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An Interview with Shoreham Wordfest

An Interview with Shoreham Wordfest

7 September 2017 | Nicola Freedman

Shoreham-by-Sea has become one of the most desirable coastal destinations on the south coast, with a tight-knight community and thriving local arts scene. Among the many wonderful events held throughout the year, a standout is 'Shoreham Wordfest'. Now in its seventh year, the annual literary festival continues to grow in popularity among all ages, with events ranging from poetry slams and creative writing workshops, to cabaret and children’s storytelling. This year, with a focus on Modernism, the festival looks back to make sense of our current world.


Image credit: geograph.org.uk

Culture Calling: Hi Rosalind, thanks for speaking with us today. To start off, can you tell us about the Shoreham Wordfest and how it came about.
 
A group of us had been going to Hay Festival and really liked books and writing festivals, and we just thought, well let’s try it here and see if it would work in Shoreham-by-Sea. In addition to being a group of us who really just loved books and words, it was also a writing group with quite a few authors who are here in Shoreham. So we started seven years ago very low-key, just a few days, and it’s grown and grown since then.
 
Few literary festivals are held within such close proximity to the sea. Does the landscape of Shoreham have any influence on the festival itself?
 
Absolutely. Part of what we want to do is celebrate Shoreham, because it’s a quirky little place, that’s having somewhat of a renaissance. It was a very important place many centuries ago, quite a prosperous, shipbuilding town, but then declined and became fairly quiet. However, it has always had an artistic element to it. So what we want to do is to get people to know Shoreham, bring them here and get them to see what’s happening. We have some beautiful scenery and a very thriving community of houseboats, which generally attracts very artistic, creative people.

This year’s festival focuses on Modernism. Can you explain how and why you chose Modernism?
 
There seems to be quite a bit of interest in it. There was a big exhibition of art under the theme of Modernism in London, and the University of Sussex, which is near to us, have also been exploring it.  
 
Also, funnily enough, a lot of people in that Modernist period, like the Bloomsbury set, relocated to Sussex, and the artists that we’re featuring, such as Lee Miller and Sir Roland Penrose, were at the centre of the surrealist movement. In fact, there was a whole load of key people based in Sussex who were at the cutting edge of art and were really reshaping a whole different way of doing things, and the landscape and seascape definitely influenced them. We thought that’s really something to explore and celebrate. Why was it that we had this immense flowering of artistic creativity - writing, visual arts, sculpture, and also philosophy - challenging the status quo?
 
We also want to look at modernism now, and whether people are challenging what’s going on. It feels like quite a turbulent time, and things are changing. How do we allow them to change, but still be in control in some way, or at least be part of it?


Image credit: Lee Miller Archives

As you’ve touched on, understanding history has the power to shape our current and future choices. By looking back at Modernism do you think there is a lot that we can learn about the current state of contemporary society?
 
Yes, because I think the First World War had such a huge impact on everybody, and part of that was all the changes occurring. For example, women were playing more of an active role in society, not just through the campaign to vote, but also in actually having to enter the workforce. However, there was also a feeling of disillusionment with how they’d taken those decisions, and basically wiped out almost a whole generation. I think there was a questioning of how people do things.
 
Of course, in the last election there was also a shift where the normal ways of doing things -through the press, with posters and meetings – a lot of it was subverted by social media and people not following the norms. So people think, like the usual pollsters, well it’s going to be like this, and it wasn’t.
 
Wordfest offers a broad range of events from readings and talks to literary walks and even the chance to participate in a Cabaret. By creating such a diverse program, do you think the festival will be more accessible, and perhaps of greater interest, to a broader demographic?
 

That is exactly what we are trying to do. We bring people in who would never think of going to Charleston, which is a good literature festival, or Hay-on-Wye and Cheltenham. We are bringing people in from London and elsewhere, not just the performers but the audience as well. We particularly want to tap in to people who think, ‘Oh actually I could have a go at that, and I might be interested in this,’ but wouldn’t have necessarily thought of going to a literary festival. This is why we call it ‘Wordfest.’ It’s broader than just literature and books; it’s very much about the spoken word as well.


Image credit: Shoreham Wordfest
 
Wordfest champions the joy and wonder of words. However, with the rise of social media and focus on the visual image, have you found that the written word is becoming increasingly under-appreciated? 
 
Funnily enough, we have a farmer’s market every month and it’s like a medieval fair where, in addition to the local farmers and businesses, all the politicians have a stand. I was there handing out the [Wordfest] brochures and this one woman looked at me, and looked at what we were doing and said, ‘I’m not really into words.' (laughs) How can that be? What does she mean she’s not into words?! So, I think to an extent that is true. People who tweet all the time tell me there is a lot of humour and a lot of wordplay on Twitter as well, so I don’t think it is gone, I don’t think we are going to lose our language entirely, but things are changing.
 
As part of the festival’s program, Guardian political commentator Rafael Behr will host a debate on “fake news.” When curating the festival, did you make a conscious decision to include events that directly addressed the current political climate?
 
Yes, we didn’t want to overlabour it but it is a theme throughout. In fact, when we were planning this festival last year we had the Brexit vote, we had Trump – there was all this sort of political turmoil. We thought, actually for next year we do want to allow some space to explore it, not saying anything is right or wrong about any of those things, but there was a lot of turmoil and uncertainty. Of course, that has played out subsequently in the general election, when it felt we were on the verge of something different, which actually might be quite exciting!


Image credit: Shoreham Wordfest

You look back at the radical writers and thinkers of the early 20th Century and their impact on modernism. Do you think that the new crop of British writers are also producing work that is, to some extent, a reaction against modern society?
 
Yes, I think so. I think it is inevitable that people are shaped by what is going on and then can’t help but reflect on it. We’ve got Nicholas Royle, a professor of English Literature at the University of Sussex, who has written a new book, The English Guide to Birdwatching. His book is amazing – it brings all these ideas and thoughts together. It is an excellent example of how people use writing, novels, and poetry to explore what is going on around them.
 
We also have writing opportunities, which are very reasonable, for people to do if they want to express themselves, which I think is very important.
 
Wordfest proudly features new writers and provides a platform for them to showcase their work. Do you have any recommendations for writers to watch in 2017?
 
Well we are featuring some of them at the moment, and I think we’re going so see new ones coming along, and maybe they just won’t necessarily be writing in a standard way. Last year, for example, we featured Jules Grant who wrote a novel about a lesbian girl gang up in Manchester [We Go Around in the Night and are Consumed by Fire] and she produced it in a language that was so different from the norm. It had the same impact as Irvine Welsh when he did Trainspotting, which was written in perceived English. She was stretching language and it was an amazing read, and a really important way of looking at things. So yes, I think there are some really exciting British writers coming up!

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