Birmingham Literature Festival

Matt Smith began his internship with Writing West Midlands smack bang in the middle of the brilliant Birmingham Literature Festival, giving him plenty to write about after a hectic first few weeks…

During our training week, we were asked the question ‘what does the city’s culture say about Birmingham?’ This was a question that stayed on my mind as I began my internship with Writing West Midlands. My first week involved working on the Birmingham Literature Festival (BLF). To say it would be an intense 7 days would be an understatement. Starting your internship in the middle of a festival is a baptism of fire, you are thrown in at the deep end, you’re in the eye of the storm, I’ve run out of metaphors but you get the idea.

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Local dialect makes up set for Benjamin Zephaniah and Liz Berry

The Birmingham Literature Festival has been a staple of the city since 1999. Starting life as the Birmingham Book Festival, the Festival rebranded itself to reflect the changing face of publishing. The BLF is varied and ambitious, hosting writers from across the literary world – from Chris Riddell the Children’s laureate to the politician Chris Mullin, from local heroes like Benjamin Zephaniah, to newcomers like Jonas Hassen Khemiri.  Events happen in a range of different locations including Birmingham Cathedral, Library of Birmingham and a canal boat. When I joined the team on Saturday morning, they were half way through their Euro Day, a series of talks from European and international writers about a range of topics based on the belief in free movement of ideas across Europe and the rest of the world. The next week included talks on Rock Against Racism, Brutalism, the dialect of the Black Country and Utopias. Whilst the audience are treated to intelligent conversations and debates, behind the scenes there are PA systems to disassemble and reassemble and banners to carry from one side of the Library to the other.

Festivals by their very nature are intense beasts, you can plan as much as you want but still be open to the forces of change. As the audience leave one talk, queues for book signings are formed, questionnaires are distributed, drinks for guests are collected and just when you think there is a moment of calm… it’s time for the next event. I was busy but learned so much, not just from the hugely informative speakers but also from the fantastic small and highly organised team who make the festival happen. A lot of the work at the BLF is problem solving – what do you do when the PA system starts giving you feedback? What do you do when you have an ever growing queue across the library and you’re quickly running out of space? What do you do when you suddenly have to change venue? These are problems which require quick thinking and team work. And during my time with Writing West Midlands I appear to be learning from some of the best.

Writing West Midlands is a small dedicated team, which is all the more impressive when you see their ambitious programme. It’s a festival that I’m proud to have been a part of, not least because the festival is dedicated to reaching out to the types of audiences who may not normally feel at home in traditional literary world. This is largely due to the range of programming, which included a teen takeover day with events about writing comics and YA fiction. There were talks from a whole range of different communities, most notably The Good Immigrant talk, which called for greater diversity within the UK’s cultural landscape.

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Walls Come Tumbling Down Panel. From left to right: Ranking Roger (The Beat); Ruth Gregory (Rock Against Racism); The Reverend Richard Coles (The Communards); Daniel Rachel (Author of Walls come tumbling down).

As I write this the dust of BLF 2016 is settling and everyone in the office is gearing up towards the next big project – the Writer’s Conference at the University of Birmingham.

So what does a cultural event like Birmingham Literature Festival say about the city?

Birmingham is a city that finds beauty in all sorts of places, from the local dialect to the architectural boom of the 1960s. Birmingham is a city that is aware of its past but looks towards the future. Birmingham is a city that is diverse and inclusive. Birmingham is a city that is filled with unknown treasures.

I’ve had a great time at BLF, or as they say in the Black Country ‘It was Bostin’. I’m sure the next six months will continue to be.


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