KING’S LYNN: A step back in time with Fiction Festival

King's Lynn Fiction Festival chairman Tony Ellis holds the 25th celebration cake surrounded by authors and committee.
King's Lynn Fiction Festival chairman Tony Ellis holds the 25th celebration cake surrounded by authors and committee.
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A quarter of a century ago, a small group of friends from Lynn decided to put on a small literary festival in the town. Celebrating its silver jubilee this year, the annual Fiction Festival is now an established landmark in the town’s calendar.

Local solicitor Tony Ellis, who came up with the original idea for the festival, has chaired the event ever since. He said: “Having started the Poetry Festival in the autumn of 1985, we decided we would like a spring event as well and set about recruiting writers.”

The first festival saw a distinguished line-up including poet and novelist Sir Stephen Spender, John Wain – one of the original “angry young men” and former Oxford professor of poetry, together with Michael Holdroyd, David Profumo, Jim Crace and Paul Sayer, who had just won the Whitbread Prize.

Over the years, many more prize-winning authors have come to the town for the festival including the first winner of the Man Booker Prize, PH Newby, and those who followed him, Bernice Rubens, Stanley Middleton and Penelope Fitzgerald.

In 1980, organisers even welcomed Nobel Prize winner, William Golding, to the long list of notable writers that have attended the festival since its beginning – a list that already included Louis de Bernieres, Roy Hattersley and Stephen Fry.

Tony Ellis, festival chairman, said: “I feel we owe a lot to the enthusiastic and friendly support of two of the most brilliant writers in Norfolk – Christopher Bigsby, professor of American Studies at UEA, and critic and novelist D.J. Taylor.

“We have succeeded in drawing some of the most brilliant writers to Lynn, and in the process have built a loyal audience of supporters who come from all over the country, year after year.”

He added: “One of the unique aspects of the festival is the way that local people offer hospitality to the writers in their own homes adding to the intimacy and friendliness of the events.

“It is interesting the way a bond can be formed quite quickly between the writers, even if they have not met before. Writers mingle with the audience between sessions with a good interval allowed for people to buy books from the stall and get them signed.

“Broadly, I think we have a good formula. In the main we have changed little about the way the festival is run and it seems to work very well.

“We are thanked over and over again for putting on such a charming and friendly event, and to alter things radically would be spoiling the formula that makes it such a success.”

For the 25th anniversary, organisers welcomed another sterling lineup including Rose Tremain, Stephen May, John Lucas, Robert Edric and Liz Jenson among others.

Mr Ellis said: “Without doubt, Lynn is indebted to the team of committee members who commit to a huge amount of hard work in their own time behind the scenes, and without whom the festival would not be the great success it continues to be.”

Hitting the headlines:

The Fiction Festival has made the national news several times over the years, from Dame Beryl Bainbridge describing the arduous Sunday train journey from Lynn to London in her quirky Evening Standard column.

Entitled Scotch of the Antarctic, she questioned how well the Arctic explorers would have coped with the frequent weekend rescheduling and engineering works.

A stalwart supporter of the festival over the years, Dame Bainbridge took the festival to national headlines in 2000 when she spoke of a non-existent novel and writer, a Rhoda Comstock, in a discussion with novelist Paul Bailey about the best writing since World War II.

Two days later, the Daily Mail published an article claiming she had insulted the town’s erudite audience with her promotion of a made-up author. Other newspapers joined in, with The Guardian running articles on ethics and the public duty of professional writers, until Paul Bailey wrote a full confession.

Festival chairman, Tony Ellis, said: “It was unclear whether Rhoda Comstock or the press reaction was the greater joke.”