How it began

By Torin Douglas, Festival Director

1 1 - A Horowitz and A Fraser copyFor several years, Father Kevin Morris and I had discussed launching a Book Festival at St Michael & All Angels. It couldn’t be that hard, we thought.

Our experience in running the annual Bedford Park Festival – Chiswick’s biggest community event – stood us in good stead and provided a good model. We had the venues – the church and the parish halls. We knew how to find speakers and attract audiences and to look after them, using volunteers from St Michael’s and elsewhere. We knew how to sell tickets, attract sponsors and use a Festival to raise money for good causes.

We’d built up a good relationship with Waterstone’s in Chiswick High Road and local publishers and publicists – notably Jacks Thomas (then managing director of Midas PR) and her husband Malcolm Edwards (then deputy chairman of Orion), who had supplied new books in profusion for the Festival and the St Michael’s fund-raising Balls.

In 2007, we were about to go ahead with our plans, when Ealing Council announced that they were launching a Literary Festival in September, right on our doorstep, at the same time we had planned. There was no point in having two book festivals in the same month in the same vicinity, so we offered to join forces and provide them with local knowledge and some speakers. We also began the tradition of a Saturday night Festival drinks reception in St Michael’s Parish Hall.

Then we waited. In May 2009, after holding the Ealing Literary Festival twice in circus-style tents on Acton Green, Ealing Council announced that the festival would move indoors, into Ealing and Acton Libraries. We seized the moment. In less than three months, we put together a programme that surprised us all with its quality. (I had suggested starting small and gradually building the Festival up).

Largely through Jacks and Malcolm and their contacts, we persuaded Lady Antonia Fraser, Anthony Horowitz (together, above), Jacqueline Wilson, Lynn Barber, Michael Frayn, Michele Paver, Sir Ian McKellen, Andrew Sachs and more than a dozen other authors and audio-readers to take part.

On the opening afternoon, Friday September 25th at 5pm, the church was filled with (mainly) schoolboy fans of Anthony Horowitz. As they filed out of the main church doors, with their signed copies of the Alex Rider books, in filed the adult fans of Antonia Fraser through the other doors, for another full house in the evening. Both gave great performances, as did other speakers across the weekend.

For the next two days, there was a hectic stream of people of all ages, moving between the church and the various halls, or queueing up outside in the sunshine. The feedback was excellent.

In truth, we had underestimated what it takes to put on a Book Festival. But fortunately, we had the organisational skills of Dinah Garrett, who held everything together as the Festival administrator, and Helen Simkin, who ran the Box Office, as she does for the Bedford Park Festival. Jacks Thomas’ team at Midas PR, which handled publicity for the London Book Fair and British Book Awards, was able to steer us through the maze of publishers, booksellers, authors and all their competing needs and demands. And the team at Waterstone’s won many friends, running a bookstall and signing sessions in the Church.

Nor could we have done it without all the volunteers from St Michael’s and elsewhere in Chiswick, who helped with refreshments, marshalling, chair-moving and lots of other jobs.

Three years on, Jacks Thomas was appointed to run the London Book Fair and Midas PR decided to withdraw from the Festival. But, to fill the gap, they helped find us our first Author Programme Director – Cathy Schofield, who had wide publishing experience, including several years running World Book Day. Over the next three festivals, Cathy raised our game – until she and her family retired from London and we had to look for someone else.

We were fortunate to find Jo James, a former head of events at Waterstone’s with wide experience of programming festivals. The 2016 programme is her first, and we are delighted with the speakers she has lined up for the 8th Chiswick Book Festival.


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