A world of words coming to Ilkley

Ilkley Literature Festival returns this autumn with another impressive and diverse line-up. Yvette Huddleston reports.

Last week Ilkley Literature Festival announced its programme for this year’s October event. Now in its 43rd year, the Festival is the largest in the North of England, one of the most prestigious in the country and is regarded as a major highlight on the literary calendar.

Tickets go on sale at the end of this month and audiences can once again look forward to a wide range of talks, interviews, debates, performances and workshops with over 240 events, around 45 of which are free, at 21 different venues over the course of 17 days.

“I think what always interests me at this time of year when we announce the programme is that it can be read on many different levels,” says festival director Rachel Feldberg. “You have the well-known household names – and we are very grateful that they take time out of their busy schedules to come to festivals like ours because they make it possible for us to continue – but then in the festival strands you can find all sorts of interesting events that bring to the fore new ideas or that test your intellect.”

The big household names and festival favourites appearing this year include Alan Titchmarsh, Simon Armitage, Jenni Murray, Margaret Drabble, Barry Cryer and Kay Mellor, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Jay Rayner and poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy.

To mark the 200th anniversary of her birth, Charlotte Brontë is celebrated throughout the festival with a whole series of talks, workshops and even a guided walk exploring her life and work.

“We have two different strands,” explains Feldberg. “Beyond Jane Eyre which is about different aspects of and perspectives on Charlotte’s work and her life. That includes the guided reading group which this this year is Villette. We have a walk around Ilkley that looks at the buildings that Charlotte would have seen when she came to visit the town. There is an event about Charlotte Brontë and slavery in the Caribbean. She was born nine years after the abolition of the slave trade act (1807) and she was 17 years old when it was abolished – and it was a hot topic in Yorkshire at the time – partly because of William Wilberforce’s involvment. And it is interesting how her novels touch on these issues. Then we have another strand which is completely different called Charlotte Brontë’s Festival which is really inspired by what an interesting and complex and multi-faceted person she was. Given what we know about her interests through her letters and her early childhood writings, if she lived in the 21st century what would she be interested in?”

Others strands include A Man’s Place – an exploration of modern masculinity, curated by the festival’s poet in residence Andrew McMillan, winner this year of several prizes including The Guardian First Book Award for his outstanding debut collection Physical. This includes and interview American author Garth Greenwell whose debut novel What Belongs to You has been described as ‘the gay novel of the decade’.McMillan will also be introducing his father and fellow poet Ian who will be reading from his latest new and selected poems.

Other strands include States of Mind with stand-up comedian Susan Calman talking about her candid memoir Cheer Up Love in which she discusses mental health issues and her own struggles with depression, Dr Raj Persaud on obsessive behaviour and broadcaster and trauma counsellor Sian Williams on the impact of acute stress.

The Echoes of the Somme strand focuses on long-term implications of the terrible 1916 battle, including the effect that year’s introduction of conscription had on the number of conscientious objectors, while Shakespeare Unbound celebrates the work of the Bard on the 400th anniversary of his death, in interesting and imaginative ways.

“We will be offering some unexpected perspectives on Shakespeare,” says Feldberg. “And we will be encouraging people to try it for themselves. We have Chicken Shop Shakespeare coming who will be doing pop-up Shakespeare around the town as well as running a workshop. But one of the most exciting events is on the last Saturday of the festival when we are doing an all-day reading of three Shakespeare plays – MacBeth, The Tempest and Twelfth Night –and we are inviting members of the public to come along and say what they would like to read. It doesn’t matter about age or gender. It will be very much in the spirit of enjoying Shakespeare and bringing it to life.”

The opening night features the multi-award-winning screenwriter Andrew Davies – acclaimed adapter of many classic novels for television, including the BBC’s iconic 1990s version of Pride and Prejudice, starring Colin Firth as Mr Darcy. Davies is visiting the festival for the first time and will be discussing his most recent challenge – reworking Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace.

Politically it’s been quite an interesting few months, so the presence at the festival of Westminster heavyweights such as Alastair Campbell, Ken Livingstone, Nick Clegg, spilling the beans on his time in the coalition government, Ken Clarke – who will be appearing in a Festival postscript in November with his newly released autobiography Kind of Blue – and Alan Johnson is sure to provoke some lively debate. Also appearing is former chairman of the Home Affairs select committee Chris Mullins talking about his revealing memoir Hinterland.

“We’re really excited by the quality, diversity and richness of this year’s programme,” says Feldberg. “And the range of writers who will be joining us from across the world. Each and every one will be bringing their own unique viewpoint to Yorkshire.”

Other festival highlights

Poetry, as ever, is a key feature of the programme with readings and workshops from poets including Forward Prize Winners Kei Miller and Daljit Nagra, internationally renowned Caribbean poet Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze and winner of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry Imtiaz Darkher.

There is an extensive children and young people’s festival with many family-friendly events celebrating Roald Dahl, Beatrix Potter and Harry Potter. There will also be an interactive performance of Underneath a Magical Moon from tutti frutti and Lempen Puppets’ take on much-loved Grimm fairytales.

September 30-October 16. Tickets go on sale on August 30. For full programme details www.ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk