Book month with lots to write home about

How time flies . . . It began in 2000 with 13 events and now the 10th Essex Book Festival isn't far off, with more than 70 dates ringed on the calendar.

Steven Russell

How time flies . . . It began in 2000 with 13 events and now the 10th Essex Book Festival isn't far off, with more than 70 dates ringed on the calendar. Steven Russell discovers what's on offer and how it goes from strength to strength

THERE are literary festivals and then there's the Essex Book Festival. Naturally, our local version has its famous faces - spring-time '09 brings folk such as Melvyn Bragg, Joan Bakewell, Louis de Bernieres and Jonathan “Lovejoy” Gash - but there are plenty of intriguing twists in the mix as well. It boasts stamina, too: not for Essex a 10- or 11-day literary love-in like some of its illustrious peers (Cheltenham and Hay, say) but a month-long celebration of words and the writers who make them zing. And, of course, it's a festival that gets out and about: venues range from Jaywick's Martello tower and Colchester's Prettygate Library to Chelmsford's cricket ground and the University of Essex at Wivenhoe Park.

The festival has become known over the years for its innovative relationships with myriad organisations - such as the Women's Institute, which hosted its own event to mark its 90th anniversary. This year is no different.


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Popping up a lot in the 2009 brochure is the logo of the North Essex Partnership NHS trust. Talks under the book festival umbrella focus on the very stuff of life: mental health issues that can often be swept under the carpet but which affect many of us, directly or by involving our kith and kin.

Dr Joost Drost wrote the award-winning self-help book The Bubblegum Guy - How to Deal with How You Feel. His appearance in Chelmsford on March 5 will give parents guidance on helping children better manage their emotions and thus feel better about themselves. Mental health expert Professor Paul Gilbert is there at the end of the month. The author of Overcoming Depression will give a talk called The Compassionate Mind, proposing a new way of finding happiness and well-being.

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Angie Butcher is in Great Dunmow on the 26th, explaining how to recognise the symptoms of depression and how to cope with it, while at Clacton on Sea on March 19 Geeta Fletcher and Jo Butler reveal how what we eat affects how we feel.

Many mothers still struggle on with post-natal depression, feeling isolated. In Braintree, on March 12, Cathy Lowenhoff talks about the possible causes, signs to watch out for, and the help available.

June Turner, reader development manager with Essex Libraries, explains how the link with the NHS trust came about.

“They had been doing events, I think for quite some time, and asked me how they could publicise them through libraries. What I suggested to them was it might be worth bringing them into the book festival because that way they would get a lot more publicity.

“That whole area of health - mental health - is something that is a universal topic and is better presented as a mainstream issue, rather than something that is relevant only to a particular audience. They were very keen to do that.”

A high-profile stage should remind us that mental health issues touch us all in some way. “That theme of The Compassionate Mind, for instance - about being kind to yourself - is something I think everybody should do, and not give ourselves such a hard time. I think we can all respond to that, can't we?”

A further fruitful liaison is with South West Essex NHS. Part of it sees historians Mary Turner and Michael Foley (he wrote Essex - Ready for Anything) going out to residential homes and day centres to capture memories of the Second World War and stimulate reminiscences. It's one of the ways the festival is enjoyed by people who can't easily get to the regular venues.

There are 67 events open to the public in 2009, together with some closed sessions - such as those in residential homes and a prison. That's a sizeable increase on last year's 61. There's also been a rise in the number of partners. Many have come from the Colchester area, including Lion Walk United Reform Church and The Sixth Form College on North Hill. The festival hasn't had many larger venues in the area up until now, with the exception of the university, so these newcomers mean two big names can appear in the centre of town. (Kate Atkinson and literary critic John Sutherland, who chronicled his Colchester childhood in The Boy Who Loved Books.)

There's a particular reason for the organisers' pleasure in capturing Edinburgh-based Kate, whose first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award. “She's one of the people who often featured in the audience evaluation,” explains June. “We always ask people who they would like to see in the festival and it's really good when we can deliver authors they have been asking for.

“And we always get asked for household names that are in the media and have been on TV. We had Kate Adie a number of years ago, and Rageh Omar was also very popular, and I'm sure Joan Bakewell will be extremely popular too.”

The broadcaster and writer, who used to live in Suffolk, was appointed a champion of the elderly by the Government, a “Voice of Older People”, in November. Joan has her first novel out in March. All the Nice Girls is a romantic wartime tale of brave deeds and painful separations, illicit love, and longing and loss.

There's always been a healthy strand of non-fiction within the Essex Book Festival, recognising that many folk who love reading aren't always great fans of the novel form. That policy continues.

“What we try to do is create a programme that, whatever your interest, has something that will appeal to you,” says June. “I think one of the really interesting non-fiction-type events this year is Jonathan Mitchener, who will be on at Colchester - a futurologist with BT who will be sharing his vision of the world to come. I heard him talk and he's a really brilliant speaker. We haven't had that sort of event in the festival before.”

History has always been one of the aspects at the core. “We know that it's one people like. This year there's quite a mix of some fictional history events and some strong non-fictional events. One is Rachel Duffett from the University of Essex, who is going to be talking at Walton on the Naze. She's done some really interesting research which at the moment is only published in academic journals.

“She's another good speaker who is very passionate about her subject, which is the First World War and the food that the soldiers had that was both provided for them and sent from home. It's a fascinating area. By involving her in the festival, people can share her knowledge and enthusiasm and passion for the subject.”

Audiences gave the Essex Book Festival a 97.3% “excellent or good” satisfaction rating last year. How do you top that?

Well, laughs June, it's a tall order. They try to maintain that figure by presenting a varied programme in as many locations as possible, and by responding to requests where they can.

Despite the festival being part of the scene for nearly a decade, organisers know there are still plenty of folk out there who have never heard of it or aren't sure exactly what it is. To help combat this, the publicity drum is being beaten louder than before; the brochure print-run has been increased and distribution companies are being used to get it out to busy places such as train stations and tourist information centres.

Ticket prices are deliberately kept low to give as many people as possible the chance to hear what's being said.

“It gives people so much enjoyment. So many of the events are very funny or just pure pleasure, really. Providing that sort of experience on people's doorstep at a very affordable price is something that I think is one of the achievements of the festival.”

What does June cite as the other main achievements of the festival, which is managed by Essex County Council Libraries in partnership with district, borough and unitary councils?

“I think one of the things that's very distinctive about our festival, and doesn't really happen anywhere else, is the way it connects with local communities and local writing and reading groups.

“What the publishers are very interested in and keen on is the model we have where we can connect a reading group with a new writer. The group will read the book in advance of the event, so they're a good audience. For the authors it's a very interactive experience, because they're meeting people who are very keen to talk about the book.

“A traditional format for a new author [in other places, say] would be to come along to an event where people haven't read the book, it's a very small audience, and the focus is on how you become a writer rather than the book. So ours is a really lively model and one I think we can be very proud of.

“And what the publishers really like is that because it's run through libraries, we have the potential to be promoting the book before, during and after the festival - which is what we do with our displays of featured authors.

“The other area which is unique is that we do events for very specific audiences: the fact we have events delivered in sign language is very unusual; the fact that we do those events in prisons and residential homes is very unusual.”

By the end of March it will be a case of “Ten down . . .” What about the next decade?

“When we started in 2000, it would have been impossible to envisage getting to where we are now. Another 10 years down the line . . . It's hard to say, really,” laughs June.

“What we would like to see happen, I think, is to receive more national recognition of the festival for the way it's providing something of such high quality right across the county that attracts people into Essex.”

One facet being given more oomph is the new website. She concedes the internet presence has been “very poor” up 'til now.

“There's a lot of potential in the digital involvement of readers in that online environment. That is a possibility, when you look ahead, of how things may develop.

“But I think the formula we have of a festival that goes right across the county - and that in itself brings its own organisational challenges when compared to festivals that base themselves in one town or one location - is a really strong one and I think that will definitely continue.”

A case of “steady as she goes”, then, really?

“Yes. What's really lovely, when we ask people for feedback, is that so many say 'Just carry on the good work' and 'More of the same!' It's really nice to know people do enjoy it so much and like the way it's being developed.

“What people would like to see, of course, is more events in their own localities - so many say 'Can we have more in this place or more in that place?' Obviously, when you go to something you really enjoy, you want to have more of it on your doorstep.”

FULL details of the 2009 line-up can be found online at www.essexbookfestival.org.uk and the box office number is 01206 573948. Brochures can be found at libraries in the county. General inquiries should go to 0845 603 7628 or email answers.direct@essex.gov.uk

The schedule includes:

Broadcaster and author Melvyn Bragg is speaking in Chelmsford on March 2 about writers who draw on their own lives for inspiration

Former Shadow Chancellor, ex-Shadow Home Secretary and one-time deputy leader of the Labour Party Roy Hattersley is in Chelmsford on March 10 to talk about Britain between the wars

Prof Jules Pretty, from The University of Essex, will deliver the 2009 Burrows Lecture on March 18. It's about his year walking and boating around East Anglia

Essex writer Margery Allingham, who brought us the detective Albert Campion, is the subject of biographer Julia Jones's date at West Mersea on March 11

Highly-successful local novelist Barbara Erskine, whose latest tale, The Warrior's Princess, weaves together the past and present, is in Manningtree on March 18

Jonathan Gash, who created the roguish but lovable antiques dealer Lovejoy, returns on March 18 to Chipping Ongar - a location much featured in the TV series. He will talk about Lovejoy's exploits in Faces in the Pool and introduce his crime novel Bad Girl Magdalene

It's all about fabulous frocks in Braintree on March 12 when writers Sarah Gristwood and Jane Eastoe look at the last 100 years of the dress and its enduring appeal

Writer, photographer and documentary film producer Caroline Courtauld is in Halstead on March 25 to evoke 500 years of China through the story of its palace, The Forbidden City

Laura Thompson gives the 17th annual Dorothy L Sayers Lecture in Witham - the former home town of the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey - on March 11. Laura will be talking about her biography, Agatha Christie: an English mystery

Broadcaster, songwriter, musician - and EADT columnist - Martin Newell is in Maldon on March 25 for a lively and humorous evening of poetry for people who don't like it . . . and for those who do

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