Maryport Litfest – how was it for you?

Festival organiser Angela Locke (pictured here well wrapped up in case of snow like last year’s) is cock-a-hoop. Last weekend’s Maryport Litfest, the fourth, doubled last year’s audience and turned out to be a celebration of mostly home-grown writers and writing.

Here’s Angela’s review of the proceedings – if you were there too, please chip in with your own comments and observations.



Maryport LitFest 2011 – Beyond the Frontiers – 4-6 November at Senhouse Roman Museum


Who would have thought that a festival of words would end up being about silence? Not because of a lack of audience (we doubled our footfall) nor a lack of conversation (there was a brilliant atmosphere, a real buzz, and all events had great attendance).

I mean the silence evoked by Rory Stewart, describing an ancient minaret in the desert in Afghanistan, the only thing left standing, deliberately, after the destruction of a graceful civilisation. Josephine Dickenson, her poetry full of silence and deep pauses, talking about her life as she read from her as yet unpublished Memoirs at the poetry lunch.

Jeremy and Marita Over, exploring in their interleaving poetry the silences between couples; what is not said. Oddly touching. Or Eric Robson, at the edge of the great silent space of the Solway, lying in the mud and wet through to his underpants, having fallen in a river at the beginning of his trek along the Border. The ghostly silence under the Rebel Tree at Clifton, described by Keith Richardson, where the Jacobite rebels were buried unceremoniously after losing their lives in the battle against the English forces.

Malcolm MacGregor painting in photography the huge silences of the deserts in Oman, and the wilderness of the Outer Hebrides. Jeff Cowton, bringing to life the precious manuscripts of the Wordsworth Trust, as we stare at the scribbled lines in a letter from Wordsworth to Coleridge, both in Germany. “And in the frosty season when the sun …” The difference between the recorded words and the actual letters on the page dramatically illustrated by the letter from Shackleton to his wife on a thin scrap of paper, unpunctuated:

“The expedition has been a success darling though we did not get the Pole I did my best I had to come back to you and the children”, with ‘had’ underlined four times.

Those silent entries reach across to us still. The protest poetry of Palestinian and Israeli poets in Across the Divide, so ably brought into focus by Michael Baron, and what remains unspoken by those who have been silenced. Even the ghostly silence of Souther Fell, and its legendary Spectral Army, conjured up by Steve Matthews. Was it, as he thinks, a giant fake after all?

And then the coda, in what was probably the most highly–charged of all the sessions over this electric weekend. Doug Scott, the Everest mountaineer, without the props of his usual slides of amazing climbs, talking and not talking about the books, from Gurdjieff to the I Ching, which had informed his life and his career. As Doug was probed by his friend Steve Goodwin, Editor of the Alpine Journal, you could have heard a pin drop.

As this great mountaineer thought his way through his extraordinary life, you realised he was comfortable with silences. At Advanced Base Camp, he described watching a thought ‘coming towards him’, letting it pass and feeling the silence in between before another thought, seemingly minutes later, meandered along. “It’s very peaceful”, he said, “lying in my tent, experiencing the silence.”

And in between all this silence there was laughter, a lot of noise, wine, good food, and a confrerie of words, mostly home-grown. We were proud that two of the prizewinners in the poetry competition, Joanne Weeks(2nd) and Annie Foster (3rd) are living in Cumbria. And with Keith Richardson replacing the Kew Gardens speaker, almost every speaker lived in Cumbria.

Even Steve Chettle had lived in Cockermouth when envisioning the Writing on the Wall project which brought so many words marching into and out of Cumbria in the footsteps of soldiers and settlers, farmers and ramblers. And we were delighted to welcome – in the audience – Fiona Armstrong, a Maryport girl, who is married to Sir Malcolm MacGregor. (We hope she will be returning next year to talk about her own work.)

Rory Stewart was packed out, and we could have sold twice as many tickets. Take note, and book early next year! The Festival weekend ticket was a great option, and lots of people came for pretty well everything. Some folk came for one event, and ended up staying …

The position of Senhouse Museum high on the cliffs above Maryport, the sea flooded with light all weekend, Criffel seeming to hang in mist on the far shore like a mystical mountain, and those brilliant sunsets over the Solway – it all seemed to reflect perfectly, as we had intended, our theme of Beyond the Frontiers. The best yet, in a great space.