Scarborough Literature Festival

21st Apr 2011


Like any Yorkshire lass, I am inordinately proud of my county, even more so when it pulls of something as culturally significant as the currant flurry of excellent literature festivals.

Scarborough Literature Festival has been running for the past five years, but this is its first year with a patron; Kate Atkinson. Bright and early on Thursday morning, we crowded into Scarborough Library’s Concert Hall to hear Ms Atkinson discuss her writing, in particular her recent Jackson Brodie series, the latest of which, Started Early, Took My Dog, was published in paperback in February.

This was never meant to be a detective series. Apparently Jackson’s appearance in Case Histories, one of the 25 titles chosen to be given free on World Book Night this year, and my re-introduction to Atkinson after a teenage obsession with Emotionally Weird and Behind the Scenes at the Museum,was a one-off that grew.

Now four books long and with  a television adaptation starring the highly crush-worthy Jason Isaacs due to be screened this summer, these books are immensely popular with readers, always on the bestsellers lists, and the hall was packed.

Atkinson speaks in the same way she writes; fluent and full of humour. Her long, often supposedly-inconsequential passages lead to sudden brilliant moments of clarity and insight.

Constantly entertaining throughout, she talks about her writing, and her love of Yorkshire (Started Early, Took My Dog is rooted in Leeds and Yorkshire, the reason for this being, she jokes, her patronage of the Yorkshire Tourist Board).

Atkinson is also a huge supporter of libraries as her introduction to the festival made clear. It was a great start to the day, and made me hungry for more.

Sarah Waters is, of course, a bit of a hero of mine. I fell completely in love with Nan in Tipping the Velvet, published an unbelievable thirteen years ago (that makes me feel so old!). Sitting in a packed-out hall in her presence in my home town did make me jump up and down in excitement a little bit.

As intelligent, insightful, entertaining, and inspirational as you’d expect from a writer whose scope covers Victorian music halls to the class question of the 1940s, Waters talked about her early career as an academic, that led to her researching gay and lesbian history in the 19th century and eventually to Tipping the Velvet.

Academia, it turns out, is a good way into writing because you are used to several months of research which acts as a spring board for novels rooted in the period. Waters writing is known for it’s accuracy without bogging the reader down in details.

An avid reader herself, for The Night Watch Waters became immersed in the fiction of the 1940s, which is reflected in the authentic style of writing. She is currently writing a new book set in the 1920s, for which I am bursting with excitement slightly, and recommended Virginia Woolf’s diaries to a star-struck crowd.

Waters’ book Fingersmith was another of the World Book Night titles, and she is incredibly enthusiastic about the project. She was pleased to be able to read the entrants from those wanting to give away her book, and she described reading to the crowd in Trafalgar Square as fantastic. Her passion for the project re-affirmed my love for her and for me this was the highlight of the day.

An unexpected little lift came at 3pm with a rambling, hilarious talk by Sarah Harrison. Writer of 23 books published for adults and children, this is an author whose work I was unfamiliar with.

After the international success of her 1980 début, The Flowers of the Field, which she was commissioned to write after years working for Woman’s Own writing short stories, Harrison has covered many genres and writing styles.

Like a big pink breeze from middle England, this talk was a rude, silly, and as quintessentially English as Jilly Cooper and Fiona Walker. I’m going to take a massive guess and say if you like them, you’ll like her.

Then came the evening’s finale. Arabella Weir, comic hero of my childhood (I didn’t shout SCORCHIO! at her, which shows a remarkable amount of restraint on my part) was there, promoting her book The Real Me Is Thin; a memoir of her childhood and a reaction to the modern insistence that, for women, being thin and aesthetically pleasing is not so much a happy plus as  a requirement for acceptance.

Does My Bum Look Big In This? was a massive bestseller in the 90s, after the Insecure Woman character from The Fast Show. Weir herself admits to being massively insecure about her own appearance – which as a woman probably another third of her size again and half her age made me wince slightly.

This is rooted, she tells us, in her parents almost abusive bullying of her for being ‘too fat for potatoes’ throughout her childhood. With such lack of support at home, it is unsurprising that Weir became the class clown at school, desperate for attention that only applause brings.

This talk saddened me a little because Weir comes across as still deeply unhappy with herself, which as the successful comic that discovered Miranda Hart and inspired a whole generation of funny women, she shouldn’t be.

All in all, this was a fantastic line-up for only the first day in the four-day festival. I was gutted not to be able to stay for longer and see more of the great authors and illustrators, including Margaret Drabble, Joanna Trollope, Jodi Picoult and Steve Bell headlining the other days.

Scarborough is becoming quite a little centre for culture in the North, what with the beautiful Stephen Joseph Theatre still going strong and the Open Air Theatre on North Bay.

Scarborough Literature Festival, which grows bigger and more prominent every year, has a line-up to be proud of, and my Grand Day Out last Thursday cost me less than £20 to see three authors I love and discover a hilarious fourth, plus the evening’s talk by Barry Forshaw, the biographer of Stieg Larsson, which I unfortunately couldn’t stay for.

Cracking value, and well worth booking the long weekend off for next year.

Jess Haigh


  • Tara says:

    I’d love to visit Scarborough – Whitby and York too – there is an air of romance to those names for me!

  • Jess says:

    As I’m from Scarborough I’m biased but yes yes you should! Its full of literary merit, Anne Bronte was buried there, Bram Stoker for Whitby obviously and York is just the most beautiful city in the North, IMO.
    Also, if you’ve been reading/watching South Riding, the East Coast is where it was all set- Bridlington just down the coast it the basis for it. Lovely cheesy day trip, with some gorgeous countryside on the way down.