The Lit Fest Newsletter
Special Edition: How a small(ish) literary festival went large(ish)
We are interupting our normal format to bring you a longer piece that tells the story of one festival. It is written by Jackie Kaines, a writer based in Berwick-upon-Tweed. You’ll find her on Instagram and Twitter @JaxKaines and at www.JaxKaines.com.
If you would like to contribute to the newsletter please email firstname.lastname@example.org - we are now read by about 100 UK literary festivals. You can follow us on twitter @AmpBook. Thanks for your support.
Berwick Literary Festival was launched seven years ago with little fanfare and little attention. A tiny band of volunteers thought it would be good to augment the town’s autumn festival list (a food and beer festival, a film and media arts festival, a short-lived music festival and Heritage Open Days) with something wordish. In 2014 a handful of events duly took place over a couple of days in the church halls and public venues around the town. The Festival has followed a similar format ever since. Until 2020.
Berwick-upon-Tweed, tucked between the north sea and the Tweed Estuary on the east coast, is England’s most northerly town. Its story is one of constant embattlement – it has the medieval and Elizabethan fortified walls to prove it. Berwick settled in England in 1482 but the history of the small town (pop approx 12,500) is peppered with reminders of its conflicted past – from the battle sites that litter the countryside around it, to its extraordinary fortifications and Hawksmoor designed Barracks.
You’d think Berwick would be the county town of Berwickshire in the Scottish Borders, but it’s in Northumberland. The dialect plunders Scots, Northumberland, Geordie and Romany. You’d think its castle would be a hub of English and cross-border history and heritage, but the castles-to-visit honours sit with southern neighbours – Bamburgh (owned by the mighty Armstrong family) and Alnwick (seat of the Duke of Northumberland). Besides, Berwick Castle is a ruin, casualty of our ancestors’ habit of plundering stone from old edifices to build town houses – oh, and the Victorians’ decision to build a railway station on part of the castle site.
Money makes a difference to a town’s story. And, Berwick’s modern battle, like so many northern coastal towns, is with lack of investment and lack of opportunity. Berwick’s glory days slipped away over several decades and the town seems destined to be perpetually socially disadvantaged by the relentless whittling away of industry, manufacturing, and educational and medical provision. And, again, like many struggling towns, the slap of Covid will hit small independent businesses and the high street doubly hard.
However, Berwick’s contemporary story is not all doom and gloom. As well as its fine location and fascinating heritage, Berwick has a large population of downsizers and retirees. Attracted by the coastal location and relatively cheap property prices these incomers bring their spare time and spend-potential to the party. The grey-pounders arrive from both north and south of the country. Most fall in love with Berwick – after all, they chose to move to it. Many seek out projects to engage in their new community and, in their view, enhance the town. And this is how Berwick Literary Festival was born.
The Festival was always going to be a relatively hard sell both inside and outside the town. Like many rural towns, there can be a sense of mistrust and fear from some of the local population around settler motives. Not unreasonably, projects started by incomers can be perceived as exclusive rather than inclusive – a playground for ‘them’ rather than ‘us’. It can take years for events and groups to bed in across the demographic of a town. Some never do.
The pressures from outside the town tend to derive from competition and dearth of support from more populated and/or wealthier neighbours, combined with a lack of educational infrastructure. Over the border in nearby Melrose, the Borders Book Festival is well-established under the auspices of festival big gun Alistair Moffatt – the Edinburgh Fringe Festival became the largest arts festival in the world under Moffatt’s tenure (1976-81). Edinburgh itself is an hour along the A1 (45 minutes by train) from Berwick. The Durham and Hexham Book Festivals down south receive public funding from the Arts Council, with Durham also gaining cachet and clout from its partnership with New Writing North. Carlisle has Tully House Museum and a university campus; and Newcastle has its yearly Books on Tyne festival – which was a no-show in 2020. Local bookshops in the surrounding area from St Boswells to Alnwick and Corbridge hold regular high-profile, well-attended author events throughout the year.
So, what’s a small border town to do? Well, the tiny west coast town of Wigtown in Dumfries and Galloway (pop approx. 1,000) is now amongst the book festivals – expanding from a tin-pot event in 1999 to the 12-day 300-event titan of today. Shaun Bythell who owns The Bookshop in Wigtown has been involved in the Festival since its inception in 1999. In the early days, Booker-shortlisted author David Mitchell spoke at Wigtown. Bythell recalls: ‘I got a sheet of tarpaulin and some wood and rusty nails and made a makeshift marquee in the garden. We had an audience of five people – anywhere else in the world a writer of Mitchell’s calibre would have packed the tent out’. Bythell identifies one of the key challenges for Berwick Literary Festival: ‘You can put on the best programme in the world, but if you’re not in the public eye, nobody’s going to turn up’.
Mike Fraser has programmed the Berwick Literary Festival for the last four years. He says: ‘A good programme is peopled with interesting speakers and covers a healthy mix of audience-appropriate topical issues.’ The celeb-card isn’t available to a small-budget festival like Berwick. A couple of years ago Mike approached a ‘name’ who asked for a fee of £10,000. More recently a Northumberland media personality author, who’s spoken at other festivals in the area, requested £5,000. Mike’s penchant for news, politics and the arts has gathered him over 14 thousand followers – many from over the pond.
That’s a useful asset for any event and, as it turned out, a particular boon in 2020.
Back in March, when the coronavirus epidemic began to breathe down the country’s collective necks the frisson of anxiety around the Festival began. In April, as lockdown kicked in, Berwick Literary Festival Zoom conversations commenced. Early discussions between the ten-strong steering group probably echoed those held by groups around the country. Do we go ahead? Do we cancel now? Do we think about going online? A couple of weeks into lockdown, the Festival announced optimistically that it hoped the UK and the world might have passed through the difficult Covid times by autumn and that the Festival might be ‘something to look forward to’ for locals and visitors alike.
Writer Jackie Kaines Lang, new member of the committee for 2020, coordinates the Festival’s PR and marketing. She says: ‘Attracting visitors to the town has always been part of the Festival’s remit. We want people to enjoy Berwick’s history and coastal location and spend their money in our hospitality and retail outlets. We hear about lots of people coming back to explore Berwick and the surrounding area still further after they’ve visited the Festival. That’s a big win as far as we’re concerned.’
2020 was publisher Michael Gallico’s first year as the chair of the Festival and he was determined that some form of festival should take place. He says: ‘By the end of April it was clear that the in-person Festival could not happen. The majority of the steering group was up for exploring an online festival and felt it was something we had the time and potential to achieve – even though our technology skillset with Zoom, Crowdcast and other streaming apps was pretty limited. The Trustees were, very reasonably, anxious about the financial implications of a free festival. We’d still have overheads: speakers’ fees, publicity, and our local small sponsors faced tough times. On the plus side there would be no travel expenses or venue hire costs.’
The steering group changed gear. Mike Fraser already had the 2020 programme pretty much sewn up by February. In May he contacted speakers to whittle back the programme by about 50%: ‘They were very understanding. Three of the speakers I’d hoped to keep withdrew but we were able to slot in a couple of speakers we’d have missed out on otherwise: a topical session on breadmaking and mental health and a fascinating talk about a local Victorian woman adventurer.’
The Festival’s band of three techies began to investigate the best way to deliver an online event. Peter Bistram, retired IT project manager, says: ‘We had all become Zoom users during lockdown, keeping in touch with family and friends, so it seemed to be the obvious choice for our online festival. It was only after we held a rehearsal session in August with a friendly audience of Patrons, that we realised how much work lay ahead if we were to deliver a professional result in October. Six weeks of Zoom obsession followed. Fortunately, we all had time on our hands.’
The overall demographic of the Festival team has been on a spectrum of grey since it began. And, whilst the Festival’s schools’ programme is strong and welcomed enthusiastically by local schools, attracting a younger audience to Festival events generally had not been addressed. Many other festivals offer youth-specific days or venues. With this in mind, Chloë Smith a locally based artist and performance maker, joined the group with the specific remit of broadening its age reach. The focus of this for 2020 was on a local music venue and the performance poet Harry Baker. Chloë says: 'I was really excited to host a live performance by Harry for the Festival, the gig format felt like a good way to attract a younger audience, and although it's a shame it couldn't happen in person, Harry's performance via zoom was a Festival highlight.' Harry also recorded specially themed videos for the exclusive use of local schools.
The rest of the group focused on cueing up the marketing and funding options.
Jackie Kaines Lang says: ‘We wanted to continue to state our presence via our supportive local press. Also, to back publications who’ve been generous to us over the years by keeping up with our ad placements as they also went online.’
But the real focus was social media. The team looked at a consistent approach across platforms. In fact, the online format enabled the Festival to attract many more ‘visitors’ from across the world than at the in-person festivals. The group also resolved historic issues with its mailing list, immediately unlocking vital continuity of communication, support and wider word-of-mouth engagement.
By July PR about Berwick’s ‘online and free festival of words: written, spoken, performed’ was good to go. The team interviewed contributors, wrote blogs for SM and the Festival website and kept up a varied stream of information about speakers and their work.
Festival chair Michael Gallico forged more formal links with local bookshops from Topping & Company in Edinburgh to Cogito Books in Hexham and from Slightly Foxed Books in Berwick to Mainstreet Trading in St Boswells. ‘The colossus that is Amazon is anathema to bookstores and we always want to encourage Festival-goers to go offline, shop local and invest in local book shops,’ says Michael. Michael also nurtured and expanded the Festival’s vital list of Patrons and ferreted out local businesses who, despite the constraints and challenges of the epidemic, felt able to commit sponsorship.
By September, the tech team embarked on a mass rehearsal programme for session hosts and speakers. Each event was rehearsed individually with each host, presenter and speaker given a tech crib sheet to steer them through the process.
Michael Gallico says: ‘Traditionally, ticket sales are slow and ramp up in the week of the Festival. This year we had sessions with strong bookings well before October. We upped our Zoom registration capacity.’
Finally, on the third weekend of October, the Festival went live. Over the following four days, a stream of topics rolled out – history, biography, Black Lives Matter, climate change, breadmaking, politics, poetry, literary fiction. Before each session, a reel of stunning photos of Berwick landscapes became a great talking point and a vital way of encapsulating a virtual event delivered from a real town. Behind the scenes, the tech team adapted to the demands of live sessions – all three of them attended every event to meet the demands of managing audience inexperience with the technology, sorting questions and forwarding them to hosts, and ensuring sound and picture quality.
Michael Gallico says: ‘Attendees came from across the country and Europe as well as from as far afield as the USA, India and Australia. Overall, we had over 2,000 registrations from 34 different countries across the 19 events. We also enjoyed the coup of hosting the launch of Bloodaxe Books’ new world poetry collectionin the Staying Human anthology series: Staying Alive.’
The question is, can this growth and success be repeated in 2021 if the Festival returns to being purely in-person?
The online format made the Festival accessible to a broader audience and the team is clearly encouraged by how wide that audience proved to be. However, it’s also clear that the Festival team’s commitment to attract people into their pretty north Northumberland town runs firmly alongside its desire to continue growing engagement and general attendance figures. Live streaming of events is firmly on the agenda for 2021
And, like all other events and festivals, as it plots an even better celebration of words for 2021, the team is maintaining a watching brief on the pandemic.
Michael Gallico says: ‘Ultimately, the challenges for us remains the same for 2021: low budgets, the struggle to gain purchase in terms of wider PR and marketing of our event – and the fact that we’re all volunteers juggling other lives alongside our commitment to the Festival. But, in such a challenging and strange year as 2020, it’s a real boon to have a positive story to share – particularly one from the North of England.’
You can watch some of the festival’s 2020 events on the Berwick Literary Festival YouTube channel.