One of the wonders of our festival is that it’s walkable; our guests can shuttle between venues in minutes, our visitors crowd into our shops and cafes and, though it’s late in the summer season, the town takes on a holiday air. We keep it small, we keep it local, but it’s the opposite of parochial; no festival is more ambitious in reaching through time and space. This year we will meet Victorian child murderers, Russian revolutionaries, great cricketers and a Scottish Makar. We will have a ringside seat at Downing Street debacles. We will create poetry, ponder the meaning of liberty, follow the footsteps of forgotten explorers, and learn from Marcus du Sautoy ‘What We Cannot Know.’
It is a thoughtful and ambitious programme and as president I should like to thank those who have brought it together with ingenuity, optimism and patience. As the festival scene expands abroad, East Devon finds itself competing for authors with Jaipur, Sri Lanka, Cartagena and the Caribbean. September is the peak of the publishing year. Increasingly, companies place embargoes on their top titles, and lock their authors in a cellar till the big day comes; before that date, it’s agreed, they won’t give readings and won’t talk to the press. Sometimes we congratulate ourselves on having recruited someone, only to find their publication date has moved and put them out of our reach. It’s a constant juggling act – but worthwhile. Our audiences, we think, deserve the best, the most stylish, the most sought-after. We are not content to be passive recipients of culture. Through our education programme, we aim to grow writers and readers for the future. And authors who choose to visit us will find audiences who are curious, courteous and lively.
Peter Florence, the founder of the mighty Hay-on-Wye festival, said recently that in his 29 year career – he has run or consulted on over 200 festivals in 14 countries – he has yet to work out the formula for success. But one thing is true, he says: ‘the only festivals that really work are rooted in their communities.’
Our festival is now in its 8th year. More than ever we need our business community to get behind it, and see how they can be part of an initiative that creates so much goodwill in our town. As soon as the ink has dried on the final author’s signature, as soon as the lights fade and the rooms are swept, next year’s festival begins…