How ILF all began: a Q&A with First Festival Director Michael Dawson
There are many stories surrounding the early years of the Ilkley Literature Festival. The only ones who know the truth are those who were there. During a frank Q&A session, the first Festival Director Michael Dawson revealed some memorable moments and dispelled at least one myth.
It's long been thought the festival was devised during the 1971 postal strike. In fact, Michael (then Director of the Yorkshire Arts Association) and Peter Harland (then editor of the Telegraph & Argus and Chair of the Yorkshire Arts Literature Panel) had dreamt up the festival some time before the strike, although Michael admitted it had given them “a little more time to plan”. He said the myth started because of a press release he and Peter issued which used the postal strike as their hook.
During his Q&A, Michael recalled many (actual) events – here's a selection:
In 1977, French writer Marguerite Duras, upon seeing the Kings Hall before her performance, disliked the venue so much that she used some choice words and almost left before her show. One hour and a few malt whiskies later she was persuaded to stay and gave her talk (in French). Michael recalled how, a week after her Ilkley appearance, she performed at the Carnegie Hall, although this time her performance was in English.
Germaine Greer refused her invitation when she was invited to join the festival’s first ‘Women and Literature Symposium’. The reason? Jilly Cooper was also due to attend. Michael recalled: “I got an extraordinary letter from Germaine Greer saying she'd never appear on stage alongside Jilly Cooper.”
The performance of Ted Hughes' Cave Birds in 1975 was both dramatic and eventful. Michael described the event as 'excellent' and said the drama was heightened by a blood-curdling scream from an audience member. At the time it was assumed the scream was part of the show, which continued uninterrupted. It was only later people realised the woman had been distressed by the slide show and had vomited in the foyer.
Yorkshire Arts insisted Michael had to organise everything in his spare time. This meant he could only dedicate half a day a week to the festival. He relied heavily on volunteers, including his whole family. His wife Megan organised parades, street theatre and shop displays, while his children got involved in the technical side of things, helping Michael to record some memorable performances.
There were many last-minute challenges, including a blown bulb on a projector hours before a performance. Michael found himself waiting at a petrol station halfway between Ilkley and York waiting for a replacement bulb to arrive so the show could go ahead (the supplier wouldn't come any further!). He got back to Ilkley to discover the replacement bulb damaged the slides. Michael laughingly recalled fetching a screen from home which was “far too small for anyone to see the pictures properly.”
When asked if he had had a grand vision of the festival's future, Michael replied: “No, I just hoped it wouldn't fold.” As he said at the time: “I think we can do it better than Cheltenham”, but he wasn't expecting anyone as famous as W.H. Auden to appear until Eric Walter White said they should 'aim for the top' and get Auden involved. When asked what Auden's performance was like, Michael said: “He wasn't bad at reading his own poetry – it wasn't dramatic but it was good.”
Towards the end, audience members recalled their favourite festival moments, including the controversy over the Minotaur sculpture (it became a national story) and Conor Cruise O'Brien's visit (he was number one on the IRA's hit list prompting his host to answer the phone as bogus characters just in case).
To close, Michael recalled and thanked the many committee members and volunteers from the early days, without whom he said “it would have been impossible.” He said he had “many happy and chaotic memories of the festival”.