Ilkley Literature Festival Review

20/10/2023

Emily Warner (she/her) reviews three events from the Ilkley Literature Festival

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Image by Rich Bunce

By Emily Warner

“Ilkley? Where is that?”, was the general response when I told people I was going to Ilkley Literature Festival. However, this quaint town, nestled amongst the rolling peaks of the Yorkshire Dales, is home to the longest-running literature festival in the North. This year, Ilkley celebrates the 50th anniversary of its Literature Festival, offering the public an impressive 90 events across 17 days. These events take a variety of forms and cover a wide scope of themes, such as Ilkley Moor and the natural landscape, food and sustainability, music and lyrics, the political climate and of course the golden anniversary of the festival itself. They paid homage to the 1973 programme by recreating some events as well as welcoming writers back who have been festival favourites in the last half century.
All three events which I attended were fascinating, and I will review some of their insights here.

Polly Toynbee
Polly Toynbee is a British journalist and writer, who has been a Guardian columnist since 1998. Toynbee recently published, An Uneasy Inheritance: My Family and Other Radicals, a book she spoke about on 14 October at the festival. Through the stories of her (entirely middle-class) family, Toynbee presents an honest discussion of class mobility, or lack thereof, and the guilt of privilege.
Something not often talked about, but extremely prevalent, is the shame that comes with privilege. A shame keenly felt, I suspect, by the affluent audience in Ilkley; a “pocket of wealth in the North” as Toynbee described them. For a committed left-wing advocate (as Toynbee is), there is a great sense of discomfort which comes from her stability.
She reflected on her rebellious childhood during the talk, on failing her 11-plus exam and attempting to shirk the weight of academic expectation. Rebelion itself is a privilege, only possible because she knew she would fall on her feet in the end. The class system simply wouldn’t allow her to fall through the cracks, affording her a freedom not available to everyone.
She also spoke about the impossibility of truly knowing the working class experience. Not being able to afford curtains, or to buy your child a new coat or pay for medication. That experience can be simulated (as Toynbee did) by accepting minimum wage jobs and living on a budget, but at the end of the day, the middle-class return to their safety net and the working class are stuck, looking in the window of a society they will never be part of. The embarrassment of being middle-class cannot compare to the injuries done to the working class.

Rich Bunce
The photography walk, led by professional photographer Richard Bunce, began at 10am on 15 October. It was a beautiful, crisp autumn day (albeit unexpectedly cold), offering the ideal backdrop for some nature photography. The small group of avid photographers weren’t difficult to identify, each squinting at the scenery, eyeing up their next shot, with a camera swinging around their neck.
The walk followed the River Wharfe, boasting panoramic views of Ilkley Moor in one direction and the possibility of a kingfisher sighting in the other. I enjoyed seeing parts of Ilkley I otherwise wouldn’t have explored, and learning something in a format other than the sit-down talks.
Bunce’s first advice to everyone was to turn off their automated-photography response – that urge to capture something without thinking about depth, light, framing, and all those other essential components of photography. “Remember” he said, “you are turning a 3D experience into a 2D image”. During the walk, Bunce offered several interesting tips about perspective and light. Most of these were already familiar to me (such as how to change the exposure compensation and how to frame a photo to create depth) so it was perhaps not a walk for enthusiasts or other professionals but more geared towards new photographers. However, his points were useful to recap nonetheless and Bunce did invite people to ask him questions individually if they wanted to know more. He also made an interesting point about familiarising yourself with a landscape, in order to best photograph it, learning where the best light hits and what time of year the flowers bloom – the greatest virtue of any photographer is patience.

Jeanette Winterson
On 15 October I also attended Jeanette Winterson’s talk about her latest book, Night Side of the River, a collection of ghost stories. Winterson has long been one of my favourite authors, so perhaps my impression of her is slightly biased due to my admiration. However, my cousin – who was less enthused about the talk and very much a ghost-sceptic – admitted even he enjoyed the event.
Winterson, while being elegantly articulate and lyrical (as expected,) was also surprisingly witty. She spoke about ghosts with a candour and light-heartedness which leaned towards hilarity. “Ghosts love my house” she said, recounting her experience of being haunted and acceptance of her ghosts, as if they were rowdy tenants and she, a resigned landlady. However, beneath this comedy Winterson also raised some interesting and thought-provoking questions.
Do ghosts really exist? Are they tied to a certain place, or a particular energy or are they simply the product of our complex minds? What is the difference between ghosts and AI; both non-biological entities which we do not fully comprehend? Of course, these questions have been asked for centuries without reaching a particular conclusion. Winterson didn’t try to provide an answer. Rather, she handed the audience a springboard from which to bounce their own ideas, experiences and beliefs; an opportunity which was enthusiastically accepted when the Q&A came around – ghosts, clearly, are a topic ripe for discussion.
The story she chose to read was about grief and loss, turning to spirituality and ghosts as a form of comfort and wrestling with the state of, “living with someone who is no longer there”. Divorcing ghostliness from the horror genre was a conscious choice and an effective one, broadening our idea of a ‘ghost story’ to encompass themes more real and tangible.

My experience of Ilkley Literature festival was one of warmth and curiosity. Each event I saw was equally well-curated and interesting, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to attend. The beautiful location of Ilkley allowed for a simultaneous celebration of nature and the art, and the productive ways in which they overlap. For anyone wanting a trip outside of York, I couldn’t recommend it enough.