Meg Reid: 'There is almost too much to see at Felixstowe Book Festival!'

Meg Reid, director of Felixstowe Book Festival

Meg Reid, director of Felixstowe Book Festival - Credit: Brittany Woodman

What if…? Surely, this has to be one of the most powerful and creative phrases in the English language. It’s the kickstarter to all sorts of inspired and challenging schemes which have helped shape our cultural and economic landscape over the centuries. 

This was certainly the question uppermost in Meg Reid’s mind as she drove home to Felixstowe having attended the Cambridge Literary Festival. 

“I was driving home with a friend and we had both just moved to Felixstowe and we’d had such a great time we thought why doesn’t Felixstowe have a book festival? And it started from there really.” 

This year celebrates its 10th anniversary, centred around the atmospheric Harvest House – formerly the Victorian Felix Hotel – which the festival moved to last year as part of its pandemic precautions. 

As part of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, the event is staging a festival within a festival – a series of literary events celebrating Suffolk and the Sea Day. An impressive line-up of authors includes Esther Freud, Nicci French, Patrick Gale, actor Stephen McGann, broadcaster Justin Webb, playwright Shamser Sinha, Dame Stella Rimington and actress-turned-author Carol Drinkwater. 

Esther Freud is a longtime supporter of Felixstowe Book Festival

Esther Freud is a longtime supporter of Felixstowe Book Festival - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

There will also be entertainment from Martin Newell and Blake Morrison, both performing with The Hosepipe band. 

If the 10th anniversary is being marked with an explosion of star names from the book world, the first festival in 2012 was understandably smaller...but it had ambition right from the start. 

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“The festival works because it is a community-based event,” says Meg. “It wouldn’t work – couldn’t work – without all the supporters, all the volunteers, pitching helping to get the festival ready each year, and manning the talks and events during the festival weekend. It’s a real Felixstowe event. We love to welcome visitors and it’s great to see them, but the Felixstowe Book Festival is primarily an event for the people of Felixstowe. It’s an important part of the cultural life of the town. 

“If I am honest, I was surprised that it was such a hit right from the start. Because I had only recently moved to Felixstowe, I wasn’t sure what to expect, so I went out and attended various town meetings and community events to test the waters and find out if people wanted a book festival in the town. It soon became clear that they did. 

“I thought that at the beginning we may only have a couple of authors talking in cafes or something like that, but there was such an enthusiastic response to the idea, from the people and from the town council, that we decided to hit the ground running and stage a proper weekend right from the first year and it’s developed from there. 

“That first year I was absolutely terrified. I sat there thinking: ‘What if no-one turns up? What am I going to do? What am I going to say to the authors? But I needn’t have worried because it was incredibly successful right from the start. 

Nicci Gerard and Sean French who write together as Nicci French

Nicci Gerard and Sean French who write together as Nicci French - Credit: Johnny Ring

“Every year I recognise plenty of very familiar faces who not only come and support us each year, but they are right up the front at numerous events and always have very perceptive questions to put to our authors, which lead to some engaging question and answer sessions after the talks. 

“To me that is what the festival is about – allowing writers and their readers to come together and have a conversation. Where else can that happen but at a book festival?” 

Although Meg has always been an avid reader and loves books, she doesn’t have a background in publishing. So, in the beginning, she relied on friends in the industry to track down the right agents and the more elusive guest speakers. 

“My background is in the theatre, so you could say that I have had a long association with words, but they tended to have been delivered as scripts rather than books. I was a theatre manager, so I was all about the logistics of running a tour. I ran my own theatre company for a while and for me the devil is in the detail. It’s all about planning, getting venues booked, making sure the actors are where they need to be, that the set is put up on time – exactly the same skills that you need for running a book festival. 

“You are always attending to something. Before this current festival is on you are already worrying about next year and thinking of ideas, of possible authors to approach, for the year after that. It’s a year-round project.” 

Carol Drinkwater

Carol Drinkwater - Credit: Brandon Bishop

This year Meg is realising a long-held ambition to have multiple events going on at different venues around the town. “I’ve always wanted the festival to have that ‘Edinburgh’ feel where you have to dash across town to get to the next thing you want to see. 

“It gives the festival a livelier atmosphere and creates a bit of movement, but it is also something of a planning nightmare because you have to give audiences time to get from venue A to venues B or C. But I am pleased that we have got events happening not only at Harvest House but also at Two Sisters in Trimley and in the Conservatory in a different part of Harvest House.  

“Audiences will have to choose what they want to see this year because they won’t be able to see everything. There is too much, and some events will overlap. They’ll have to study their programmes and work out their own personal itinerary, which will be fun. It’ll give the festival some extra buzz this year.” 

Also providing some buzz is the Suffolk and the Sea strand, offering festival-goers the opportunity to take a look at Arthur Ransome’s yachts The Nancy Blackett and Peter Duck, which was built at Pin Mill, and is now owned by Suffolk and the Sea curator Julia Jones. 

There will be opportunities to get close to Duet, now managed by the Cirdan Trust, which is the longest serving sail training vessel in the UK. Duet is a keen competitor in the annual Tall Ships’ Race and has been a previous winner and a chance to see Tinfish II - a much-travelled cruising yacht. 

Harvest House in Felixstowe

Harvest House in Felixstowe - Credit: Rachel Sloane

These nautical close encounters will take place at Levington Yacht Harbour throughout the weekend of June 25 and 26, as long as their owners or volunteers are on board. 

Meg said of the Suffolk and the Sea mini-festival: “It started off as an afternoon, but it quickly grew into an all-day affair because we found so much that we wanted to include.” 

She said that she is not a sailor herself so recruited experienced yachtswoman Julia Jones to suggest some events. “When we arranged to use Two Sisters as a venue, I was intrigued by the fact that the river is just over the fields and I thought that sailing and the sea is such a part of Felixstowe life that we should do something special for this tenth anniversary year and Julia has really pulled out all the stops. 

“We have a series of talks on the Saturday focussing on Suffolk’s connections and relationships with the sea...the healing power of the sea. Julia will be telling stories of the yachtsmen who risked life and limb off the Suffolk coast during World War II.” 

Additional tales will be told at Felixstowe Museum. “There will be a special celebration for the publication of writer and environmentalist Jules Pretty’s latest book Sea Sagas of the North: Travels and Tales of Warming Waters. The day begins at Felixstowe Museum, then sets sail via the foot and bicycle ferry from Felixstowe to Harwich Quay – replete with salty tales from award-winning storyteller Glenys Newton – before finishing up at The Redoubt Fort. Audiences will then be taken back across the estuary to Landguard Fort.” 

Meg said that she always wears two hats when programming the festival. As a curator she endeavours to get a wide spread of authors covering a wide range of topics, different genres, a good mix of fiction and non-fiction as well as supporting local writers. 

As a festivalgoer herself she has a love of well-written crime fiction and has enjoyed working with Cambridge authors Nicola Upson and Mandy Morton, who have been huge supporters of the Felixstowe event from the first year and continue to alternate between being interviewers and interviewees. 

So what are her highlights this year? “As a festivalgoer I think my highlight will be the Margery Allingham Celebration Talk hosted by Nicola and Julia Jones. And I won’t be missing Sean and Nicci French, who will be introducing their latest psychological thriller – The Unheard. 

“We also have Carol Drinkwater coming to join us from her home in France, which has been twice delayed because of lockdown restrictions, and I am very much looking forward to meeting her.” 

Elsewhere, Meg is delighted that festival patron Esther Freud is returning to talk to Tessa Hadley about Free Love, her latest novel about a young woman’s sexual and intellectual awakening in 1960s London. 

“Also, we are thrilled to welcome back Stephen McGann, who will be taking us behind the scenes of the popular Sunday night drama Call The Midwife with a look at a new book compiled by the cast called Call The Midwife: A Labour of Love. And we welcome back another festival favourite, Patrick Gale, to talk about his latest book Mother’s Boy - a wonderful historical novel set in Cornwell between the wars.” 

The Felixstowe Book Festival is on June 25 and 26. A launch weekend is being held at the Two Sisters Arts Centre on June 11 and 12 with Martin Newell and The Hosepipe Band, and with actor Michael Pennington performing extracts from his autobiography In My Own Footsteps. 

Booking information and a detailed programme breakdown can be found on the festival website at felixstowebookfestival.co.uk