With dozens of events held in myriad venues from Harwich to Harlow, via Halstead – and blending household names with local flavour – Essex Book Festival annually punches above its weight. STEVEN RUSSELL speaks to one of the people now responsible for the magic

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YES, Belinda Farrell laughs, her “baby” does keep her awake in the early hours. “Many a sleepless night about the festival!” she confirms. That’s the Essex Book Festival, of which she’s officially the director.

Why does it keep her brain whirring? “People have a very clear idea what they like, the authors they think are really important; but they’re not necessarily the authors I would rate in the same way. It’s never going to satisfy them all” – the potential audience and ticket-buyers – “because it’s so subjective. That’s something I’ve really learned.”

Bit of pressure, then – and not just because the event website counts down the time to the start. (Just 55 days to wait, now . . .) Thanks to the work of those who have gone before, the festival has successfully built what marketing specialists would call a strong brand.

For more than a decade, Essex has welcomed a wide spectrum of bookish folk during the month of March (including, historically, a welter of big names, such as Joanna Trollope) but unlike most other literary festivals spreads its brilliance across the county like sparks from an exploding firework, rather than concentrating it all in one place.

And it manages to retain an intimacy that many of the 4,500 or so attendees relish. There are no big tents accommodating dozens and dozens of people. Essex does include some larger venues, but there are many smaller “stages” – often local libraries that offer an appealing warmth and familiarity.

The weight of history amassed since the first event in 1999 is, then, both a source of strength and a standard against which each new festival is measured.

WHEN you work in the arts sector – and particularly when you’re organising biggish events, sometimes from scratch – you need to be pretty fleet of foot and able to take the unexpected in your stride.

Those traits stood Belinda Farrell in good stead when she applied for her first job in Essex. The interview just so happened to be on the day her family was due to move house.

“I ended up having to leave Tom” – her husband – “with small children, and packing the van, while I got a train to Chelmsford, had the interview, and got the bus to Maldon, where Tom was moving into the new house. And then they offered me the job just as we were carrying boxes in and out. It was all very fortuitous . . . and a bit bizarre!”

That was more than 11 years ago. Belinda managed the Essex on Tour programme until the spring of 2007. It was a nomadic arts scheme set up by the county council to take arts, music and theatre events out into the community. “We would subsidise it slightly, which took away the sting and meant it was affordable for people to put events on in their own community.”

Before coming to Essex, the drama and English graduate from Northern Ireland had worked behind the scenes in the theatre industry in the north of England, and later with the acclaimed Theatr Clwyd in north Wales.

From there, Belinda moved into the management of theatre companies – mainly touring groups. One was Paines Plough – an award-winning, London-based, outfit that nurtures new writing for the stage.

And then came that move up the A12.

After Essex on Tour she landed a county council position as international cultural festival manager. County Hall wanted someone to set up the Jiangsu Festival to celebrate its 20-year link with the Chinese province.

Running from the middle of 2008 to the following spring, it was the biggest international arts festival ever to hit Essex, with events such as a dragon boat race and the Guardians to the Kings exhibition at Colchester Museum, featuring ancient figurines.

And then Belinda stayed on to work on projects such as the Explore Culture: One World festival, an eight-month “explosion of cultural activity” across the county in 2010, designed to bring together and champion everything that’s amazing about Essex and its people. The festival formed part of the county’s contribution to the Cultural Olympiad. It proved a good warm-up for the next biggie. Sparks Will Fly in Essex was a cultural festival to celebrate the 2012 Games. Two characters criss-crossed the county during early summer, visiting towns and villages, carnivals and events, and at each stop being presented with a glass bead containing something unique to that place.

And then came the chance to help programme and run the Essex Book Festival.

Here, things are a little confusing. The event had been staged successfully by the county council and its libraries department, but in 2011 became an independent body headed by volunteer trustees – set up as both a company and a charity. When the trustees invited bids to organise the festival, Belinda suggested the council’s arts development team (of which she was and is part) should throw its hat in the ring. It did, and was successful – thus bringing work, and money, into the department.

Mind you, by this time it was late summer/early autumn, 2011 . . . and the festival running order had to be finalised, and the programme printed, by Christmas. “So for a while it was pretty mad.” There was help from the libraries department to make the transition as smooth as possible, but, even so, Belinda admits “I think we were caught a bit short, because it all took longer than any of us thought.” Still, it proved another successful staging, even if it did pass in a bit of a blur. “But it also starts up again so quickly! It doesn’t finish until the end of March, then you’ve got the typing up and the reports and the finance, and all the rest of it. So that probably takes until the end of May. Then one really ought to be starting programming again in August. So you’ve actually only really got a couple of months when you don’t have to think about it.” The book festival role is a part-time one – perhaps slightly under half-time, Belinda estimates – but for a few months of the year can be nearly all-consuming.

“It’s a big old job, and we’re not a big team, either.” There’s five of them, but with other tasks on their plate, too. Just finished, for example, is an EU-funded arts project for people in care homes.

It is, she admits, all akin to a small business – “there’s lots of juggling” – and she’s grateful the libraries that host many of the readings and talks are adept at organising things at their end.

The trustees will be drawing up their dreams and ambitions about the festival’s future, Belinda says, but her view is that it needs to become even more of an “umbrella”, encompassing literary events put together by other enthusiasts in a kind of communal DIY fashion.

“It’s just not possible, really, to do it with what the resources are, otherwise. Last year we had about 70 events and it was just too many – you’ve got all the paperwork and a lot of other backroom stuff that has to be done. So we decided this year we’d do less; but then everybody kept coming and saying ‘Actually, I’d like to have so and so . . .’ and ‘I’m going to do this . . .’” she laughs.

“I had a very unassuming email from one lady, who said ‘Can we have an event in Writtle, please?’ I emailed back and said ‘Well, certainly, but you would need to organise it yourself,’ and she went ‘All right, then.’ And she did!”

Then there was a man keen on a nature-themed event. He set one up in the south of the county: Inspiration of Nature, with a three-man panel. And the folk at Layer Marney Tower, near Colchester, booked poet and playwright Roger McGough.

It’s a potential template for the book festival to move forward, Belinda feels. Certainly, there aren’t huge amounts of money to splash around. Producing the brochure is in itself quite expensive, for instance; and even with a part-time director, frugality is the watchword.

“You need the partnership [arrangements] in order to spread the workload. I also think that the more people who have ownership of it, and play a part in it, then it becomes a bigger thing, in a way. It becomes a shared experience, and if people have ownership of an event, they’re going to want to make it work.”

On the plus side, the festival is supported financially by Essex County Council Libraries and the University of Essex. The university also helped by designing and producing last year’s brochure, and hosts a handful of events itself.

The festival is grateful, too, for £10,000 over three years from Tiptree preserves firm Wilkin and Sons Ltd. “They’re particularly interested in development work, because they’re keen on helping reluctant readers and that sort of thing. We need to find a few more Wilkins of Tiptree, I think!”

Another highpoint has been a grant from Arts Council England of about £50,000 over three years. This is allowing the festival to run a year-round development programme so more people can get involved with writing and literature-related activities.

These have included Get it Writ – a competition aimed at encouraging anyone aged 16 or over to get writing.

And so to this year’s festival schedule. Belinda likes the line-up: “a really interesting mix” that includes Rachel Joyce, long-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize for The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

“I was listening to Radio 4 Extra in bed the other night and suddenly her book was on, and I thought ‘Oooh!’ It’s just the most amazing little book. “Hopefully there’s something for everyone. We have the ‘Aga saga’; we have the local history; we have the novels; the Essex writers. I think that’s its strength. The challenge is being all things to all men.”

Belinda’s a bibliophile. At the moment she’s reading A Street Cat Named Bob, with her book club. She also has a Jane Gardam novel on the go, The People on Privilege Hill, and Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, “which I’ve started, finally, after it sat on my shelf for about six years!

“I’ve also got the one by Wendy Jones. [The Thoughts & Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals.] That’s by my bed, waiting to be started.

“If the book festival is keeping me up a lot, I like a bit of Marian Keyes.”

Gardam is her current favourite, though. “She’s hilarious. I’ve been listening to a couple of her audio books in the car as well. I’m listening to The Man In The Wooden Hat at the moment, which is laugh-out-loud. She’s really quirky.

“I used to listen to Harry Potter, because the kids all loved the audio version. (Belinda has three daughters, now aged 21, 17 and 12.)

“For a good couple of years, when things got really hectic, I’d just listen to Harry Potter in the car, on my way to and from work. Each book is about 40 days’ worth of listening, so it was perfect! I’d get in the car and think ‘I don’t want to listen to bad news any more.’ It was nice to hear something else.”

Speaking of audio versions, Belinda now has to leave to record a spoken version of the festival brochure. “You see how varied it all is?!” she quips.

“I’m also trying to get the blooming website updated. That’s been a really big learning curve. I’m not particularly technologically savvy. My husband gave me the password ‘luddite’ for my email account or whatever it was!

“And also Twitter. I’ve really got to get to grips with that. That’s going to be my new year’s resolution.”

The Essex Book Festival brochure, detailing all the events, is available from the county’s libraries or www.essexbookfestival.org.uk

One month, so much variety

THERE’S a glimpse at the internal workings of Dr Who, the daughter of pop star Ian Drury, a poultry keeper and household names such as Sandi Toksvig, Gavin Esler, Jack Straw and Michael Rosen. They’re all part of the 2013 Essex Book Festival in March.

Just Imagine Story Centre in Chelmsford hosts a range of children’s events, and there’s an intriguing debate called What Next for Essex ? From Essex Man to TOWIE – and Beyond. (Held at the Brentwood Ursuline Convent High School, no less.) Speakers include novelist Martina Cole; the Daily Mail’s Simon Heffer, and head teacher Vic Goddard (from Channel 4’s Educating Essex).

Here’s a selective guide to the rest of the festival line-up:

Colchester area: Anthony Horowitz talks about the inspirations, passions and experiences behind writing some of his most loved books. Sandi Toksvig discusses new novel Valentine Grey, about liberty, empire and war. Nature writer Richard Mabey gives the annual Burrows Lecture, on the concept of “edgeland” – the zone between inhabited and wild land that has long influenced his writing. Psychologist and neuroscientist Prof Elaine Fox, from the University of Essex, shows how we can brighten our lives and help ourselves flourish by retraining our brains.

Harwich area: Point Man, with Kenny Meighan, John Meighan and Mark Townsend – the terror of the life of an ordinary soldier in Afghanistan and the struggle to adjust to civilian life. Kate Worsley on She Rises – a story of love, adventure and identity set in 1740s Harwich and at sea.

Clacton-on-Sea area: Wendy Jones: The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price. Patricia Rennoldson Smith on the 1953 floods.

Halstead area: John Mullan shows how we can best appreciate Jane Austen’s brilliance by looking at the quirks and intricacies of her fiction.

Great Dunmow: Jack Straw in conversation. Growing up in Epping Forest, Straw never imagined one day being Lord Chancellor. Yet he spent 13 years in government.

Maldon area: Poet, raconteur and ageing former rock god (and EADT columnist) Martin Newell. Josephine Cox: talks about her bestseller The Broken Man.

Chelmsford area: Robert Hallmann: Bloody British History – Chelmsford. The State of the Nation: the state of the UK today and tomorrow – speakers discuss the financial crisis, globalisation and climate change. The panel includes local MP Simon Burns, Minister for Transport; newspaper columnist Polly Toynbee and Tony Juniper, who was executive director of Friends of the Earth. Dr WHO: Past, Present and Future – it’s the 50th anniversary of the show. Three Doctor Who writers give the inside story on their craft.

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