Belatedly, some words on my departure from London Word Festival

2011 was a frantic, exciting and, ultimately, exhausting year. For a start, I tied the knot with Sarah, my girlfriend since university, over two beautiful days in May (a Muslim nikkah at her family home in North London followed, a week later, by a Roman Catholic wedding at St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place). I then spent an incredible and varied three weeks in North India (ending with a nasty bout of illness), followed by a further month producing a show at the Edinburgh Festival.

But before that, I made the tough decision to resign from my position as Co-Director of London Word Festival.

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Last year’s festival was the biggest and most challenging yet – and the fourth since I founded the company with Marie McPartlin and Sam Hawkins in 2007. Looking back, I am extremely proud of the work we put in to all four festivals. It was humbling working with such talented and committed colleagues, and when I think about where we all were at the start and where we are now, it’s clear that we’ve learnt a huge amount.

Some of the events we presented will stick in my mind for years – audio-rigging a medieval tower in the middle of Hackney with Iain Sinclair, for instance, or selling out Cargo for US poetry phenomenon Saul Williams. Not to mention the extra-curricular fun, such as the infamous 2010 “rave” in the leaky Festival shed-cum-office on Boundary Street. There were lows too, of course – mid-gig technical problems, audience complaints (yes there were a couple), endless budget sessions with our old friend Mr Excel, and the time Marie and I had our laptops nicked from Shoreditch Church.

Many of the artists who graced LWF stages have gone on to great things. Inua Ellams, Hannah Silva and 1927 spring to mind. And we were privileged to work with a number of already well-established acts such as Robin Ince, Phill Jupitus, Christian Bok and Josie Long. The vision was always to combine comedians, writers and poets, musicians and theatre makers on one gloriously bonkers programme. We aimed to create fun and engaging events that didn’t patronise audiences, but brought new and established artists from a wide variety of backgrounds together on an accessible if quirky platform. Some of the Festival was very clever. Some of it was downright silly. There was never a  ‘superannuated chef’ (to borrow one journalist’s phrase) in sight at this literary festival. Some of the work we produced was very small and discrete, and some (like Josie Long’s online self-improvement project One Hundred Days) enthrallingly sprawling.

As we developed as festival producers, we began to focus more on commissioning new works that would receive their premiere at the Festival. Chris McCabe’s spoken word play Shad Thames, Broken Wharf was one; folktronica musician Leafcutter John’s Briggflatts Rewired another. Last year, my big project was site-specific murder mystery The Crash – written by a team of four, and performed over three shattering but brilliant days in a mysterious office block in Central London. I made some new friends in the shape of Edinburgh indie mavericks FOUND and their beautiful mechanical wardrobe Cybraphon, and I blackmailed Ross Sutherland into developing an essay he wrote for my book Stress Fractures into a 50 minute documentary.

It was inspiring, too, to see where my co-programmer Marie’s interests were developing – last year she moved the festival’s programme further towards experimental theatre, working closely with Chris Goode, Ant Hampton and others. Each year we would start with a blank sheet of paper and over the course of several months, we’d make hundreds of connections, talk to scores of artists and venues, and finally a programme would emerge. Only once it had been through Sam’s exacting hands (a unique and talented copywriter) did something coherent begin to emerge. At the start we had practically no budget whatsoever and took a laughably small salary, but over the years we were lucky enough to receive the support of both the Arts Council and, through their Breakthrough Award, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, enabling us to produce higher quality work and ensuring our survival for the short-term at least.

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I will miss the Festival and what it represents. According to this message, it won’t be happening this year. But Sam and Marie are carrying on the good work as a pair, and I’m assured (and am sure!) some exciting new projects will emerge before the year’s end.

As for me, I felt my time with the Festival had come to a natural end, my own interests, artistic vision and working practices beginning to diverge from the Festival’s. I have returned to my sole trader status, and am concentrating 100% on Penned in the Margins. You can expect to see, not only a development of my publishing programme, but also events, tours and productions that build upon my time at London Word Festival.

To sign off, here’s some of the work I commissioned for LWF over the last five years. You can explore more at the Festival’s website.

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End of the beginning


London Word Festival ended on Thursday night with our lively discussion event, Book Futures, followed by a session at the appropriately-named Water Poet on Folgate Street. Three weeks, eight venues, fifteen shows, one hundred artists (including the staggeringly brilliant Saul Williams, above) and total audiences of over two thousand have left me feeling totally shattered. But it was definitely worth it. And I think we’re on to something… It was great working with my co-organisers Marie and Sam, and it won’t be long til we’re sitting down to plan for 2009.

It’s back to normal (Penned in the Margins) now, with plenty of projects in the pipeline, including a new series of books under the Generation Txt banner.

Vomage and other neologisms

Vomage
n. a tribute to the night before

Just one of the coinages featured on ‘The Wall of Neology’ at last night’s launch party for London Word Festival. Sam, Marie and myself are very pleased with how it went. The Gramaphone was packed with over 100 VIPs, journalists and supporters of the Festival. I know they were partly there for the free bar (!) but it was really humbling. Marie and I started proceedings with short introductions (mine in the form of a rhyming poem which, rather bizarrely, is going to be printed in Publishing News!); Gary McKeone officially opened the Festival with a blisteringly positive speech; the poets involved in Permanent Tourist (Jamie, Ben and Sandra) gave readings from their ‘poem postcards’; Sarah Bennetto and James Dowdeswell made us laugh. And then we all got very, very pissed. Which is what a launch is all about, right? This is me doing my bit.

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And that’s a photo of Jody Porter taking a break from his excellent DJ set to play Scrabble. At the end of the night (it went on from 6.30 til 11pm – again, the power of the free bar…) the Scrabble players had to be forcibly removed from the venue. Excellent!

Now back to the business of actually running the Festival (nb: no more free bars, sorry).

Alexei Sayle’s appearing at our opening night. Yes, Alexei Sayle. Well excited…