Books are so at home here in Bury

Nicola Miller
Nicola Miller
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As a kid I swiftly learned that I could read my way out of most tricky situations. An elderly tutor began to teach me to read, in Spanish and English, well before my fourth birthday so as to stand me in better stead for our subsequent emigration to Mexico.

Books became escapism but they also modelled human relationships in all their messy complexity, even if a lot of the nuance went over my kid-head. Words on a page weren’t always a safe harbour though and this is no bad thing: read Struwwelpeter or Hansel and Gretel at six and suddenly your own situation doesn’t seem quite so dire after all. Books can give a sense of proportion or bend it quite out of shape. They help us develop empathy and sympathy, they inspire activism and engagement well beyond our own personal spheres, help us to escape our own lives or hone in on them in fresh, constructive ways. As poet/author Michael Rosen once told me: “We learn through the world and what is around us – our bodies, the earth, the way we play, eat, and the energy and life around us” and books extend this learning process to worlds way beyond our own. They are transporting. Nothing else compares.

This is why I am thrilled that Bury St Edmunds is to get its own literature festival after a hiatus of some decades now. More than two years ago I wrote a column about my desire to see this happen, filled with what seemed to me at the time, fanciful ideas about what we might do. I dreamed of site-specific performances of the words of writers with a local connection such as writer/musician Nick Cave, writing:

“The author and musician Nick Cave wrote Gates to the Garden during his stay here and often walked through the ivy and lichen encrusted graves in St Mary’s churchyard. Cave met his girl in the Abbey Gardens, a living relationship very much in contrast to the ‘fugitive fathers, sickly infants, decent mothers, runaways and suicidal lovers’ beneath the ground, lying ‘in unlucky rows, up to the gates of the garden’. Now imagine hearing the strains of the song as you walk through the gates, the melody full of the lonesome echoes of a cathedral organ. Think of the lyrics whispered at dusk as the sun cuts in low through the abbey gateway.”

Then there are the ghost stories by Great Livermere’s M R James to scare ourselves with, read aloud in the shadow of night in atmospheric venues (Moyses Hall, are you up for this?). There’s The Mildenhall Treasure by Roald Dahl, who was a fighter pilot in the RAF. Where better than the Wingman’s Bar at the Angel Hill Hotel to host a reading of this story? (Are you interested in doing this, guys? Get in touch if so) As I wrote then, these could be vivid performances of words which re-engage with their original, strong sense of place. Think of it as reading in 3D.

The Bury St Edmunds Literature Festival will be a week-long celebration of the written and spoken word this October, set in a town whose landscape and architecture has inspired some of our great artists. Companies such as the Quirkhouse Theatre are set to perform in locations all over Bury, engaging with words in a fresh and modern way because the best of them must be given life beyond the pages of a book.

Something else I wrote at the time: “... walking past the Angel Hotel, we could hear or see the words of Dickens, projected on to the abbey walls or spoken via apps or speakers. We’d hear Pickwick Papers as if he were there writing it, pondering at a desk overlooking Angel Hill. We could hear about its creation, about what the town looked like then. Then there’s Norah Lofts who once lived in Northgate Street. Excerpts from Lofts’ Suffolk Trilogy could keep us company as we take literary book tours around the town: these wonderful books are saturated in 600 years of English history and set in a fictional place believed to be Bury.” These have now become distinct possibilities instead of my own private Idaho.

We organisers have already booked Sarah Perry, author of award-winning The Essex Serpent, and a writer who truly communicates the importance of sense of place. We have Louis De Bernières appearing, too, an author held in huge esteem worldwide, whose book Captain Corelli’s Mandolin leaped off the page and onto the silver screen. We hope to book food writers, too, because who better than they to demonstrate how our universal and everyday contexts – kitchens, food and how we cook it – can become extraordinary when committed to the page? The ordinary made extraordinary and the extraordinary made relatable – that’s the exquisite gift that writers give us all.

-- Find the Bury St Edmunds Literature Festival on Facebook and Twitter: @burylitfest

-- Nicloa Miller is author of The Millers Tale blog. Follow her on Twitter @nicmillerstale