UP CLOSE: Wells Festival of Literature trustee and committee member Hilary Cain

By Tim Lethaby

16th Jul 2021 | Local News

Wells Nub News aims to be supportive to every element of the community from business and shops to people and charities and clubs and sports organisations.

Everyone is finding it tough at the moment and is desperate to get back to normal.

We are profiling some of these local businesses, people and groups regularly over coming weeks in a feature called UP CLOSE IN WELLS in the hope that we can be a supportive springboard for their full return to normal.

Today we talk to Hilary Cain, a committee member and trustee of the Wells Festival of Literature, who shares her thoughts on the challenges of organising a festival during the coronavirus pandemic.

During an in-depth Q and A session she also talks about the work the festival does around education and the lasting legacy the organisers are trying to achieve.

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What is your role in the Wells Festival of Literature committee and what does it involve?

I have been a member of the of Wells Festival of Literature committee for 13 years and am now one of the six trustees. The festival is now in its 28th year.

During that time the committee has increased in size to reflect the demands of the festival which has grown from a weekend event to one which now offers 35 speakers over ten days. Within the committee there are various teams organising the different aspects, such as marketing, author contact and booking, hospitality, competitions, and event and financial management, all of which contribute to the presentation of the festival for the audience.

In addition there is the education team which throughout the year uses the annual profits of the festival to support local schools and colleges in providing activities which encourage and promote literacy, and a love of reading and creativity for children and young people. I am one of the five members of this team.

I have also helped develop the festival's Book Group event attended by members of local book groups who discuss a specific book with the author. This began as an event for 60 people 11 years ago and the last three years more than 300 have attended.

How has lockdown and post-lockdown been for you and the organising team?

This year has presented many challenges for us but we were determined, despite this, to produce a festival for this area of Somerset. Our preparations for the festival begin 11 months previously so were booking speakers when there were no anxieties about Covid.

Since then we have had to respond to the government measures, remain in constant dialogue with our speakers about their wishes, consider various possibilities for the form of the festival and limit the usual bonhomie and relaxed nature of the event which has been one of its cornerstones. We have been extremely fortunate to have excellent support from the staff at Cedars Hall who have done all they can to meet the requirements of both us and our speakers.

We have put together a hybrid festival which includes a much reduced live audience in the hall to meet social distancing requirements and live streaming of the events to enable others to watch from their homes yet also ask questions of speakers.

Strict cleaning measures of the hall between each event will take place. It is wonderful to know that despite these limitations tickets for some events have already sold out and we are confident we have a great festival on offer.

The Wells Festival of Literature is not just about speakers, it is about leaving a lasting legacy. Can you tell us about that side of it please?

Since its inception as a weekend festival 28 years ago, an event for young people to inspire in them a love of reading has been at the heart of the festival. Wells Festival of Literature is the largest in the country run entirely by volunteers which means that any profits can be used to help create new generations of enthusiastic readers.

We could not provide this without the extremely generous support of our local business sponsors. They underpin the event, sponsoring individual speakers and contributing to the feel of a community venture.

We are very grateful to them all and to our main festival sponsor of many years, Chubb Bulleid Solicitors. It is particularly heart warming and encouraging for us that even in the difficult time for businesses this year we have still been able to rely on the support and generosity of so many local firms and individuals.

Without this help the surplus profit and therefore the number of children we could reach and help inspire with the love of words and reading would be much reduced. Last year we were able to direct £20,000 into local schools and community events and more than 3000 pupils were included in projects funded by the festival.

Can you give some examples of the help that the festival has provided?

Projects funded by the festival in more than 40 schools have been very varied and help provide the extra curricular activities which many schools can no longer fund themselves but are eager to provide. During the festival four sessions are held with a visiting author for more than 800 Year 6 pupils who are then able to buy the books at a much reduced price.

Many children's authors have visited schools to discuss their books and run workshops and we have also been able to fund sets of books to accompany these. Poets too have inspired many children ranging from Tony Walsh, the internationally acclaimed poet, to A F Harold, a children's author who sends weekly poems to a class to enjoy and work on followed by visits to explore these further.

A visit by the rapper, Inja, too, excited the students at Strode College and Fosseway School who worked hard to emulate his skill with words. We have helped fund theatre workshops which have given children in primary schools the opportunity to perform Shakespearean plays in front of audiences at the Egg in Bath and the Merlin Theatre, Frome, which have been thrilling experiences for them.

We support inter school termly book groups enabling each child to have a copy of the book and have also organised trips to Waterstones bookshop to inspire small groups of children to choose books we provide. Theatre groups have also given performances for pupils leading to further creative work and joint productions between several schools.

The festival is very proud of its work with Coram Beanstalk, an organisation which trains and supports volunteers to work with reluctant readers in primary schools. The organisation had no base in the South West and the festival contributed to its establishment in Wells and the surrounding area and continues to help fund its work in local schools.

The feedback from teachers leaves us in no doubt that the impact of all these and other interventions are extremely important in helping reinforce their work.

How supportive has the Wells community and businesses been?

We are always impressed by the loyalty of the Wells community to our festival. Our Friends scheme is well supported and each year many of our events are sold out.

In addition to the generosity of our sponsors we are very fortunate to be supported in other ways by local businesses who have been keen to be associated with the festival. Restaurants have offered 'dining discount' packages for those attending the festival.

Waterstones have provided a pop-up book store and Cedars Hall staff have worked enthusiastically to provide the perfect setting for us.

We are also extremely fortunate to have Lord and Lady Waldegrave as our patrons. They have given us their unstinting support over many years.

Who are you most looking forward to seeing at this year's festival?

This year's programme provides yet another eclectic mix of speakers so it is really difficult to chose a favourite. I was a great fan of the young, dashing Michael Wood and am looking forward to his talk about China which is so topical.

The cookery slot has presented some memorable speakers over the years so I shall be keen to hear Olia Hercules talking about Summer Kitchens and am intrigued to hear about The Lost Pianos of Siberia. The Book Group Event features Max Porter discussing his novel Lanny which should be an intriguing session.

What is the most exciting part of being involved in the festival?

Each year it is a great privilege to work with so many creative, committed and enthusiastic members of the festival team and see the event come together over several months. The buzz in the foyer on the first night is particularly exciting and the opportunity to speak with authors previously admired from afar is wonderful.

However, for me the most exciting moments are during the year when children, particularly those who might not have been keen readers, rush to have a book signed by an author visiting their school or to share with them a piece of work they have produced. That is magic!

What has been the feedback so far on how the festival will be different this year?

The majority of our speakers have been overwhelmingly appreciative of our intention to put on the festival. So many appearances at live events have been denied them and they are missing the contact with their readers.

For a minority of the authors their personal circumstances have meant they cannot appear in person but they have fully embraced the opportunity to have their talk live streamed and know they can still engage in live questions with the audience. The take up of tickets has been good and dispelled any apprehensions we had that our Somerset audience would not wish to take part this year.

The stringent safety measures which will be in place under the watchful eye of our events team and the staff of Cedars Hall, have reassured our audiences. For those who are unable to attend the opportunity to register for live streaming is a bonus and we are hopeful that we may gain new followers who will be able to join us in person at next year's festival.

Who has been your favourite speaker you have seen at the festival over the years and who would be the person you would most like to see in the future?

To identify one speaker is very difficult. Fergal Keane's moving talk about his years in a very troubled Ireland was particularly special, the wonderful softness of his Irish lilt belying the harshness and complexity of his memories.

Adam Rutherford has appeared twice and each time has made a science-based talk fun and accessible for me, a non-scientist. For sheer enjoyment Roger McGough and the Little Machine closed the festival last year with a superb combination of poetry and music.

For the future we could aim high! Michelle or Barack Obama would be very special, Dame Judi Dench or Dame Maggie Smith would be great fun and maybe Professor Brian Cox to add the scientific dimension.

For the book group I would be thrilled if we could book Sebastian Barry. Don't forget to check in next year to see if any of these are coming but in the meantime go to our website to see the exciting talks on offer this year. I hope to see some of you there!

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Wells Nub News is proud to be working in partnership with the Wells Festival of Literature - you can check out their website here.

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