Celebrating the local in Queen's Park

Thomas du Plessis
Opinion - Festivals Wednesday, 06 June 2018

Thomas du Plessis reports on how community spirit has informed the Queen's Park Book Festival


Like much of London, Queen's Park is an area defined by contrast and multiplicity. Multi-million pound Victorian terraces lie next door to social housing estates. Variations in literacy and numeracy rates are some of the starkest in the country. Over 40 languages are spoken at one local primary school alone. With the adjacent areas of Kensal Rise, Willesden Green, Kilburn and Harlesden, this is a vastly complex multicultural area of north west London. This led me to think about how it may be possible to bring people together behind a common purpose, in order to create a sense of community that can often seem so difficult to attain.

I believe that a literary festival is one of the most powerful ways of bringing a local community together. Festivals are uniquely positioned to unite individuals under one roof. They are driven and inspired by ideas, argument and language that are more meaningful than the often shallow criteria by which we define our individual differences.

I was reading in Queen's Park one summer's afternoon last year when I realised that it would be the perfect location for a literary festival. I mentioned this to a few local friends, and I was told with much enthusiasm that there had in fact been a book festival before I moved into the area in 2012. Such was the excitement about hosting another one that when I committed to a 2018 relaunch, the reception from local residents and neighbours was overwhelming. Simply the idea of repeating such an enjoyable and popular event was creating a common purpose among people who had never met each other.

Three days after mentioning the relaunch I had been given enough programming suggestions to fill a month-long event. This was to be a "local festival", created "by the community for the community". A sense of hyper-local patriotic pride emerged in virtually every conversation I was having.

One looming issue was beginning to emerge, however: what did we mean by the words "local" and "community"? They kept appearing in a kind of all-embracing narrative that everyone could agree sounded good, but that no one could define. Yes, it was clear that the festival could champion the local community, but no one could decide quite how it would do so. I knew that if the Queen's Park Book Festival was going to create something of value to the area, it needed to define these terms through a compelling vision of artistic and educational elements.

The park itself was one answer to this problem. Its 13 hectares of fields and woodland are the lifeblood of our local area. Named in honour of Queen Victoria, today it contains large open spaces, grassy meadows, horticultural gardens, tennis courts, a petting zoo, children's play areas, and a nine-hole pitch and putt golf course. On a beautiful spring or summer's afternoon it is packed with people from the surrounding neighbourhoods, just as the Victorians had intended when it was designed.

Securing the park as a location for the festival required local consensus through the support of the residents' association, who have helped protect the area for over 40 years. The festival has commissioned a photographic exhibition, Humans of Queen's Park by Cathy Teesdale, the author and photographer of Humans of London, championing those who enjoy the park. A local history investigation into the lives of the servicemen of Queen's Park who died in the First World War will ground the festival in a historic narrative, and the two main stages are named after the men who designed its beautiful gardens and created its ornamental bandstand.

Celebrating local talent at a literary festival is clearly another answer. Finding local talent is surprisingly easy. Scratch beneath the surface and you will unearth a wealth of talent waiting to be discovered and a world of creativity you never knew existed. I knew that the festival needed to provide a dedicated platform for these artists, authors and poets, and so we created the Queen's Park Community Tent, with an artistic programme devised by local resident and author Hud Saunders. It hosts young poets of Queen's Park, local legends, refugee voices, unsung heroes and specially written stories. It is a creative response to the idea of local identity and belonging that literary festivals are uniquely positioned to create.

Such is the wealth of local talent that half of the participants come from walking distance from the park. Local talents on the programme include Zadie Smith, Nick Laird, Ali Knight, Elizabeth Fremantle, Clemency Burton-Hill, Melissa Benn, Stanley Johnson and Stephen Frears. Other authors from further afield in London and around the UK include Philip Hensher, Joe Dunthorne, Nicholas Hytner, Simon Russell Beale, Shami Chakrabarti, Eleanor Catton, Sarah Hilary, Imogen Hermes Gowar, Giorgio Locatelli, Adam Kay, Rachel Clarke and many more. What has been created is a festival that not only enriches the local area by celebrating its own talent, but enhances it by bringing in literary talent from around the country.

Literary festivals can improve community cohesion by promoting ideas and exercising free speech. I am proud that the festival contains a programme that takes in fiction, food, sport, music, film, theatre, poetry, current affairs and local history; but clearly a varied programme in itself is not enough. No programme is able to represent all views, tastes and opinions. Instead, literary festivals must aim to explore larger themes and ideas, in order to unite people from all walks of life under one roof. We are exploring ideas such as enfranchisement, the relationship between politics and media, the nature of reading and writing, the value of a public health service, the expression of loss in literary art forms, and many other subjects.

The events, themes and exhibitions that the festival is presenting on 30 June and 1 July comprise one response to this challenge of adding value to an area by defining the local community. After launching the programme, the festival was awarded a National Lottery grant "as a mark of the quality of your work in the community", so I am pleased that others have found value in what has been created at the Queen's Park Book Festival this summer.

Thomas du Plessis is director of the Queen's Park Book Festival, which takes place on 30 June and 1 July.

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