A living history: 40 Years of Ilkley Literature Festival

Poet Benjamin Zephaniah by Leeds College of Art students

Poet Benjamin Zephaniah by Leeds College of Art students

“Ilkley,” wrote JB Priestley in the festival’s first programme in 1973, “is the right size for a festival town; large enough to provide various amenities, and small enough to stroll round and run into everybody.”

Forty years on, the 26,000 annual visitors to the town’s festival seem to agree. A new exhibition, Making Waves, provides an interactive delve into the festival’s archives to commemorate its rich local and international history.

Ilkley Literature Festival (ILF) Director Rachel Feldberg officially opened the exhibition on Saturday 28 September to a full house gathered beneath the oak beams and creaky floorboards of Manor House Museum, groaning with the weight of history the building contains.

She certainly addressed a receptive audience – many faces were well-known to the festival, having been involved with its organisation over the years. The founder, Michael Dawson, was even in attendance.

I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the exhibition as part of a festival blog writing workshop. Snippets from the archives, including old programmes, postcards, photographs, and newspaper cuttings, are interspersed with vibrant illustrations by Leeds College of Art students of writers throughout the decades, including Benjamin Zephaniah and Maya Angelou. Curator Val Carmen’s intention was to reflect the festival’s strong artistic history, and she has done so with flair. Throughout the exhibition, the clean lines of the displays are woven together through an eclectic soundtrack of chart hits through the ages. A video collection of readings from the festival’s archives complete the multimedia experience.

Interesting facts abound: Did you know that WH Auden opened the first festival in 1973? Or that the novelist Angela Carter (of The Magic Toyshop fame) was once writer in residence at the festival? Or that John Cunliffe, Ilkley resident and creator of Postman Pat, brought children’s events to the festival alive in 1996?

Rachel explained to the audience that, like the festival, the exhibition belongs to the people of Ilkley. It is a “living history” and it isn’t set in stone. Memory sheets are dotted around the exhibition – so if you have a memory of the festival, a correction to any of the exhibits, or if you spot yourself in one of the photos – write it down and help complete the festival’s history! Once all the facts are in and verified, the archive will be donated to the University of Bradford’s special collections for academic research.

Before leaving the audience to take in the exhibition over a glass of wine, Rachel stressed the vibrancy of the festival. “Books are exciting, new and creative,” she said, not old and musty, and this visual experience certainly brings the energy of ILF to life.

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