Marlborough Literature Festival 1 – author Mavis Cheek on turning festival organiser

Article published on August 6, 2015.

The idea came to me first in the summer of 2008 – I was having lunch with Nick Fogg – then the Mayor of Marlborough – he was very much involved with Marlborough’s successful and long running Jazz Festival. Why not have a literature festival as well? The town was made for it. He agreed. I talked to ALCS (Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society) – having no real idea about how much money we needed to start it – but knowing EXACTLY how it should be run from the authors’ point of view – and they agreed to give us a financial start of a few thousand pounds. I knew from my own experience as a participant in literature festivals that if the authors are happy – they tell other authors – and you can get good support for your programme. From the outset I insisted that all authors should be paid, and all authors should be paid the same.

We brought together a committee in 2009 and agreed to put up the first Festival in September 2010. I was visited by two wonderfully motivated local women, one an arts fundraiser and one who had worked in publishing, and they were keen to join us. The committee was terrifically bonded and worked brilliantly – everyone mucking in. It was good fun. With the help of our fundraiser we got excellent local sponsorship – and I commandeered a friend to do all the design for the programme and leaflets etc. I also undertook to approach authors. And we were off.

It was terrifically useful being an author as I could go directly to other authors and get them to agree to appear. We began with Margaret Drabble, who had been at the first (and only) literature festival held in Marlborough in the ‘eighties. That Festival was a great success – we ran it from Friday night to Sunday night. Critically I asked Judy Golding to fund our opening night – her father, William, loved Marlborough – she agreed and the Golding Trust has funded us ever since – and Marlborough College funded our closing event which has always been poetry. It was hard work for us all – a big learning curve – but the festival was established as permanent by the overwhelming response in terms of ticket sales.

I chaired the festival and took ultimate responsibility for the artistic programme for the first four years and then passed it on to Jan Williamson to chair. I help a little – if asked – with the programme, but on the whole I am in the back seat nowadays. We became a charity in (I think) 2012. And today the LitFest is still going strong.

I’m truly proud of it and proud to have been the instigator. What’s more we have stuck to the original format and we were one of the few Literature Festivals that ticked every single box in the Sociey of Author’s Best Practice research document.

This is the statement I wrote for the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society magazine earlier this year:

When I first thought about starting a Literature Festival in Marlborough, Wiltshire, in 2008, my main concern was to stem the tide of the appearance of non-authors at Literature Festivals – actors, comedians, chefs, sportspeople and the like – and to have a festival which kept writers at its heart.  Not that there is anything wrong – not at all – with every kind of book being represented at such gatherings, but I thought there was also room for a truly literature based festival to fly the flag for people who were first and foremost writers.  I’d heard from various managers and organisers of festivals across the country that not only was it hard to get audiences for fiction events – unless the author appearing was a huge name – but it was getting harder to find audiences for non-fiction, too.  I didn’t believe them.  So a local committee was formed in Marlborough made up of people who were committed to the idea of only genuine writers appearing at our new festival – with a particular emphasis on fiction of all kinds – children’s fiction, playwrights, poets, historical fiction, contemporary fiction, crime, screenwriting – every version of imaginative writing was to be well represented.

Our first financial sponsor was ALCS.  They were immediately generous and this not only gave us a sound bank balance to begin setting up our Festival, but it gave us huge kudos as well – authors love ALCS as protectors of, and advisers about, their copyright – and so when we approached writers and asked them to appear in our programme, they were delighted.  The Festival is in its sixth year now, going strong, supported and loved by its growing audience – and still with ALCS as its lead sponsor.  We simply could not have achieved this without that help and vision.

We don’t have a specific audience in mind – but we do a lot of outreach work with schools and we have a good programme of events for children. We want to encourage readers of all ages to support us.

We are so blessed with ALCS, and good local sponsorship and the Golden Friends scheme (largely made up of my rich contacts who put in £500 each) that we are pretty well financially viable. No-one on the committee gets paid – we are all volunteers. That’s an amazing achievement for our Festival, plus the town has begun to support us much more in the last couple of years – once they’ve woken up to the fact that we are here to stay. Local businesses were asked to nominate their favourite books in a window display, and we do The Big Town Read – this year with Rachel Joyce.

As for ‘unforeseen disasters’ and insurance one of our very early sponsors is Robert Hiscox – I went to see him with our fundraiser and he both supports us financially, and we get full insurance through his company at a discount. Yes – you have to have public liability insurance. I’m risking telling you that – so far – we have never had a cancellation that has come after we’ve begun to sell tickets for that particular event – which is very lucky.

And when it’s all over, there is usually a mop-up meeting directly afterwards – and then authors begin to be approached before Christmas – they are booked up so far in advance. I think we cover most areas now – but there is always room for new ideas and there may well be other things added to the programme next year. Watch this space!

Mavis Cheek


This year Marlborough Literature Festival is running from 2nd – 4th October, 2015


OIR: Linda Worsey went to Port Eliot Festival – 30 July to 2 August 2015


Amy Snow by Tracy Rees

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