New literary festival aims to take books to high-rises

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The Independent Online
CATCH THE 22 bus into the City of London this Sunday, and your journey might end in the company of Joseph L Heller. The legendary American novelist will be reading and talking at the Barbican Centre - one among scores of high-profile events during "The Word", London's first international festival of literature, which starts today and runs until 28 March.

Five Nobel Prize winners will join more than 60 other authors, drawn in equal numbers from the UK and abroad, in an ambitious London-wide, lottery-funded programme of 350-plus events. The Word embraces club nights, comedy classes and a movie-title masterclass as well as readings, discussions and debates.

Among the star turns, Doris Lessing will appear in Woodford Green, Walter Mosley in Lewisham, Germaine Greer in Battersea and Margaret Atwood in Sutton, while even the reclusive John le Carre breaks cover for an event at the Peacock Theatre in Holborn.

However, if you want to call the central box office and make a booking, think again. There isn't one; all tickets will be sold by local venues, whether it be the Enfield Civic Centre for Sue Townsend and Terry Pratchett, or the Surbiton Assembly Rooms for Peter Carey. The reasons for this absence of a central core help explain The Word's special mission, and why the director Peter Florence, who also runs the Hay-on-Wye literary festival, thinks it can find an annual niche in the capital's cultural diary.

Mr Florence has designed "a festival that reaches across the city rather than simply concentrating on Soho or the South Bank". The Word plans to take writers to the people, in verdant suburb or high-rise estate. It has no wish to replicate the "pilgrimage model" of most festivals, in which avid readers make a trek to see their favourite authors in some pleasant country town. This aim means, in many cases, an attempt to match the fare on offer with the varied interests of a culturally complex metropolis.

"It's significant," Mr Florence said, "that one of the strongest line- ups consists of two writers from Nigeria and a guy from St Lucia": Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Derek Walcott, who read in an all-star gig at the Hackney Empire on Monday. Meanwhile, a series of short films on Carlton Television will try to reach potential punters who might never have sampled a writers' event. "What we really need to do is to bring the festival into the Trevor McDonald slot," Mr Florence said.

In fact, The Word is building on the work of other innovators. During the Eighties, the literary entrepreneur Tony Fairweather first located a huge live audience for black writers when he brought figures like Alice Walker to inner-city venues. The writer and arts consultant Ken Worpole, who ran pioneering writing groups in east London, points out the shifting combination of "location, audience and writer always make a unique occasion". One poet may fill a hall in Catford but empty a bar in Covent Garden; another, vice versa. Mr Worpole is delighted, for instance, that Turkey's greatest living novelist, Orhan Pamuk, will be coming to Hackney, in the heart of London's Turkish community. But was it some programmer's wicked sense of fun that dispatched Deborah Moggach and Wendy Perriam's discussion of sex in fiction to the kerb-crawling purlieus of Streatham?

Mr Worpole said The Word "is going to be a bit of a boost for the library service in London", which provides many of its sites. But an annual jamboree can hardly make up for the long-term decline of local library services. Guy Daines, head of professional practice at the Library Association, reveals there were 56 branch closures in London between 1987 and 1997.Opening hours have fallen by 22 per cent in the same period, and librarians' real book-purchasing power by 45 per cent. The Word may open new minds to modern literature, but some of those converts will return to their local libraries and find the door to further reading firmly shut.