Four decades of success for event built on big ambitions

Rachel Feldberg, centre, with the team behind Ilkley Literature Festival
Rachel Feldberg, centre, with the team behind Ilkley Literature Festival
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Ilkley Literature Festival celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Yvette Huddleston spoke to its director Rachel Feldberg.

In the early 1970s, a group of people sat around a kitchen table in a small town in West Yorkshire and talked about the possibility of setting up a literary event. In the intervening decades Ilkley Literature Festival has grown in size and stature – it is now nationally recognised as one of the top three in the country, alongside Hay and Cheltenham.

“I have been looking back through the archives and one of the huge strengths of the festival is that it started out with such big ambitions,” says Rachel Feldberg, who has been festival director since 2003. “That first festival was created by people who lived here and the contacts they had.” A colleague of festival founder Michael Dawson knew WH Auden, so Dawson was able to take the poet out to dinner and persuade him to open the inaugural festival in 1973. Also included in the line-up was a Puffin Club children’s party and a Women in Literature seminar hosted by JB Priestley which featured Margaret Drabble, Gillian Reynolds, Patricia Beer and a very young Fay Weldon.

“Germaine Greer famously did not attend that event,” says Feldberg. “She felt the issues weren’t going to be considered properly, but she has appeared here on a number of occasions since. We have invited her to come back this year and she will be talking about women writers over the past 40 years.”

There are a number of other writers with long-standing links to the festival who will be returning for the 40th anniversary year. Melvyn Bragg, who first appeared in 1977, will be talking about his latest book, Kate Adie will be introducing a strand on the role of women in World War One and the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, whose first appearance at Ilkley was in 1989, has been commissioned to write a poem commemorating the festival’s 40th anniversary.

“Ilkley has always been a commissioning festival,” says Feldberg. “In 1975 Michael Dawson commissioned Ted Hughes to write his famous poem Cave Birds and this year Simon Armitage is going to talk about Hughes’ poetry and the influence it has had on his own work.” Feldberg has spent much of the past few months looking back through the decades, partly to assist in the curation of a special exhibition, Making Waves, at Ilkley’s Manor House Museum which will feature rare archive material, letters, newspaper cuttings, photographs and recordings.

A more recent personal highlight for Feldberg was Maya Angelou’s visit in 2005. “I think her work changed people’s perceptions of American writing, so to meet her in person was amazing,” she says. “She is also so charismatic and very gracious – she was genuinely interested in everybody she met backstage – you felt you were in the presence of somebody extraordinary.” Of her own achievements over the past decade, Feldberg says she is most proud of continuing the festival’s tradition of cultural diversity and in developing its work with children and young people through a Young Writers Group. “I have a background in youth work, so encouraging children’s writing and bringing authors into inner city schools, which we do year round in Leeds and Bradford, is something I am very happy about.”

In the ten years since Feldberg has been in post audience figures have gone up from 3,000 in 2003 to 26,000 in 2012, but she and the festival board are mindful of the fact that part of the event’s appeal is its intimate feel. “We are concerned that we maintain that and would prefer it not to keep growing,” she says. “It’s nice that it’s small enough that people can go and chat to the authors in the coffee bar.”

Ilkley Literature Festival, October 4-20.

Top names line up for festival

BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions, chaired by Jonathan Dimbleby, will be recording an edition of the programme during the festival, as they did in the mid-1970s.

Colin Dexter, writer of the Inspector Morse books, will reflect on his award-winning career in crime writing.

Kirsty Wark, best known for fronting BBC2’s Newsnight, will be talking about her first novel, and the influence the Brontës have had on her writing.

William Dalrymple will discuss his best-selling novel Return of the King: The Battle for Afghanistan.

Wildlife TV presenter Kate Humble will read extracts from her autobiography Humble By Nature.

Triathlete brothers Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee will be talking about their joint memoir Swim, Bike, Run: Our Triathlon Story.