From Durham University to Durham Book Festival

Durham Book Festival

I think it was my varied work experience managing bars and nightclubs as much as my academic qualifications that secured me an internship at New Writing North (NWN), the reading and writing talent development agency for the North of England, in the final year of my undergraduate degree at Newcastle University. NWN works with new and established writers, often in ways that allow them the freedom to experiment and grow creatively; they are inspired by new ideas and commission new writing across all forms, run several literary prizes and writing conferences, and do immensely valuable literacy outreach work with young people and disadvantaged communities.

 As an English Literature student, it was rewarding place to work and grow. So rewarding, in fact, that five years later (after my Masters and Ph.D) I came back to work on the programming and delivery of the Durham Book Festival.

Durham Book Festival 2018

Durham Book FestivalThe festival runs over ten days each October (this year it’s the 6th-14th) and brings an eclectic mix of authors, thinkers and artists to the city. In 2018 we’re holding events with Sarah Waters (The Little Stranger, Tipping the Velvet), Stylist columnist Lucy Mangan, the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy (who is also a previous DBF Laureate, a position sponsored by Durham University), and BBC broadcaster and historian David Olusoga, who’s performing a specially commissioned piece on growing up black in the North East. It’s one of the oldest literary festivals in the country and – although I’m biased – it is an invaluable cultural resource to have on our doorstep.

Durham University is one of the Book Festival’s main supporters and plays a big part in its programming. This year, Professor Simon James from the Department of English Studies is chairing events with bestselling author Sarah Perry (The Essex Serpent, Melmoth) and award-winning biographer Claire Harman (another member of the English faculty). We’re co-hosting a poetry event at St. Chad’s College Chapel with Simon Armitage (another past DBF Laureate), returning to Durham to speak at the Literary Birds conference organised by Professor Stephen Regan and Helena Habibi. One of the Department of English Studies’ doctoral researchers, Sophie Franklin, is appearing at an event about reappraising the Brontë’s, where she’ll be discussing her book Charlotte Brontë Revisited.


Creating a festival for all

Many of our DBF attendees and volunteers will be Durham students. For my part, having a background in both academia – and specifically Durham’s English Department – and events management gives me a strong sense of what these partners need from and can offer each other. We try to programme events that appeal to the student body (Booker Prize-winning author Pat Barker, anybody? Channel 4 News journalist Cathy Newman?) and we tap into research themes that are priorities for both the English Department and the University as a whole. We work with research centres and academics to get their work out into the wider community and maximise impact. We are extremely focused on widening participation – we want to programme culturally diverse events that attract equally diverse audiences, and speak to current issues around gender, class, and racial equality.

Personal highlights

Highlights so far have been the festival launch at Hotel Indigo, where this year’s Festival Laureate Jacob Polley gave a touching reading of his poem ‘Gloves’, and the delivery of our flagship outreach project Big Read, which has seen us distribute 3,000 free copies of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger across Co. Durham. As part of this scheme, I’ve been responsible for organising creative reading and writing workshops based on the book with groups in hospices, prisons, and communities with low cultural provision. I’m a firm believer in the power of literature and a love of reading to change people’s lives, and this is what drives me as an academic; but it’s also a sentiment that’s close to the heart of NWN’s strategic purpose. The value of having a widened skill set outside of academia – which I developed while working in the nightlife industry, but could just as easily be achieved by volunteering, or holding a collegiate position – is that you are equipped with the tools to take these quite esoteric notions and translate them into something tangible – such as project managing outreach work that uses literature and reading to promote cultural empathy, social inclusion and mental wellbeing. At New Writing North, the two parts of my life that (on the face of it) seem worlds apart have been brought together to make a cohesive whole. It’s a good feeling.

Advice to budding academics

My advice to anyone thinking of pursuing a career in academia would be this: get out there and do something that takes you beyond the university; get involved with volunteer opportunities facilitated by your college; apply for those research grants, training courses, and internships that your departmental administrator emails you and you automatically ignore; widen your skillset and push yourself. You never know what exciting, unexpected directions you might be taken in.

Find out more about Durham Book Festival 2018 and all related events by visisiting the website.

Laura McKenzie

Dr Laura McKenzie recently completed a PhD on the work of Robert Graves and Ted Hughes in DU’s Department of English Studies. She has held visiting fellowships at Harvard University and the University of Texas, Austin, and published articles on Henry James, Rudyard Kipling and Robert Graves. She is Festival and Events Assistant at New Writing North, the reading and writing development agency for the North of England.

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