Newark Book Festival is worth looking out for – a new-ish annual book bash with an eclectic remit. They have the ‘serious’ stuff, sure – but also plenty of family-relevant activities, and a glorious Literature Quarter in the market place, filled with stallholders and street acts. I was there on Sunday 15th July with my wares, and although this wasn’t the full-on experience enjoyed by the Saturday marketeers, there was a warm and friendly atmosphere and I feel it will develop into something special for the East Midlands. It’s not expensive to hire a stall, and I can recommend it to any nervous first-timers who might have self-published their work. You’ll need to get on the mailing list though, if you want the details in good time: already, plans for 2019 are under way. You can sign up using their website at Newark Book Festival.
Meanwhile, I can’t speak too highly of the Shrewsbury Poetry crowd – a well-organised evening with excellent open-mic readers, and they even had the decency to invite me over there as the headliner for August 2nd. The venue was first rate (thanks, St. Nicholas’ Cafe!) and I had a spiffing time meeting the organiser & poet, Liz Lefroy. My travelling expenses were refunded, and several booksales (hooray!) meant that I came away with a decent ‘wage’ while at the same time not having sent my poetry colleagues spiralling into deficit. Which, as you will see, is a theme this month.
I spent several days around rural Shropshire, enjoying its associations with Mary Webb, Housman, and Wilfred Owen; not to mention the eerie borderlands I find wonderfully recreated in the Merrily Watkins novels by Phil Rickman. However, some of the eerie borderlands are not due to an evocative landscape with its image of ‘the land of lost content’. At the moment it’s also the land of lost and failing businesses. I know Shropshire reasonably well as a visitor – but the last time I was in some of those small towns, the shopfronts were selling goods and the best-known tourist trap wasn’t wall to wall eateries with tiny tarts costing £3.50. Places have to reinvent themselves in the wake of recession, but I’m not sure we need 53 coffee shops within walking distance of each other. What happens out of season? Do they have scone-throwing competitions, or open up their premises to the homeless? Is the throughput enough to guarantee a years’ worth of income for a new deli next to another deli with a slightly different pastry in the window?
The biggest laugh-inducing discrepancy happened in one tiny town in the middle of nowhere with half-day closing held up as a tradition. Most of its independent shops were gone or going, yet local funding had been lavished on a building that wasn’t offering anything unless you wanted tourist souvenirs. I stood in its brand new space looking out of its artfully restored windows at a rundown three-floor unit which used to be a thriving hardware store. Nobody wanted it, I was told. A wool shop had closed only ten days previously, yet around the corner you could still get militaria and Army surplus from a well-stocked curio shop.
All prepared for the apocalypse. Thankyou Shropshire; your future as a museum is assured. You have some of the UK’s finest heritage, great views from your unusual landscapes, and you’re perfect for low-fi visitors like me. But I’m not sure vegan delis and Discovery Centres are going to carry you forward, post-Brexit.