IT was a trip to Scotland’s designated National Book Town just over the border, that first inspired Susie Troup to begin inviting authors to Hexham. “I have always been a big book reader and festival attender and I was visiting Wigtown Book Festival and thought, ‘Wow! If you can make a festival here, which is in the middle of nowhere, then why not in Hexham?”
Full of enthusiasm, she returned to sound out her reading friends about the idea and together they came up with a fantasy wish-list, which at the time seemed to Susie like pie in the sky. “I was sitting round with my book club and we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we got Will Self and Germaine Greer?’ But we were like, ‘Yeah – like they would come to Hexham!’ Yet actually, we have had some fantastic names over the years.”
Indeed this year Susie’s baby celebrates its tenth birthday and is now a firm fixture on Tynedale’s cultural calendar. This year’s literary luminaries include the poet Wendy Cope who will be talking about her new collection, Life, Love and the Archers and Alexander McCall Smith whose No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series has been such a runaway success. The humanitarian and former hostage, Terry Waite; journalist and agony aunt, Virginia Ironside and Springwatch presenter, Martin Hughes-Games are also in the varied line up, as is popular poet, Simon Armitage.
Staging book festivals is rarely a money-making exercise and funding has understandably become more of a struggle since the onset of the recession. The Hexham Book Festival began with Arts Council funding. Then there came backing from the Northern Rock Foundation. However the festival hit crisis point in 2011 when it lost both sources of income at once. Happily the Gillian Dickinson Trust came to the rescue with a three year package which ended last year.
This year’s programme has been helped by an undisclosed private patron who has pledged support for the next five years. But director, Susie and her festival co-ordinator Gil Pugh, who’s been on board since the second event, both agree that what is really needed is a long-term commercial sponsor.
“The Gillian Dickinson Trust supported us three years to the tune of £60,000. And that is the sort of figure we need to keep ourselves going. We have got a contribution that has gone half way towards that,” Susie says.
But it’s clear that in true Field of Dreams fashion, if you build it, they will come. “It’s been a real success story in that it’s obvious we are producing something that visitors want to come to,” says Gil. “Our box office percentage went up by 50 per cent last year.”
So what is it that draws people in their droves to literary festivals? Audiences at Hexham have grown exponentially from a mere 500 for the first one-day event featuring local authors to last year’s 5,400 two week extravaganza. “A good upward slope,” Gill acknowledges modestly.
Susie adds: “I think it’s about being able to actually hear the thoughts of someone you admire in quite a condensed period of time – you don’t have to commit to a whole evening. And if you are in discussion with someone you find out more about the author than if you were just reading an article about them,” says Gil.
“You also get topical discussions about politics or history. It’s here, it’s accessible and… you can get your book signed,” Susie smiles. Gil and Susie obviously get to meet all of the authors – a dream job for the bookish pair. “They have all been lovely really,” says Susie. “They are very open to doing festivals and it’s very good for marketing their books.”
Susie, who lives in Corbridge, as does Gil, has an arts background. She went to art college but was always a great reader and started a book group about 25 years ago when she first moved down here from Edinburgh where she worked in theatre. “I have just always been very interested in the written word, having worked in theatres. And knowing a bit about putting on events and dealing with actors, I wasn’t shy about getting in touch with authors.”
“I have just always been very interested in the written word, having worked in theatres. And knowing a bit about putting on events and dealing with actors, I wasn’t shy about getting in touch with authors.”
Some, they say, are more demanding than others. One media celebrity, who shall remain anonymous, demanded somebody wait in the wings with a glass of wine as she went on stage and another as she came off.
But others are less daunting than their reputations might suggest. Arch spin doctor Alastair Campbell for example was not the ‘Malcolm Tucker’ despot of popular imagination.
“He was very charming,” Susie says. “But they are all kind to us – they want it to go well. On the whole they’re not high maintenance.”
As well as writing hundreds of invitations to authors each year, there’s the extensive reading lists the two have to get through. As well as her personal book club, Susie runs one at the Forum cinema in Hexham.
An exciting element for this year is that the festival, which has always centred on the Queen’s Hall, will take up some of the new rooms at Hexham Abbey. “We’re very excited about the Abbey as a venue. Last year we had a yurt on the Sele which was fantastic,” Gil says.
So what of the future? “Getting out to the communities a bit more so more people can see authors and get involved,” Gil says. “Our five year plan is to grow that, to do more events across the county. We want this to thrive and grow.” Author events with libraries and schools have been part of the festival’s year-round programme for some time and are supported by Northumberland Arts Development and Arts Council England.
Ten authors have been chosen to do tenth anniversary writing residencies too. So far Ross Raisin, whose Yorkshire-based novel God’s Own Country scooped a clutch of first novel awards, has spent several winter weeks on Holy Island and landscape author Will Atkins is soon heading to Blanchland.
Other writers already lined up include children’s author and illustrator Debi Gliori who will be at Kielder, plus local author Michael Chaplin, who is off to Ninebanks in the Allen Valley. Their work will be showcased in 2016.
The festival continues to be a welcome boost each year to local trade. A 2009 survey showed visitors spent an average of £15 in Hexham per visit, on top of their ticket price. “What’s really evident in talking to businesses in Hexham is that it’s bringing visitors in. Over a ten year period it’s made an enormous difference to the economy of the town,” Gil says. “We see ourselves as something that really increases the profile of Hexham nationally and it’s all good for the economy.”
And having already fulfilled her original ambition of tempting Germaine Greer and Will Self up North, who is on her future wish-list? Susie admits it’s difficult to walk the line between populist and high brow authors. “Some of the authors I would like are a bit obscure. I recently read the Canadian author Miriam Toews and a really interesting Scandinavian Per Petterson. But I would love to have Jeannette Winterson here and Sebastian Faulks. Rose Tremain and Kate Mosse would also be good.”