The BookBrunch Interview: Alex Clark from the Bath Festival

Jasmin Kirkbride
News - Interviews 23 February 2017

Undertaking her first year as artistic director of words and books at Bath Festival, Alex Clark is prepared to admit she gets nightmares about it the way most people have recurring dreams about finals exams.

Given the cracking line-up of 13 events a day, however, a successful festival looks to be on the cards, with this year's highlights including a visit from Salman Rushdie; a Dylan event; and an evening with editors and writers from The Good Immigrant anthology.

Beyond the festival, Clark's life is astoundingly busy: she hosts events, writes about literature for the Guardian and Observer, interviews for the Vintage podcast, sometimes fills in for Mariella Frostrup on BBC Radio 4's Open Book, and is in the midst of organising a charity refugee event in London called Shelter from the Storm.

As part of her very varied work, she has also been interviewing on stage at the Bath Festival for some years, making her a natural choice for the role of artistic director of words and literature after Viv Groskop stepped down. Clark came on board at a time when the festival was being remodelled, bringing the music and literature strands together. The two elements have dovetailed nicely but, says Clark, the real proof of success will the reception from Bath audiences.

Working with co-directors David Jones, who programmes non-classical music, and James Waters, the classical director, has been an eye-opening experience. "I've always been a huge music fan, but I don't have that much experience knowing what to ask, like whether or not they have an accompanist,” she says.

"We were really clear that we didn't want to jam two festivals together in a way where they wouldn't have any relation to each other," she says. "The idea behind bringing them together was to create a more vibrant experience. We could have a festival with much greater impact because you can concentrate your resources, look at bigger spaces, and reach more people."

Most importantly, the new format encourages a greater crossover between the people going to music festivals and those at literature festivals. It makes sense: "There aren't many musicians who aren't interested in literature and not many writers who aren't interested in music, so there were obvious points where we could make things cross over."

To make the two festivals coincide, as well as moving to a larger space, the literature festival has changed dates, joining the music festival for 19-28 May. It allows the organisers to take advantage of the more varied spring publishing lists. Yet, while having such an enormous amount to choose from is very exciting, Clark says the real challenge was deciding what to leave out. "As in all festivals, you're not only programming to your own tastes, you're trying to have as big a spread as you can to interest all your visitors. I always regret that we can't fit more in. It's like shopping: you want to take everything home, but you can't."

Offering a diverse programme
Bringing the two festivals together has also been a way to answer the increasingly pressing question of how festival organisers can ensure they are providing a distinctive offering. "There are many literary and music festivals," says Clark. "Both have grown hugely in the last decade, and in the last few years in particular. There's also increasing pressure on people's disposable incomes and other entertainment forms, so when you programme something at a festival, you have to be giving people something they're not going to get anywhere else."

This broadening of audiences is also important to staying competitive. With the exception of larger events such as Edinburgh and Hay, which have built up huge international followings over the years, festivals tend to be local affairs. Bath is no exception, apart from the fact that the city itself is part of a wider network - not far, for example, from Bristol - so it has a large pool from which to draw audiences. "It's not about changing the festival necessarily, or turning away from our loyal and much-loved existing customer base," Clark makes clear, "but about making this a celebration of the arts for everybody."

Part of this will be about making the festival more inclusive. Though she admits Bath is "a particular kind of area", Clark is also clear that the diversity issue is not exclusive to Bath. "Throughout the years festivals have been markedly non-diverse in many ways: ethnicity, gender, class, age. I don't think that's necessary. I'm not going to be making people come to festivals, but I'd like it at the very least as if there wasn't some kind of invisible barrier to doing that."

According to Clark, there are two main reasons for this “invisible barrier”. The first is to do with how festivals are marketed: you need to make it clear the festival is open to all. The second is about how broad you make your programme. "This isn't about me and the things that I, as a programmer, can or have done," Clark says. "It's about recognising things that haven't been in publishing at large that need to change, making sure that voices that hitherto have been marginalised are represented."

In a similar vein, there have been a few notable articles in the press over the past few years claiming that festivals are elitist, but Clark maintains this is not the case - certainly not across the board. "That's like saying books are elitist. Books can't be inherently elitist." Books are books, Clark says, but they become politicised by their subject matter and the publication process. The same is true of festivals.

What’s more, Clark argues, this invisible barrier has little to do with price. "The basic event at a festival is cheaper than going to the cinema or a couple of beers at a pub. It's certainly cheaper than going to the football!”

Clearly, however, there are other issues. "It combines with the argument about making sure that books are places in which people see themselves reflected," Clark adds. Books can be key to opening doors into new perspectives, but they are just as crucially about seeing the world you know and understand.

"It's to do with how books are valued in the culture," Clark says. "Perhaps people think they won't understand, that it's boring or that people will look down on them. I don't think that's something you could entirely lay at the publishing industry's door, but I do think the more that you can publish widely and enthusiastically, the better."

Opening up the conversation
Festivals can open up conversations with the writers themselves. "Reading a book is an intimate, one-to-one experience. Nonetheless, without wanting or expecting authors to be performers, there is something very special about hearing someone read their own work and talk directly to you about it."

Some of Bath's most popular events are those featuring young writers. Clark says this is partly because of the increasing interest in writing as a hobby. "People recognise that if you come and see a writer at the beginning of their career, by and large they will be happy to talk to you about the process of writing. It bridges that impermeable gap between writers and their readers."

Festivals can also open up our conversations with each other. "In a very politically unstable time, at home and throughout the world, we are seeing that people want their voices to be heard, but they feel a bit lost: where do you go to get that discussion, to become more informed, to share what you think about something? Live events like festivals are becoming a much more vital space for those conversations to happen.”

This is partly why Bath has programmed so much political debate this year. The aim is not for people simply to come to an event, then go home again, but to nurture debate. "While we have invited some very eminent speakers, I would like to think that people will come to those events and feel that they are part of that conversation. That they can ask questions."

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