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Cotswold towns: Sharing stories in Stratford

PUBLISHED: 10:50 25 April 2017 | UPDATED: 10:50 25 April 2017

Stratford-upon-Avon (c) Claudio Divizia / Shutterstock

Stratford-upon-Avon (c) Claudio Divizia / Shutterstock

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Where else would you hold a literary festival? Tracy Spiers goes to the home town of the Bard to find out abou this year’s exciting event

Tracy with Shakespeare's deskTracy with Shakespeare's desk

William Shakespeare looks down at me from his lofty plinth with his beady eyes and I have a sense he is somewhat amused by my appearance. He is not the only one. Can’t say I blame them, after all I am dressed up as a familiar 21st century book character with my fetching bobble hat, wide-rimmed blue glasses, striped red shirt and blue trousers. But then again why shouldn’t a famous 15th century personality mix with a fictional one created six centuries later? That is the beauty of stories whether they are acted on stage, illustrated in picture form, voiced in rap, poetry or dramatic voice or come alive through imagination in the reader’s mind: anything goes so long as it has a plot, characters and believable setting. So here I am setting the scene in my own unique way to introduce an event which will stimulate, captivate, inspire, challenge and educate minds from all over the Cotswolds.

The event in question is Stratford Literary Festival, a packed eight-day programme, mainly held at Stratford ArtsHouse, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. It runs from April 23-30 - incorporating the date of the great bard’s birth and death –and showcases a wealth of talent including Andrew Marr, Paddy Ashdown, Tracy Chevalier, Richard Holmes, Terry Waite Nicholas Crane, Mary Berry, Roy Hattersley and so forth.

Open the programme and one is overwhelmed with the high calibre speakers who will sharing stories about politics, Brexit, cookery, life skills, well-being, crime, ecology, music, and history. In fact sharing stories is what this festival is all about and it is the theme for the 10th anniversary.

But it is so much more than the title “literary festival,” suggests. Interestingly the word literary, according to the Oxford Dictionary means: Concerning the writing, study, or content of literature, especially of the kind valued for quality of form.

Festival Director, published author, Annie Ashworth, admits the eight-week programme takes the word literary out of its familiar box and makes it accessible.

“Looking back, I would not have called it a literary festival. I think literary puts people off, it is an elitist term and it is the last thing we want is for people to think this is an elitist festival.

Mary Berry (c) Georgia Glynn-SmithMary Berry (c) Georgia Glynn-Smith

It is more of a festival of ideas and is so much more than words,” she says.

One key aspect of the festival’s vision is to encourage the younger generation to engage with stories and to experience the joy of reading, writing, illustrating and sharing tales of every genre. As well as linking up with two schools in Nigeria whereby children from Stratford exchange letters and learn about new cultures and lifestyles; another initiative, the My Author Project, gives local children a chance to adopt an author and explore themes relating to their book. This year Sarah McIntyre, a British-American children’s book and comic illustrator has been working with children in Stratford-upon-Avon on the theme of fun fairs. It ties in with Jinks and O’Hare Funfair Repair, her fourth dazzling adventure with author Philip Reeve.

Bedtime Stories, a new project for 2017 will encourage children to write and share stories with their parents. They will then be invited to wear their pyjamas at a special bedtime story party, which will be attended by Shifty McGifty and Percy the Parkkeeper creators Tracy Corderoy and Nick Butterworth.

Paddy AshdownPaddy Ashdown

Incidentally competitions are also run to encourage inspiring talent and provide Exciting opportunities. MA graduate Camille Whitcher has been chosen as the winner of the 2017 Children’s Picture Book Prize which means her book will be published by Salariya Book Company.

I meet up with festival director Annie in the RSC café. She takes me through the packed programme and we talk freely from politics to parenting, history to home economics. Much has changed since the first festival in 2008, when Annie and her friend Natasha Roderick-Jones first initiated the idea.

“To have a literary festival in the most literary town in the world made sense. We also felt that small book shops were suffering and more and more authors were taking literature out on the road. I am a novelist and I could see both sides. I knew what the publishers wanted as well as the audiences,” recalls Annie.

The first literary festival was a three-day affair with high profile names such as Jeffery Archer taking part in a draughty tent on Avonbank Gardens. Today the festival is eight days, includes a schools’ week, an Autumn mini festival and a book club that runs throughout the year.

Stratford Literary FestivalStratford Literary Festival

“Everything we do is about sharing stories – whether it is storytelling, memoir, biography, poetry and that is why it is our theme this year.”

“Stratford is quite a non-fiction and political audience. Of course the town is very dominated by Shakespeare and it should be, but I try and programme things that provide a very different sort of offering,” she says.

What the programme presents is a healthy mix of food for thought to meet all dietary requirements. Terry Waite’s talk Taken on Trust, marks the 25th anniversary of his release from captivity in Beirut; Lord Richard Dannatt tells the fascinating story of how the British Army has been shaped by world events; whilst Ben and Anthony Holden, historian and film maker father-and-son team follow up their success of their anthology Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, by sharing the results from questions they have asked 100 remarkable women. Ben will also explore the science of sleep but why we endlessly tell stories, even to ourselves, as we dream.

The Gruffalo at Stratford Literary FestivalThe Gruffalo at Stratford Literary Festival

Topical issues being discussed include Another Day in the Death of America with award-winning Guardian writer Gary Younge who shares a portrait of childhood and youth in contemporary Obama/Trump America; BBC political interviewer Andrew Marr looks at The History of Modern Britain and the latest chapter in his Sunday Times best seller which covers Blair to Brexit whilst Dave Randall explores The Political Power of Music.

On the culinary side, award-winning writer William Sitwell and Sunday Telegraph columnist Bee Wilson delve into the complicated relationship we have with food in the West, meanwhile the nation’s favourite baker Mary Berry talks about the philosophy behind her new book, Everyday.

Not wishing to leave Shakespeare out of the equation, Tracy Chevalier, who wrote the international best seller Girl with a Pearl Earring, transplants Othello to a 1970s playground as part of the ground-breaking Hogarth Shakespeare Project.

Tracy dressed as Where's Wally at the town's welcome signTracy dressed as Where's Wally at the town's welcome sign

Comedy is provided by stand-up comedian Natalie Haynes with her refreshing and funny view of the Classics. Audiences are also in for a treat with Austentatious – Jane Austen (But not as we know her) who act out an entirely improvised comedy play in Austen style, based on nothing more than a title given to them by those watching.

“My challenge to people is to try out something new, something they haven’t tried before because it might surprise them,” says festival director Annie.

Running alongside the speaking, drama, reading and musical events, is a series of workshops whereby individuals can find out more about how to write historical fiction, do paper cutting, write for well-being, write poetry, navigate their way to publishing success, write a novel that sells and write calligraphy. All workshops will be run by experts in the field.

Being the child at heart, I can’t resist looking at the eighth day of the festival which is dedicated to the younger audiences. Sunday, April 30 is the Children’s Day Events which includes the Spiers’ family favourite Elmer, the Patchwork Elephant who will be celebrated through a vibrant, musical safari; and a Big Draw Challenge with four of the country’s best illustrators who go head to head to draw audience suggested objects and animals. Venture into town on this day and shoppers may spot several Where’s Wally characters in familiar costume to mark the 30th anniversary of this fun bobble-hat wearing character – hence my mad photo shoot.

And then of course there’s Horrible Histories’ Barmy Britain on both Saturday, April 29 and Sunday 30 which has been a brilliant tool for helping any historian – keen or not so keen – understand the important dates of the past in a creative way.

When I look at the Stratford Literary Festival 2017 programme, my illustrator’s mind goes to work. What I see is a huge book in cake form, divided up into delicious pieces, each with a different flavour and filling to represent the taste of the topic it represents. Visit Stratford between Sunday, April 23 and Saturday, April 29 and visitors will see, as far as stories are concerned, there are plenty to share – enough to satisfy the fussiest of eaters.

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