Inclusive festival’s passion for words

The Big Bookend weekend is the only book festival in central Leeds.picture: Raj Passy
The Big Bookend weekend is the only book festival in central Leeds.picture: Raj Passy
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Leeds’s cultural festival the Big Bookend pops up in the city centre next weekend. Yvette Huddleston spoke to co-ordinator Fiona Gell.

Next weekend’s Big Bookend Festival in Leeds manages to pack in about as many cultural and literary events as it is possible to feature in just two days.

“This is our third year and we have got Arts Council funding this time which is a great recognition of what we do,” says festival co-ordinator and founder member Fiona Gell. The genesis of the event, which was launched in 2012, is a great example of what a group of people can achieve if they are passionate about something. “There had never been a book festival in the centre of Leeds,” says Gell. “And two or three of us decided that we would try and make something happen. The first year we had 15 authors and it all took place at the Carriageworks – we had 400 people through the door.

“After that we decided we were going to give it another go. We try things and if they don’t work we try something different the next year. It’s quite an easy way of working and we don’t get caught up in bureaucracy – it gives us a quirky nature as a festival.”

One of the festival’s main aims, says Gell, is to champion Leeds as a city and to highlight its rich literary heritage. “It’s all about the city and shouting about how brilliant it is and celebrating our established writers, but also encouraging future talent. We want the next Joanne Harris and Anthony Clavane coming through. For the second year of the festival we had a big focus on new writers.”

Two debut authors will be appearing at this year’s festival – Leeds writer SJ Bradley who will be reading from and talking about her first novel Brick Mother, set in a secure mental hospital focusing on those who live and work there and exploring the dehumanising effect of institutions, and Richard Smyth whose Wild Ink is a darkly comic story of friendship and jealousy, love, memory, alcohol, secrets and scandal.

From newly published authors to national treasures – this year’s headliner is Alan Bennett who will be talking about his life and work at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on the afternoon of Sunday June 8 – the scope of the festival is wide-ranging. There are a number of workshops including learning how to write a short story and making and decorating your own bookends, a performance at the Queens Hotel of Red Ladder’s rugby league drama Playing the Joker by Anthony Clavane plus poems set to music by Peter Spafford and Richard Ormrod in Scriptophilia.

“This year we also have two big debates,” says Gell. “One is on censorship and propaganda in wartime, so very relevant and current, and the other looks at the significance of the First World War to our lives today. Both are a fantastic opportunity for people to get involved.” One of the main highlights of the festival is the Leeds Story Cycle which Gell describes as “a unique community event”. Six community groups – including asylum seekers, recovering addicts and older people – were brought together and with the help of professional authors, poets, playwrights and theatre practitioners they have created seven Tour de France-themed stories telling the tale of six different characters and their journey to see the race begin in Leeds city centre on the day of the Grand Départ. The groups will be presenting the Leeds Story Cycle on Saturday June 7 and the hope is that the project can continue to be developed throughout the year.

It is this kind of meaningful community engagement that the festival organisers are keen to promote and expand. “We were careful not to call it a literature festival – we are a city festival – because they can have that tag of exclusivity,” says Gell. “We want to include everybody. It’s the love and passion for books and words that drives us.”

• The Big Bookend Festival, Leeds, June 7 and 8. Tickets on