York festival hits the literary big time

Germaine Greer
Germaine Greer
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This year’s York Literature Festival is the most ambitious yet according to festival director Miles Salter. He spoke to Yvette Huddleston.

Since its inception in 2007, York Literature Festival has grown steadily and this year’s event, which runs for 12 days next month, features another impressive and diverse programme which promises to build on the success of last year.

That success is all the more admirable for the fact that it has sometimes been a struggle for the festival to get to the point it is at today.

“We had a few years when we didn’t manage to get any funding,” says Festival Director journalist and poet Miles Salter. “In fact, in 2011 we had no festival at all but last year and this year we received funding support and it does make a huge difference.” It has allowed the festival team to attract big names such as Germaine Greer who will be make her York debut addressing the issue of women’s visibility in society in her talk The Disappearing Woman. Former poet laureate Andrew Motion will be reading from his latest collection of poetry The Customs House which opens with a sequence of war poems, tying in with the First World War centenary commemorations, drawing on soldiers’ experiences of conflict from 1914 right up to the present day.

There will be an In Conversation event with broadcaster John Humphrys who will be speaking about his Welsh background, his experiences in broadcasting and his love of language; Professor Robert Winston will be discussing science, medical ethics and his career as one of the UK’s foremost scientists; and Labour politician Alan Johnson will be talking about his critically acclaimed memoir This Boy which charts his impoverished London childhood in the 1950s.

Momentum is certainly building up for the festival – last year ticket sales topped £10,000 for the first time and Salter says that this year is the most ambitious festival yet. Support from local residents has been very encouraging over the years and he is hoping to attract visitors from further afield.

“It takes a few years to build up awareness but last year people came from Edinburgh and Manchester to attend,” he says. “We try and work with Visit York and this year we have hooked up with them to do a digital promotional campaign. I have already had enquiries from people in London. It is a great showcase for York and I’m sure people will travel for festival events.”

In addition to the well-known names, there is a full programme of all sorts of literature-related artistic activity including a stage version of Homer’s Illiad, recited and performed by storytellers Daniel Morden and Hugh Lupton; Austen’s Women, a recreation on stage of some of Jane Austen’s most colourful characters; new fiction from students studying on the MA in Creative Writing at York St John University; a workshop on how to write historical fiction with author and academic Sophie Coulombeau; and a guided tour of York focussing on the city’s many literary connections. The range and diversity of venues for the festival also makes it stand out from the crowd and that is thanks to the partnerships that have been developed between the festival and other local educational and cultural institutions. York Theatre Royal, City Screen Cinema, St Peter’s School, York St John University and York Museums Trust are all offering space for events this year. “Those partnerships are really important,” says Salter. “We couldn’t do it without other people being involved and what’s really nice is that they are seeing the value and benefit of the festival.”

Salter hopes that this year will be another commercial success so that the festival can continue to grow and thrive. “Taking it forward, I suppose I am just really passionate about York having a really strong, interesting arts festival.”

• March 20-31 www.yorkliteraturefestival.co.uk