How to have a lit summer

describes her experience volunteering at a literature festival

Image: Stewart Butterfield

I’d like to begin by apologising for the headline; two months away from the Nouse office seems to have drained me of my punning abilities. Before I gave myself up to the beast that is a holiday waitressing job, however, I spent ten days volunteering at the Bradford Literature Festival at the beginning of July. It was a fascinating week that left me compelled to share the experience and encourage other people to take part.

I think it’s important to state from the outset that volunteering of any kind is invariably means-dependant. Not everyone will be able to afford to work for free. In fact, not only does a volunteer not get paid, but they’ll often end up with additional costs such as transport, food, and accommodation, although some of the more established festivals such as Cheltenham and Hay do pay expenses. I ended up paying for the train fare from York to Bradford each day, and then food and drink whilst I was there, all of which added up to roughly half a week’s waitressing wages.

There’s a very good reason why Bradford Literature Festival didn’t shell out for any of my expenses, though. Running since 2014, it is non-profit organisation and the director, Syima Aslam, has held social inclusion at the forefront of proceedings. They offer free tickets to anyone who is on benefits, living in social housing, acting as a disability carer to an audience member, is a refugee or asylum seeker, as well as free events for all schools in the Bradford district. The programme had clearly been designed with the diversity and multiculturalism of the city in mind; there were a vast number of lectures focussed on religion, ethnicity and world politics, as well as more traditional events such as writing workshops and talks from publishers and agents. The impact of the festival on the city was evident, with all the free events well attended and a palpable buzz in the centre. Naively, I had expected the events to be all relatively formal lectures about literature, and was overwhelmed by the breadth and variety of things to see.

My role as a volunteer varied from day to day and included acting as a steward for schools events, working in the Green Room (i.e. pouring tea for the guests and generally acting like a star struck geek), and helping with the craft workshops for kids in City Park, which reaffirmed my knowledge that I am not, despite my job title at Nouse, artistic in anyway. I’ll be completely honest, there were some points when I couldn’t be bothered to get up at half six in the morning to go and get a train, but it only took a few minutes at whatever event I’d been stationed at to remind me why I was doing it. The atmosphere was exciting and stimulating, I was surrounded by people with similar interests and aspirations to my own, and I genuinely felt like I was doing something worthwhile.

It can seem difficult at this stage of life, when every decision about how to spend your free time is weighted with the implications on your CV, to do something purely because you enjoy it. Obviously working at a literature festival is going to look good on a CV, but it is also a genuinely enjoyable experience for anyone even vaguely interested in the arts, especially since the Bradford Literature Festival – and, I imagine, most other festivals- offer a free ticket for all volunteers to any event that they aren’t working. Working behind the scenes holds the added bonus of networking, both with the paid employees who might be able to offer insight into how to get into literary events as a career, as well as the guest publishers, agents and writers.

It’s definitely a different way to spend your summer, but a rewarding one. Applications to volunteer at the Cheltenham and Gladstone Library Festival are still open, and it’s also highly worth researching what’s going on in your local area. I only recently found out that there is a crime writing festival in Harrogate, as well as a literature festival in Hastings, near my hometown.

I’m basically just using this article as a platform to say that everyone should volunteer at a literature festival. In the immortal words of Nike: just do it.

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