“I don’t think you should be snobby about reading,” says Punam Ramchurn, director of Rochdale Literature and Ideas Festival which is returning for the fifth time this month.“It’s good that people read.”
For a festival still in its infancy, Rochdale is attracting some big names including Michael Parkinson, Alan Johnson, Tony Walsh and Jenny Eclair. “Jenny came last year,” says Ramchurn. “And she said, ‘don’t forget to ask me back next year’.”
Ramchurn adds: “It’s hard because there are so many literature festivals. But I think it’s about proving you can bring audiences in and persistence. Rochdale has a good reputation, can guarantee an audience and promotes diversity.”
Guaranteed audiences are the reason that the festival has expanded from a three-day event at Rochdale’s Number One Riverside to this year’s offerings which span from October 17 to October 23.
“The festival has really grown. When we had Carol Ann Duffy here a couple of years ago, someone came up to her and said, ‘Thank you so much for coming to Rochdale. We thought someone like you wouldn’t come.’”
Ramchurn is determined to change this feeling. “People are downbeat about what authors will and won’t come to because Rochdale has got a sort of blighted name. So this festival has created a real positive reflection on the town and people are really excited about it. Some of the events are nearly sold out so we have got some momentum.”
Perhaps it’s the inclusion of various locations, from museums and churches to shopping centres, which grabs the imagination?
“If you were new to Rochdale town centre and you weren’t particularly well read, it could be intimidating to come to a big venue by yourself. Also, the venues and businesses buy into the festival because they want to be part of it. They want to host something and be part of the glitter.” She laughs before adding: “Oh, I’ve oversold that now.”
But it isn’t all plain sailing. “The downside is the technical. For example, I’ve got Alan Johnson and Jenny Eclair in a church in Rochdale so my fear is, can people see them? Do I need staging? Will the acoustics be okay? If I could just ship them into a theatre, I wouldn’t have to worry about that.”
The festival team is extremely keen on engaging with young people. Last year it developed a programme called Generation Z aimed at young people aged 14 to 25. “We brought Owen Jones to give a talk and segmented the tickets so that 50 per cent went to young people. This year we’ve tried to create workshops for Generation Z after listening to their feedback. We’re trying to create a groove where young people can participate.”
Ramchurn brings her extensive arts background to the festival having previously worked at Manchester’s Contact Theatre as a communications manager, and then script manager for the rhythm and words department before moving to Oldham Libraries. It’s this approach which has breathed new life into the festival. “I bring a different perspective,” she says. “It’s about bringing arts and culture and literature alive as opposed to stock. For me, it’s about how you create an engagement, here’s an experience as opposed to reading a narrative in a linear way.”
This is very much how the festival began after receiving a bequest from a couple who loved literature and philosophy. The libraries’ management felt it would be good to create activities around this legacy, and from that the festival was born.
It’s also another way for libraries to secure their place in the 21st century where a book is only a click away.
“Libraries are now becoming more about being community hubs. We offer a lot more skills and workshops to up-skill the local community, like digital workshops, rhyme time, workshops on updating your CV and storytelling. I think libraries are becoming more dynamically focused.”
So who are Ramchurn’s favourite authors? “That’s a difficult one. I like an insight into people’s lives. I liked Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal. I like comedy writers, too, like Marian Keyes even though they’re not ‘high literature’.”
For more information about the Rochdale Literature and Ideas Festival, please visit the website.