Sue Limb pre­view Stroud Book Fes­ti­val

Magic is in the air, says Sue Limb, as Stroud Book Fes­ti­val re­turns to the Shire

Cotswold Life - - NEWS -

What is it about Stroud and books? Writ­ers seem to grav­i­tate to­wards it. Wil­liam Cob­bett dropped by in the 1820s on one of his Ru­ral Rides, and ad­mired the fact that there was a fat hog in ev­ery vil­lager’s back yard. So Stroud got the Cob­bett seal of ap­proval – and that wasn’t easy. (‘I passed through that vil­lain­ous hole, Crick­lade about two hours ago… Chel­tenham is a nasty, il­l­look­ing place, half clown, half Cock­ney…’)

Lo­cal trea­sure Jilly Cooper, fa­mous for more raunchy ru­ral rides, has de­scribed Stroud as ‘the sort of place where artists grow out of the cob­ble­stones.’ And in­deed one can hardly ven­ture three inches into the shabby but charis­matic out­skirts of Stroud with­out be­ing as­sailed by buskers, men in Afghan hats play­ing the hurdy-gurdy, art galleries, in­stal­la­tions, witches on broom­sticks, or­gan-grinders with mon­keys, eco-friendly fly­ing machines: you get the pic­ture.

Stroud with its hum­ming looms was a hot­bed of non­con­for­mity in the 18th and 19th cen­turies. This meant a de­fi­ance of au­thor­ity in reli­gious mat­ters, and ad­ven­tur­ous rad­i­cal­ism in pol­i­tics and the arts. Two fin­gers to con­ven­tion! Hell, why stop there? Three fin­gers!

Nowa­days the Bap­tist and Con­gre­ga­tion­al­ist chapels are more likely to be arts venues, and the tra­di­tion of a buzzing cul­tural life has at­tracted writ­ers for decades. Some were born Stroudy (Lau­rie Lee, Alan Hollinghurst), some achieved Stroudi­ness (Katie Fforde, Matthew Fort) some had Stroudi­ness thrust upon them (Jamila Gavin, born in the foothills of the Hi­malayas; Jilly Cooper, born in the foothills of Hornchurch).

So, open minded and rad­i­cal and ad­ven­tur­ous as Stroud has al­ways been, per­haps it’s sur­pris­ing that it was only last year that a group of lo­cal writ­ers, tir­ing of merely meet­ing for lunch oc­ca­sion­ally to bitch about our agents, de­cided a Stroud Book Fes­ti­val might be a good idea. We thought it might be cheaper than HRT and with fewer side ef­fects. And it went down a storm, and lit up the month of Novem­ber last year like an al­ter­na­tive fire­work dis­play.

And this com­ing Novem­ber here it is again! Crammed into a long week­end, from Thurs­day, Novem­ber 2 to Sun­day, Novem­ber 5, there will be talks, com­pe­ti­tions, po­ems and fid­dling (the stringed mu­si­cal in­stru­ment sort, noth­ing fi­nan­cial), there will be a chal­lenge for chil­dren to write a book in 80 min­utes or make a scary stick pup­pet, or sit and lis­ten to won­der­ful sto­ries and po­ems read by the peo­ple who wrote them. Chil­dren from Minch­in­hamp­ton School, in­spired and as­sisted by lo­cal au­thor, poet and song­writer John Dougherty, will tell us how they all col­lab­o­rated in a project to write a novel in a year: A Por­tal Through Time.

A high point will be two ses­sions with Katie Fforde and Jane Bailey, two of our most scin­til­lat­ingly en­ter­tain­ing yet dif­fer­ent writ­ers, whose hope­lessly ad­dicted read­ers queue from here to Tim­buc­too ev­ery time a new book ap­pears. Kate and Jane will at­tempt to solve the rid­dle of where books come from, and then in a three hour ses­sion with lunch at the Mu­seum in the Park, they will in­spire you to take up a pen your­self and make some

mean­ing­ful marks on a blank piece of pa­per.

I’m ig­nor­ing elec­tronic me­dia here. I know, I know, nowa­days books can be writ­ten and read on tablets. Well I’m fo­cussing right now on pa­per books made from trees – things you can use to prop up a wonky piece of fur­ni­ture, things you can flick through and cre­ate a draught; things you can hurl across the room.

Where in­deed do books come from? When a writer starts a new book, how does it feel? I’ve writ­ten about 20 books but I still feel a sick­en­ing dread when I face that first blank page. We’ve all had Writ­ers’ Block. I’m sure even Jane Austen found her­self clean­ing the skirt­ing boards with a tooth­brush rather than have to de­scribe El­iz­a­beth Ben­nett’s dilemma when Mr Darcy pro­posed.

And when the book is fin­ished, rewrit­ten, edited, and pub­lished, what a queer thing it is to be sure. There it sits: square, mute, pas­sive. A vis­i­tor from outer space would re­port back, “On Earth they have these things called ‘books’ and one sees the Earth­lings ev­ery­where, in parks, on trains, in their homes, star­ing trans­fixed into these books for hours, and at times they laugh, at times they cry, al­most as if they are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a real so­cial in­ter­ac­tion or dra­matic event.”

Well of course, when we read a book we are do­ing just that: es­cap­ing our mun­dane ex­is­tence and plung­ing into Else­where. We can plunge into 18th cen­tury Prague or 20th cen­tury Antarc­tica: 15th cen­tury Florence or the Mar­shalsea Prison in the 1870s. We thrill to the chase: we swoon when se­duced: we strug­gle against evil. Not all that dif­fer­ent from everyday life in Stroud. But dif­fer­ent enough to be en­thralling.

When you read an en­thralling book, part of the plea­sure is meet­ing some­body else who has read it. And this idea has in­spired one of the most ex­cit­ing events at the Stroud Book Fes­ti­val: the Big Read. Li­braries, read­ing groups, and book­shops are all en­cour­ag­ing us to read The Snow Geese by Wil­liam Fi­ennes, pub­lished in 2002. It won the Hawthorn­den Prize, was short­listed for the Sa­muel John­son Prize, and Fi­ennes was the Sun­day Times Young Writer of the Year in 2003.

It de­scribes how he fol­lowed the mi­gra­tion of the enor­mous flock of snow geese from Texas to the Arc­tic Tun­dra. The TLS con­cluded: “No one who reads it is likely to con­tinue to look at the world in the same way.” Fi­ennes will be talk­ing about this re­mark­able book on Fri­day, Novem­ber 3 at 8pm. I’ve or­dered my copy and I can’t wait for it to ar­rive.

That’s the thing about books. They change the way you think, and hence the way you live. Stephen King called books ‘uniquely por­ta­ble magic’. Novem­ber is of­ten seen as a dis­mal month, but at the Stroud Book Fes­ti­val, magic is in the air.

John Dougherty

Jane Bailey

Au­thor Rachel Joyce, photographed by Justin Sut­cliffe at the RIBA cafe in Port­land Place

Be­low:

Be­low Fi­ennes’ book, Stroud’s BIG READ ti­tle ‘The Snow Geese’

Above: Wil­liam Fi­ennes

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