the same time and it’s also an excuse to get the biscuits out.”

The Headingley LitFest runs to April 7. For more information or tickets go to www.headingleylitfest.org.uk