Meet a young Benjamin Zephaniah. The year is 1984. I had just interviewed the then still relatively unknown Rastafarian dub poet and Hattie took this photograph. We had talked about the scourge of heroin and the drug casualties that appeared to be reaching epidemic proportions on the streets of Britain. Little did we know…
Zephaniah was just one of the fascinating and talented writers, performers and musicians taking part in that year’s Kent Literature Festival. This wonderful event, run by my old friend the poet John Rice, had been held annually since 1981 (or maybe it was 1980) and was really hitting its stride. Based in my hometown of Folkestone it offered a feast of literature with famous authors and performers rubbing shoulders with emerging talents and newcomers.
That particular year featured, among others, best selling novelists Margaret Drabble, Beryl Bainbridge and Lisa St Aubin de Teran. There were poets like the wonderful Adrian Mitchell plus Michael Rosen, the inimitable Jake Thackray, and punk poet Joolz. There was even a mobile writers workshop called the Versewagon where kindly and experienced scribblers, including a young Ian McMillan, offered advice and constructive criticism to aspiring writers.
The previous year, 1983, had featured Fay Weldon, Melvyn Bragg, John Mortimer, Raymond Briggs, Leslie Thomas, Marghanita Laski and Atilla the Stockbroker and Seething Wells. Still to come in 1985 (possibly my favourite KLF year) there were readings by Ian McEwan, Frederic Raphael, Craig Raine, Angela Carter and John Cooper Clarke. That year’s festivities were opened by Prunella Scales and closed with a rare public reading by the then new Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes.
For me, as the local newspaper’s self-appointed principal arts writer it was a joyous time. I had freedom to more or less talk to whoever I wanted which I now know was an even greater privilege than I realised at the time.
Though the festival continued in rude health under John Rice’s skilful stewardship for several years, for Hattie and me 1985 was the final up close and personal Kent Literature Festival experience. A few months later we moved to Bournemouth for new jobs and new challenges, head-hunted to launch a newspaper that would triumph briefly before crashing and burning when the money-men decided it was just too expensive.
It was an interesting if rather scary learning curve. Fortunately the then Evening Echo – the very paper we’d been sent to compete with – was happy to give us both jobs. Bet it wouldn’t work like that these days!
We’ve had rich and rewarding creative lives in Dorset but I think we both remain just a little nostalgic for the wonderful times we enjoyed all those years ago at the Kent Literature Festivals. It was just before the age of the yuppie really kicked in and access to writers and performers was made near impossible without going through a PR company.
They were happy days full of interesting encounters, and now, the best part of 35 years later, I have some vivid but slightly fractured memories in which 1983, 1984 and 1985 kind of merge into one.
So in my head I’m talking about possible solutions to social problems with Benjamin Zephaniah before tucking into a big plate of liver and onions with Beryl Bainbridge. Getting slightly drunk with Prunella Scales, coveting Roger McGough’s wide-brimmed hat as we walk to an Indian restaurant, meeting Ian McEwan and interviewing D.M. Thomas and Angela Carter. Spending time with Linton Kwesi Johnson and sharing the alarm of the festival organisers when they thought they’d literally lost the poet laureate.
Ted Hughes had decided to walk from the festival headquarters at the New Metropole Arts Centre to the venue where his reading was due to take place. It was a nice afternoon. All he had to do was stroll in a straight line for half a mile between the two cliff-top buildings. But somewhere along the way he ventured down a path to the undercliffe and maybe became a little disorientated. The result was that he briefly vanished until, much to the relief of the festival team who had been looking at their watches and anxiously scanning the horizon, he arrived at the venue a little sweaty and rather shaken only minutes before he was due to speak. This is certainly how I recall it. However if I’m ‘misremembering’ I’m sure someone out there will put me right.
What I definitely do know is true is also perhaps my most alarming Kent Literature Festival memory – being invited to introduce John Cooper Clarke on stage only for the Bard of Salford to turn up late and out of his proverbial gourd. For JCC was at that time in the grip of the same heroin epidemic that Benjamin Zephaniah had discussed a year earlier.
I remember trying to placate the restless audience between trips to see if I could coax John Cooper Clarke and his chum, a chap called Eric who looked as though he hadn’t slept for weeks, out of the backstage loo where they were er ‘freshening up’.
Astonishingly, when JCC finally made it onto the stage, the rapid-fire delivery and mastery of his material belied his frail state. He lived up in every way to my unimaginative and inevitable introduction “His Chelsea boots are pointed, his knees are double-jointed, you won’t be disappointed – Good old Johnny Clarke!”
I was with John Rice at the end of the evening when he was approached by JCC who asked if he could possibly have his fee in cash, right now. John explained that they didn’t keep that sort of money on the premises and that it would be sent by cheque to his agent as was the normal practise.
JCC glanced at his friend Eric. They looked troubled. He leant forward and whispered: “You don’t understand, we’re heroin addicts. We need the money.”
Happily John Cooper Clarke eventually got clean and has now become something of a national treasure. I’ve met him on a number of occasions and he’s a great performer and brilliant wordsmith. Had you asked me back in 1985 I’d have guessed that his chances of survival were extremely limited.
These days John Cooper Clarke admits that he’s lucky to be alive but rarely discusses the heroin years and shuts the subject down when journalists ask, as they invariably do, for the gory details. It’s a tedious subject, he says.
As he told GQ magazine a couple of years ago: “It’s like any addiction. First it’s great, then it isn’t; then it’s hell… ” He added: “The one message I would like to send out is that this is not something you can pick up and leave alone just like that, you know. Neither is it exotic or romantic. Believe me.”
Now of course all things evolve including John Cooper Clarke and the Kent Literature Festival. After a number of incarnations the event is now known as The Folkestone Book Festival. This year it will run from 16th -25th November. It offers an excellent programme as ever but I was a little surprised to read a ‘short history’ on the festival website which states that “… until 2001 it was a rather small affair” The piece then goes on to quote former director Nick Ewbank as saying that, after 2001, “audiences increased with writers such as Alan Bennett, Beryl Bainbridge, William Hague, P.D. James and Jacqueline Wilson.” Adding that, with the addition of an annual children’s day, the festival now reaches out to all ages.
I wish the Folkestone Book Festival nothing but success but, although every word of the ‘short history’ essentially true, I can’t help feeling that the implication is that somehow the old Kent Literature Festival was rather insignificant in comparison to what is now on offer. Not so. The literature festival back in the 1980s was certainly physically smaller but in terms of the stature of the writers and performers taking part it punched well above its weight. It also had its own dedicated children’s events by the way.
So please enjoy this year’s Folkestone Book Festival but also spare a thought for the wonderful heritage and past history that it enjoys. It didn’t spring from nowhere.