Friday, 19 June 2009

Festivals herald Budleigh’s sea-change


Susan Ward had been living in Budleigh for two years when she found herself talking to an elderly gentleman on the beach – she does have this habit of chatting up strangers as I myself have found. Vaguely thinking of Dartington and its well-established Ways with Words literature event, she asked whether Budleigh had a literary festival. No, was the answer. Well why don’t you start one, she asked him. “Me? I’m 20 years older than you. I’ve got a pace-maker and an artificial hip. You should be the one to start it.”

True, the elderly gentleman did seem to be in his eighties, like many of our residents. Stung by his gentle reproach, the future Chairman of the first Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival set to work by forming a committee.

Recruiting her committee treasurer, local architect Christopher Briscoe, in a garden centre where he was quietly buying some trellis, did seem a bit random. And gathering the committee members around her kitchen table to explain that they were starting from nothing – “we have no money…we have no authors” – might have daunted most people. But as Susan explains, she and her fellow-committee members have “vim, vigour and vision.” Above: Budleigh Literary Festival Chairman Susan Ward

With plenty of creative ideas to start the ball rolling, support from locally-based journalist and broadcaster Sue Lawley who agreed to be the group’s President, and a recently appointed press officer in the person of former journalist Steve Andrews, it looks as if Budleigh Salterton is more than ready to take its place in the world of books when the three-day Festival opens on 18 September with a strong line-up, including novelists Hilary Mantel, H.R.F. Keating, Val McDermid, Simon Brett, the actor Sheila Mitchell and journalist Virginia Ironside.

‘Writing by the sea’ is the motif which has been chosen for the Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival, with “Adolphus and all that” as a sub-text. This is in recognition of a 19th century resident of Budleigh, Thomas Adolphus Trollope, brother of Anthony, who retired to live in Budleigh’s Cliff Terrace in 1890, having produced sixty volumes of travel writing, history and fiction, in addition to a large amount of periodical and journalistic work.

It’s only right that a Literary Festival in Budleigh, with the town’s heritage of old buildings and fascinating history should include some names from the past as well as presenting contemporary writers. A performance of Coleridge’s Table Talk, by the actor Dennis Harkness, is an apt choice, given the poet’s local links. The Festival has also invited Gerald Dickens, the great great grandson of Charles Dickens to present a performance based on his favourite Dickens characters. And the joint enthusiasm of three local residents for his Cautionary Tales has prompted Sue Lawley, television executive and author Hugh Williams, and the local MP Hugo Swire to present an ‘Evening with Hilaire Belloc.’

Enthusiasm for this first Literary Festival has naturally inspired the organizers. But Susan Ward, with a background in university fund-raising is well aware that enthusiasm has to be matched by a professional approach. “We’re very ambitious,” she says. “It’s not just for fun. We want to be the best.” Ensuring charitable status for the Festival was one of the first moves by the Committee to make the venture more credible to the outside world. Budleigh Salterton Town Council certainly seems to have given the Festival its backing, Councillor Tom Wright having joined the Committee with a responsibility for what Susan calls “logistics.”

Certainly there’s nothing slapdash about the high-quality promotional material which has been produced for the Festival, including the wonderfully imaginative photo of books by the Festival authors balanced in a pile on Budleigh beach. “I arranged the pebbles myself,” says Susan proudly.

Pride in their achievements so far is obvious in the Festival Committee’s desire to be as independent as possible. “We’re not on the literary festival circuit – we’re not beholden to anyone,” Susan emphasized when I asked her how dependent on publishers the Festival was. “We’ve chosen authors whom we wanted. It gives us total control.”

The same spirit of independence moved Budleigh’s Literary Festival organizers to assert their own identity at an early stage in their development, having started off by working with the very successful Budleigh Salterton Festival of Music and the Arts. The Festival now has its own website at http://www.budlitfest.org.uk/

Susan Ward and her team are also proud of helping “to put Budleigh on the map.” Since Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit some unkind things have been said about the town, described along with many other coastal resorts as “God’s waiting room.” Yet along with its obviously contented pensioners Budleigh has a thriving and growing community of young families, with excellent primary schools both in the town and in nearby villages like East Budleigh and Otterton. No surprise then that Michael Morpurgo, one of the UK’s most popular and respected children’s authors, should have accepted an invitation to speak at a pre-Festival event on Saturday 5 September in Budleigh’s Public Hall. Later in the Festival itself comes an event with children’s book author and illustrator Michael Foreman.

For those involved with the Festival such as Budleigh resident Hugh Williams the town is, as he described it in a recent interview on Radio Devon, “a magical place” where “writing and literary things come immediately to mind.” And at a more prosaic level Susan Ward hopes that visitors attracted by the Festival will be contributing to the local economy. Both views will do much to change a common perception of the town. As recently as 2001 in The Daily Telegraph, a travel writer like Simon Heptinstall was producing copy with the headline “Budleigh Salterton in South Devon takes pleasure in not inviting you.”

“Writing by the sea” will certainly be doing much to broaden Budleigh horizons. “I’d like the Festival to evolve,” says its Chairman. “We would welcome writers from Europe and the USA in future years.”

With its popular first-ever Jazz Festival last April, its already internationally renowned Music Festival and its rock music event Budstock in July and August, even its lesser known UKDemoscene & Sundown Demoparty Forums for computer enthusiasts in September, Budleigh has been showing itself in recent years more than willing to welcome visitors. Its first Literary Festival is simply confirming a welcome development.

Tickets for the Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival are available from the Tourist Information Centre on 01395 445275. The Box Office opens on 10 July 2009. More information is at http://www.budlitfest.org.uk/

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