OIR: Introducing our very first INTREPID REPORTER: Linda Hepworth

Article published on March 23, 2015.

Linda Hepworth has been a much-valued reviewer for newbooks for some time now and had previously sent us a short report of last year’s Words by the Water Festival. Knowing of her intention to attend yet again, I propositioned her about sending in a longer piece giving an in depth impression of what the festival was like . . . and with true thoroughness, here it is. Better still, Linda has been good enough to send in subsequent impressions of four of the individual events which we will be releasing here week by week.

If you are attending a festival or bookish event – large or small – and fancy being one of our future Intrepid Reporters, we would love to hear from you. Just email guy.pringle@newbooksmag.com but for now, enjoy Linda’s account of . . .

The 14th Words by the Water Festival of Words and Ideas, at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, March 2015

As I write this overview of the ten day Words by the Water Festival of Words and Ideas, held at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake, I am still experiencing the adrenaline “high” generated by listening to so many stimulating talks and discussions. This annual festival started in 2001, on a rather smaller scale. However, such was its popularity, that it has been a ten-day event since 2006. Since the second year I have indulged myself each year with a festival pass, which allows me to attend all the talks in the main theatre. There were 54 this year on a wide range of topics, which included politics, religion, psychology, nature, art, drama, literature, history, film, comedy, leisure pursuits, fiction. There were also 42 talks held in the smaller Studio theatre, and a poetry breakfast held in the Circle Gallery – there is always something to suit every taste.

For the ten days of the festival I leave home early to drive the 38 miles to Keswick, attend up to six talks a day, “talk the hind-leg off a donkey” with my festival friends, and return home mid-late evening. These extended absences mean that my patient husband sees little of me during festival time – although this year he did join me for a couple of days. All housework is put on hold for the duration, but I have been delighted to discover that after the first few days the layer of dust doesn’t seem to look any worse!

This year the weather was mostly dry, although rather cold in the strong easterly winds which at times reached gale-force! Unexpected overnight snow one day, combined with unsalted roads, led to the need for some ultra-cautious driving over the 1903ft Hartside Pass – two less cautious drivers had already ended up in the ditch by 8.30am! However, in the past heavy snowfalls have caused major problems when, to get to the festival, we have either had to dig out our 400m track up to the road (a total of 30 hours one year!), or else have been unable to get back home –one year conditions were so bad that I had to find bed and breakfast accommodation in Keswick for three days. So, as you can imagine, I always travel with a ready-packed case, snow shovel and wellington boots – such are the joys of living in “England’s Last Wilderness”!

So, what makes all this effort worthwhile? It is always a combination of different factors which contribute to the overall enjoyment, stimulation and fun. It is wonderful to have the opportunity to listen to interesting (usually!) people speaking on a wide range of subjects, some of which I know little about, and others which are of immediate interest. However, it is so often one of the former which turns out to be the real “gem” of the day and which, without my festival pass, I would probably not have attended. On the other hand I have sometimes been disappointed by a talk I had been eagerly anticipating. I have come to realise that sometimes even very good authors aren’t necessarily good speakers! It is also good to talk to like-minded people, and to meet up each year with other festival “lifers”; much of the fun and stimulation of these ten days comes from chatting with them between talks, comparing thoughts about the various speakers, including “scoring” their performances – if only they knew! [Ed: Now they just might!] In addition to festival-related topics we also enjoy a general “putting of the world to rights” – always an agreeable indulgence! All of these factors make any such gathering enjoyable but an added bonus at this festival is the wonderful location of the theatre, on the shore of Derwentwater, with the snow-capped fells in the background – it is truly beautiful.

This year’s programme was very varied, although there were fewer novelists than we have sometimes had, and I wonder whether this contributed to the slight fall in visitor numbers. However, overall the organisers were pleased with how well received the programme had been, and with the very positive feedback they had. I certainly finished the ten days feeling that it had been a good year, with only a handful of disappointments; the most surprising of these was Salley Vickers’ talk. She is one of my favourite authors and, as I have always enjoyed her usually eloquent presentations, I had expected her talk to be one of my highlights. However, she spent almost half an hour reading a complete short story from her latest book – this was far too long (authors are requested not to read long passages) and has had the effect of putting me off reading it! So, what were the highlights? The opening talk by Alan Johnson talking about his second book of memoirs; Claire Tomalin talking about Nellie Ternan, Charles Dickens’ mistress; a discussion between Melvyn Bragg, Margaret Drabble, Cate Haste and Mark McCrum about “writing in an age of change”; Yasmin Alibhai-Brown talking in a very personal way about “England and Immigration”; Katie Caldesi and Giancarlo giving us a fun-filled and mouth-watering talk (they even provided nibbles!) on Venice – A True Taste; Peter Stamford on Judas; and the Derwentwater Discussion, led by Rory Stewart MP, on “Current Politics and Contemporary Issues”. There were three totally unexpected “gems” which were real delights. The first was from Julie Summers telling us about Wartime Fashions – I would never have bought a ticket for this! Then came David Crystal talking about Words in Time and Place – a fascinating and amusing dip into the Historical Thesaurus, recently published by Oxford University Press. Finally, John D. Barrow whose lucid, scholarly and amusing talk about “What Maths Can Tell Us About Art” ensured that I will never again look at any piece of art in quite the same way!

I hope this has given you a flavour about what is special about this festival – the dates for 2016 are 4th – 13th March and are already on my calendar – perhaps you’ll be tempted to put them on yours?

Linda Hepworth

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