Sue Limb preview Stroud Book Festival
Magic is in the air, says Sue Limb, as Stroud Book Festival returns to the Shire
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.
Author Rachel Joyce, photographed by Justin Sutcliffe at the RIBA cafe in Portland Place
Below Fiennes’ book, Stroud’s BIG READ title ‘The Snow Geese’
Above: William Fiennes