Article published on August 23, 2016.
Heard of Borderlines? This lively, ambitious festival, now in its third year, had its genesis in 2013, the result of a conversation between Gwenda Matthews, who has been in bookselling for almost 40 years (she and her husband Steve own two bookshops in Carlisle and one in Keswick) and Helen Towers, who is Reader Development and Stock Manager for Cumbria Libraries. They discovered that the idea of holding a festival in Carlisle was an ambition each had been harbouring for some time. With two such committed enthusiasts (and perfectionists!) the seed had certainly found fertile ground. There followed a period of research during which they shared their ideas with other people, but then came the point when they had to decide whether to abandon the project or go ahead. Fortunately, they decided on the latter, formed a small committee, with Gwenda as Chair and Helen as Secretary, and “just got on with it”, organising the first festival for September 2014.
In conversation with them it soon became very clear that, in addition to being perfectionists, each brought to the project considerable experience of arranging and hosting very successful literary events – Gwenda through author events in the bookshop, and Helen through having run three very popular Readers’ Days, in addition to regular author events in the county’s libraries. This history meant that they had the necessary skills, knowledge, experience and contacts; a foundation on which they could successfully build their vision of a community festival.
In the months leading up to each festival they are kept busy contacting publishers, arranging speakers for the events and engaging people to run the various workshops. This year’s programme certainly reflects their aim to attract national, international and local speakers. Borderlines is a not-for-profit organisation, therefore seeking sponsorship, advertising and funding from many different sources is an important part of their pre-festival work. They are very appreciative of the support and funding they receive from Carlisle City Council, the County Council, and from local businesses and organisations. They are also kept busy making travel and accommodation arrangements for speakers. In response to my question about whether they pay the authors a fee, (an issue which is attracting increasing debate), they told me that this is something they feel strongly in favour of and so have always done so. In line with the fee recommended by the Scottish Book Trust, they pay the authors £200.
During our conversation they both made it clear that they are appreciative of the input from other members of the small committee they work with, never more so than during the festival, when a representative of the committee is present at each of the venues, ready to respond to any last-minute hitches which occur! They feel that one of the strengths of the festival is that the venues, all within a five minute walk of each other in the town centre, offer a range of experience for festival-goers; from the more formal speaker/listener atmosphere of the ballroom in the Crown and Mitre, to the more intimate, conversational interactions possible in some of the smaller locations.
When discussing the past three years they acknowledge that there have been many times when they have felt very stressed and have wondered why on earth they took on this ambitious project! Potential triggers for stress start during the long pre-festival period as they attempt to co-ordinate all the arrangements necessary to produce a varied and stimulating programme. Then comes the time-consuming editing and proof-reading of the programme and time-tabling details, followed by the need to chase up website designers and printers in order to make available the material needed to promote the festival and encourage ticket sales. During the festival itself, as well as an underlying anxiety about whether all the speakers will turn up and arrangements run smoothly, there will always be the odd crisis to deal with – just one example being when a problem with trains meant that an author arrived at a station on the other side of the country and needed to be picked up ….. he did make it, but with only five minutes to spare!
However, Gwenda and Helen still get “a huge thrill” out of creating this lively event and believe that they have demonstrated “what team work – and a blend of public and private partnership – can achieve when people set their minds to it”. A reflection of the success of Borderlines is that in 2015 it was a finalist in the Carlisle Living Awards (in the Best Arts Event or Venue category), and also in the Event of the Year category in the Cumbria Life Culture Awards. With their combined passion for books and reading, and their enthusiasm for and commitment to this festival, I think a Borderlines Festival in October 2017 is assured.
From left: Helen Towers and Gwenda Matthews, Borderlines, at Carlisle Living Awards at the Garden at Eden, Eden Golf Club; Thursday 10th September 2015.
Pic Jenny Woolgar, CN Magazines
If you could squeeze in a link to our website, that would be really good – www.bookscumbria.com (I can but ask!)
Mammisimma by Elisabetta Minervini