Rachel Feldberg’s Top Festival Events

People sometimes tell me how much they would love to have my job as Festival Director, but at this time of year, I am daydreaming about being a member of the audience…I find myself leafing through the programme when I ought to be arranging staff rotas, thinking longingly of all the events I would go to, uninterrupted, if only I wasn’t busy dashing between venues.

I think I’d start with Patricia Duncker’s talk on Charlotte Bronte’s novel Villette and the Gothic- my mother first told me about Jane Austen and the Gothic when she read me Northanger Abbey – Austen’s Gothic parody – as a child and I’ve been intrigued ever since. (My own children got Harry Potter rather than 18th century classics at bedtime, but back in the 1960s we did things differently).

I’d move on to hear David Olusoga the British Nigerian historian and documentary maker (you might have seen his recent BBC series Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners) talking about the way racial obsessions dictated who fought in WWI. There’s a whole hinterland we’re only just beginning to understand about the involvement of soldiers from Africa and Asia which has completely changed my perspective. Then it would have to be Fire in the North Sky with storyteller Nick Hennesey and three virtuoso Finnish musicians performing the Kalevala – a 2000 year old epic from Finland. I always find Nick’s performances riveting – he conjures up images on a bare stage which are so real you would swear you can hear the horses’ hooves and see the fearless heroine.

The Pulitzer Prize winning American novelist Jane Smiley has long been a favourite of mine and I still can’t quite believe that she is going to leave her beloved horses at home in California and just turn up at Ilkley railway station one day in October. Similarly you may catch me inventing an urgent family occasion so that I can slip away to hear Les Murray, the leading Australian poet on a rare visit to the UK. And no amount of minor organisational crises are going to prevent me from hearing Petina Gappah, the Guardian First Book award winner talk about her first novel. If there are no custard creams at the venue you’re visiting that day, you’ll know why!

By the last weekend of the Festival we’ll all be exhausted by too much excitement and too many late nights catching the wonderful, quirky Fringe performances which normally start at 9pm throughout the Festival. But the thought of John Agard’s performance, Roll Atlantic Roll, with John as the voice of Columbus, the Atlantic Ocean and a chorus of politically conscious mosquitoes will keep me going.

If I slip off the stage rather quickly at the end of Putting Poetry in the Frame, an extraordinary discussion about the creative case for diversity between myself, poet Rommi Smith and Leeds Art Gallery curator Nigel Walsh, it’ll be to run up to St Margaret’s Hall to catch Slovenian authors Goran Vojnovic and Andrej Nikoladis from Montenegro talking about their novels exploring the aftermath of war. Not just a notional war with an imagined secret police, but war in the former Yugoslavia which directly affected them and their whole generation.

Finally, even though my kids are grown up now, I’ll be at the front of the queue to see Julian Clary discussing his first children’s book, The Bolds with illustrator David Roberts. The combination of David’s vivid illustrations (showcased at the Festival exhibition last year) along with Julian’s sharp humour makes this a must see event for everyone, regardless of whether they have children or not. And yes, you are welcome to come without a youngster!

Of course, being Festival Director is a great joy, especially when the town comes alive with hundreds of people getting excited about the programme, but, from time to time, you may catch me staring wistfully at the queue waiting to go into an event!