Ilkley Literature Festival 2011

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When we think about literature festivals it tends to be the big names which spring to mind – Hay and Edinburgh to name but two – but there's an awful lot to be said for the smaller events and Sue has been investigating the Ilkley Literature Festival.

If you're used to the larger festivals with their tented arenas and massed crowds then Ilkley is going to come as something of a revelation and (to me) a relief. It takes place in the town, using the venues which the town has to offer and making the most of the fact that there are great travel links and plenty of accommodation in the surrounding area. It's a lot more relaxed than the bigger festivals and (dare I say it?) almost less commercial. Yes, you can buy the book of the event, but it's your choice whether or not you want to participate. The last time I was at Edinburgh I came out of one event to find a publicist trying to shepherd me into the queue to buy books. For an awful moment I thought we were going to end up having a wrestling match on the muddy grass.

There were over two hundred events in 2011 with something for everyone, both adults and children and it's one of the essentials stops on the litfest circuit for even the big-name authors with a new book to promote. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was keen to tell us of his 'returning author' status and it's only a pity that Alan Hollinghurst wasn't on the Booker shortlist when he spoke. I'm not going to detail all the events but you'll find news and reviews at The Pickled Egg and there's also the festival's official site.

I managed to get to three events this year and you'll find a brief review of each below. They were all surprisingly good value for money and very enjoyable. You've got to accept that the big names are only likely to appear when they have a book to promote – and that their presentation will be geared to this end – but unlike other festivals there was no point at which I felt I was being exploited.

Review Workshop for Adults with tips for reviewers new and experienced from former Glasgow Evening Times journalist Andrea Hardaker

If you put yourself onstage, you've got to accept the criticism.

Lunchtime on the hottest October day on record saw a dozen or so of us gathered in Ilkley's Church Hall to extract all we could from Andrea Hardaker about the art of reviewing. Accountants, human resources and IT managers, teachers (retired and current)… we had just the one thing in common, but Andrea pulled us together and it wasn't long before the conversation was slipping back and forth across the table. It wasn't just about books or films – or the concert in the village hall – but about how to prepare and structure any review.

We quickly established a checklist of points which good reviews are going to cover and despite having written more than one or two before we arrived I found myself scribbling some notes. When you usually only review books it's easy to forget the importance of surroundings (on this occasion tending to the usual aroma of eau de Boy Scout which such venues always have and with some VERY loud church bells) or how the audience reacts to the event. There was no problem there – we would all have continued for a while longer, given half a chance.

It was good to air our worries about reviewing and many of us found Andrea's words about the consequences of putting yourself on stage liberating. When you review books you're usually at some distance from the author, but local events can mean that you live next door to someone you might be criticising. We talked about the importance of accuracy and the cardinal sins of reviewing – but as an experienced reviewer I wouldn't fall into those traps, would I?

The only part of the afternoon which fell a little flat was the discussion of which critics we liked, but that's a minor nitpick and we eventually came up with a few names. We looked at a few reviews, considered the style and devices used – and then came the moment of truth. In just ten minutes we had to write a review about anything. Flushed with confidence I volunteered to read my review of this session first.

I had committed THE cardinal sin of reviewing: I got Andrea's name wrong.

Blushing furiously (well, it was a very hot day…) I beat a hasty retreat, muttering something about the event being very good value for money and doing exactly what it said on the tin. In the circumstances a couple of clichés couldn't make matters any worse.

Chris Mullin: A Walk-On Part

I've become a light entertainer.

Thursday the 13th of October saw a packed house at Ilkley's Kings Hall to hear Chris Mullin talk about the last (but, confusingly, the first, chronologically speaking) of the three volume of his diaries to be published. A Walk-On Part covers the period from May 1994 – the day after the death of Labour leader John Smith - to 1999 when Mullin became a minister in the Labour government. It's the time of the birth and growth of New Labour.

Was it going to be a dry evening of political anecdotes? Mullin soon put out minds at rest on that score. He'd wondered about what he would do when he left Parliament after twenty three years as an MP, but the matter seemed to have been settled – he's become a light entertainer. He spoke briefly too about his stint as a Booker Prize judge and the fact that it was generally thought that this year's short-list was rather controversial. He and his fellow judges had an advantage over most people though – they'd actually read the books.

Mullin spoke for forty minutes – with no one to share the burden or feed him questions and no props but our imaginations. If you've read the diaries a lot of the occasions about which he spoke would not be new, but he has the timing of a brilliant comedian and the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Lord Mandelson, Tony Banks and a host of the great and the good were there on stage. There was a delightful mix of his political and his personal life. The time flew by with murmurs of agreement and rounds of applause from the audience.

Question time brought out a side of Mullin not usually seen: he's a political pundit. Dr Liam Fox, he said, was not long for the political stratosphere. (Fox resigned the following day.) He didn't shy away from expressing his views about Nick Clegg and offered the intriguing suggestion that he won't be the leader of the Liberal Democrats at the next General Election.

It was just an hour in total, but there was never a dull moment and great value for money.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: Veg Every Day!

Gone are the flowing locks and rather chubby, youthful face. In their place are a sharp haircut and a slimmed-down version of the campaigner we know and love. It was one of the final events of the Festival and Ilkley's Kings Hall was packed with a surprisingly youthful audience to hear Hugh talk about his latest book, his campaigns, past, present and future – and to give us a few recipe hints to whet our appetite.

I'll confess that I'd been spoiled by Chris Mullin a few nights earlier. He carried the show entirely on his own. Hugh had Ruth Pitt with him to ask the pre-scripted questions – and she forgot her bag of props. Cue loud requests to a stage hand to go and get it for her for without it I fear that quite a lot of Hugh's presentation would have fallen flat. Rarely have we been so glad to see a swede, an aubergine and a mushroom. Hugh was so glad to see the bunch of (organic) carrots that he started eating them.

It was a partisan audience prepared to cheer Hugh for drinking a bottle of Yorkshire beer and who didn't even object when he confessed to having no suggestions for the lady who wondered what she could do with the giant marrow she'd acquired – or when he read a page and a half from his new book. If you've absorbed any of the publicity for the book and the television series then you won't have found much that was new in the event but in much the same way that there's a world of difference between going to a football match and watching it on TV there's a great deal to be said for the charisma of the man himself and it was this that made the event a success.

There was no doubting the depth of feeling about animal welfare or the squandering of fish stocks and I was relieved to hear that he has no intention of becoming a vegetarian. His loss of weight (or getting in shape) was a conscious decision prior to the filming of the television series and not a result of the fact that he ate no flesh in the course of the filming. He's reverted to being carnivorous since the end of filming – tempted first of all by mackerel.

It was an hour well-spent but unlike Chris Mullin, whom I'd happily listen to all over again I don't think that I would be in a hurry to repeat this one.

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