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Durham Book Festival will bring big literary names to the city

Among those heading for Durham Book Festival in October are Kate Adie, Sheila Hancock and Dennis Skinner MP

Jung Chang, author of Empress Dowager Cixi
Jung Chang, author of Empress Dowager Cixi

Books and authors abound but, as usual, the programme for Durham Book Festival ranges far and wide, embracing drama, debate, photography and even a bit of travel if you include Stuart Maconie’s County Durham wanderings.

Big names first. The festival, launched at Durham Castle this week, brings Kate Adie, Sheila Hancock, Dennis Skinner MP (the famous and feared ‘Beast of Bolsover’), Kirsty Wark, Jung Chang and Prof John Carey to the city from October 6-18.

Then there’s Maconie – author, BBC Radio 6 Music presenter and pop music and culture critic – who was commissioned by the festival to explore County Durham and report back on his experiences, which he will do on October 18 in an event called The Dales to Durham Cathedral at the Gala Theatre.

Several new commissions are studded throughout the festival, one of them in response to the centenary of the start of the First World War.

This is War Correspondents, a theatrical piece by Helen Chadwick who describes herself as a composer, performance creator and singer.

Commissioned for the festival by New Writing North, Sage Gateshead and Greenwich & Docklands International Festival, it is based on interviews with war correspondents who have covered conflicts in countries including Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Stuart Maconie who is to present The Dales to Durham Cathedral
Stuart Maconie who is to present The Dales to Durham Cathedral

Described as ‘song theatre’, it features a journalist held at gunpoint in no-man’s land. Chadwick collaborated on the piece with choreographer Steven Hoggett, as she did with a previous piece called Dalston Songs, a Royal Opera House commission.

“Testimonies, music and physicality fuse into a powerful, multi-disciplinary song cycle performance which depicts the extraordinary stories and life-changing experiences of war journalists...” the programme explains.

The piece will be performed in Durham Cathedral on October 15 (and at Sage Gateshead the previous day) following a talk by Kate Adie, author of Fighting on the Home Front: The Legacy of Women in World War One.

Following the success last year of My Granny Is a Pirate, another piece of children’s theatre has been commissioned. This time it’s The Worst Princess, a stage adaptation by Carina Rodney of the story by Anna Kemp.

Suitable for children under seven, it begins an extensive tour at Gateshead Old Town Hall on September 29 and hits the book festival on October 12 at Durham Old Town Hall (www.worstprincess.com for all tour dates).

The festival is also celebrating The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s story. It was published in 1908 and this year is the subject of the festival Big Read which will see 1,000 copies of the book distributed to schools and libraries around County Durham.

An early copy will also feature in an exhibition at Durham’s Palace Green Library. Books for Boys will look at what boys were reading when the First World War broke out.

Sheila Hancock, author of Miss Carter's War
Sheila Hancock, author of Miss Carter's War

Sheila Hancock, one of Britain’s most popular and accomplished actresses, has turned her hand to fiction and will be at the Gala Theatre on October 14 to talk about debut novel Miss Carter’s War which is described as “a powerful, panoramic portrait of post-war Britain told through the life of one woman”.

In another festival commmission, Anne McElvoy, County Durham-born public policy editor of The Economist, was asked to visit Easington with photographer Keith Pattison to explore the legacy of the miners’ strike, 30 years on.

Anne will talk about the venture to Prof John Tomaney at Durham Town Hall on October 11.

Jung Chang, who became a publishing sensation with her bestseller Wild Swans, will be at the Gala on October 17 to introduce her latest book, Empress Dowager Cixi, described as the most important woman in Chinese history.

Politicians are always popular at the festival and this time it will be Dennis Skinner pullling no punches as he takes the stage at Durham Town Hall to talk about his memoir, Sailing Close to the Wind.

(Back in the late 1970s the fiery Labour Member for Bolsover scared the wits out of myself and other young journalism trainees who had been sent to report on a speech he was making in Cardiff. I bet he hasn’t mellowed).

Paul Farley, this year’s Festival Laureate, leads the charge of the poets. He has been tasked with writing a new poem for the festival and will read it at an event on October 18 at Palace Green Library.

You might also like to catch Kate Tempest at the Gala on October 17. She has been called “one of the most exciting young voices in British spoken word performance” and she has a new collection out called Hold Your Own, based on a Greek myth.

Kirsty Wark will be back in the region to discuss her first novel, The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle, at Durham Town Hall on October 11.

And the following day the same venue will play host to John Carey, chief book critic for The Sunday Times, whose memoir The Unexpected Professor recalls encounters with the likes of Auden, Graves, Larkin, Heaney and others, at Durham Town Hall.

Durham Book Festival is commissioned by Durham County Council and put together by New Writing North. Once again it offers an embarrassment of riches. Tickets are on sale now. Find details on www.durhambookfestival.com


The shortlist for the second annual Gordon Burn Prize was announced at this week’s Durham Book Festival launch.

Run by New Writing North, publisher Faber & Faber and the Gordon Burn Trust, the prize pays tribute to the late Gordon Burn, a brilliant Newcastle-born writer on subjects as wildly diverse as art and serial killers.

This year’s prize is to be judged by actor and musician Julian Barratt, poet John Burnside, artist Sarah Lucas and novelist Benjamin Myers who won last year’s inaugural prize for Pig Iron.

Their job is to pick the book which “most successfully represents the spirit and sensibility of Gordon’s literary methods”.

Waiting for the winner – to be announced on October 10 at Durham Town Hall – is a cheque for £5,000 and a writing retreat of up to three months at Gordon’s cottage in Berwickshire.

Shortlisted are The Valley by Richard Benson (published by Bloomsbury), The Kills by Richard House (Picador), The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound), The Trip to Echo by Olivia Laing (Canongate), American Interior by Gruff Rhys (Hamish Hamilton) and The Free by Willy Vlautin (Faber & Faber).

If you’re a fan of the multi-talented Gruff Rhys, the Welshman (a founder member of rock band Super Furry Animals) is appearing at Gateshead Old Town Hall on September 6 to present the film of American Interior, in which he crosses the continent in the footsteps of an 18th Century Welsh farmhand called John Evans – and accompanied by a felt puppet version of him.


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