Durham Book Festival 2011: An Insider’s Perspective, Part 1

Niall Hodson writes: The Durham Book Festival has in recent years become one of the region’s key cultural events. Taking place in a number of venues across the county throughout October, it brings a host of writers, scholars and journalists, poets, practitioners and politicians, to discuss their work, and written culture in general, with the public. The Festival naturally has a close and long-standing relationship with Durham University, and this year the Centre for Medical Humanities has supported the creation of a Festival Intern role, to give a Durham postgraduate student the opportunity to get involved in the organization and running of a major literary festival, and equally to help the Book Festival maintain a good relationship with students at Durham.

As a PhD student shared between the English department and the CMH, I have been working with New Writing North – the charity behind the Durham Book Festival – for several weeks now, preparing for the Festival behind the scenes.

The logistics of the Festival are on a grand scale with over 60 different events taking place everywhere from the Cathedral and Town Hall in Durham, to the Bowes and Beamish museums in the wider county. These events range from David Miliband on international development and Sir Rodric Braithwaite on Afghanistan, to Jon Ronson on madness and Lucy Worsley on the history of the home. There are also a number of great events with this year’s ‘Festival Laureate’, the poet Don Paterson, including the performance by Durham Cathedral Choir of a specially-commissioned anthem at Evensong on 21st October.

A large part of my role has been helping to lay the groundwork for this packed schedule: getting in touch with speakers to sort out exactly what they require for their events (you’d be forgiven for thinking it would simply be a chair and a microphone, but lots of authors today are as skilled at public speaking as they are at writing: lecterns, powerpoints, and projectors are the order of the day). There’s of course been the more mundane business, too, of organizing hundreds of train tickets and hotel bookings.

Despite the complexity, the events themselves seem in practice to be relaxed, enjoyable and fluid, allowing the authors and audiences to direct the discussion according to whatever they’re interested in. Working at my first event, a reading from the novelist Andrew Martin at the National Railway Museum at Shildon, I got the opportunity to introduce the author and start the post-reading conversation with some leading questions of my own.

Another novel experience for me has been writing marketing copy for the various events, to help publicize them in the right quarters: getting poetry fans informed about poetry events and historians to history events and so on. Students have been keen attendees and volunteers at Book Festival events in the past, and to this end, I’ll be operating a stall at the Fresher’s Fair at Durham Students’ Union tomorrow to spread the word.

In closing, I might mention a couple of events at this year’s Festival I’m particularly looking forward too, and which might also have particular appeal to the medical humanities community: in ‘Edgelands’, poet-cum-geographers Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts will be looking at the urban wildernesses of landfill sites, business parks and motorway junctions and their strange presence in our consciousness; and Melanie Challenger’s ‘On Extinction’ which retraces the author’s journeys across the abandoned whaling stations of South Georgia, the melting icescape of Antarctica and the Inuit camps of the Arctic, exploring the links between human activities and environmental collapse.

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