Wantage (not just) Betjeman Literary Festival’s 2014 programme is being hailed as “the biggest, boldest, bravest and best ever”.
Highlights of the nine-day long event included talks by veteran BBC reporters Kate Adie and Roger Harrabin, ex-SAS man Andy McNab and journalist Sofka Zinovieff.
These were interwoven with a heated environmental debate, a hilarious murder mystery dinner, numerous writing masterclasses, a WW1 roadshow, music, poetry and wine tasting.
Chairman Debbie Martin said: “It was an excellent festival, appealing to a much wider audience than before and – most importantly - to the whole community.
“We had a wide-range of festival-goers, from mums with small children waiting to see Sir Charlie Stinky Socks author Kristina Stephenson, to seasoned attendees, avid literary lovers and people coming from as far afield as London, Cardiff and Buckinghamshire to be there.
“It was great to provide workshops for the writers in our community - as well as the readers. Our Local Voices event – promoting the work of local poets, novelists and flash fiction fans – was a sell out.
“And our environmental debate, featuring Ben Law, Maddy Harland and Polly Higgins, was thought-provoking and a great success.
“But my biggest thanks and tribute must be to the committee. Planning the festival swallowed a huge chunk of all our lives over the last year and tested patience, determination and perseverance to the limit.
“But the reward has been as I’d hoped: the biggest, boldest, bravest and best Wantage (not just) Betjeman Literary Festival ever.”
Here are some of the highlights….
Kate Adie – one of the best known faces on British television – wowed a crowd of over 300 with humorous anecdotes about her time as a BBC journalist reporting from some of the world’s trouble spots. She also delighted and informed about the role of women during the First World War, delivering an hour-long presentation – without notes – on her latest book: Fighting on the Home Front.
One of the highlights of the festival was our WW1 Europeana roadshow, held in collaboration with the University of Oxford’s IT Services department. More than 100 people brought in family stories, photos and other memorabilia from the First World War to be saved on the Europeana 1914-1918 website. They were greeted by a team of local volunteers who helped record tales from the front line, including that of Wantage milkman Jack Beechey, who was among over 600 sailors – including Lord Kitchener - who perished on HMS Hampshire in 1916.
Tony Hadland, of Faringdon, brought in a vase given to his grandfather Harry Sealey – an ambulance driver who joined the Royal Army Medical Corps. “Much of the material brought into events like this is in danger of being lost,” he said. “People live in smaller houses; they don’t have attics like our grandparents, so stuff gets thrown out. Saving it on Europeana 1914-1918 website keeps it safe and preserves it.”
Festival speaker Stephen Cooper, whose book The Final Whistle traces the lives of 15 players from Rosslyn Park Rugby Club who were killed in the First World War, said: “This roadshow is a great idea, and I love the fact that it’s pan-European and makes family history freely available to anyone who wants to use it.”
Ed Vaizey, Culture Minister and Wantage MP, was also very impressed by the roadshow, which was attended by Oxfordshire Family History Society, WW1 Soldier’s Tale and the Trooper Potts VC Memorial.
Youngsters had a veritable treasure trove of events to entertain them, including Sir Charlie Stinky Socks author Kristina Stephenson, who brought her colourful show The Pirate’s Curse, to Wantage.
There were laughs a plenty, and lots of story ideas, from zany TV writer Ciaran Murtagh. And continuing our WW1 theme, VAD Nurse Nora gave a little bit of history and an insight on her adventures patching up injured soldiers in the First World War.
Budding crime writers were given tips from The Twelfth Department author William Ryan about how to construct interesting and complex characters from scratch to develop the plot of a crime novel. “I was deeply impressed with the insights into the criminal mind that the workshop attendees showed,” he said. “Deeply impressed and a little worried…. It was a really enjoyable afternoon though – with some great ideas and a lot of laughter. I only hope they enjoyed it as much as I did."
Former SAS man Andy McNab and psychologist Kevin Dutton analysed the links between Special Forces and psychopaths … with some fascinating results. Blackadder producer John Lloyd, a star of last year’s festival, said: “Kevin Dutton is very, charming and a beguiling speaker. What you are getting is a very Q1 take on psychopaths – he’s overturning a lot of preconceptions. He is taking information you might feel is frightening or difficult and making it very easy to follow. Andy McNab is so charming, but there is a look about him which says: ‘You don’t mess with me.’ You can see behind the charm is a steely resolve. Thank God the country’s in his safe hands.”