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Emerging from lockdown: Ullapool Book Festival

By Barbara Henderson

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What has the pandemic experience meant for Ullapool Book Festival? This week we hear from chair Joan Michael.

Ullapool is home to a popular annual book festival.
Ullapool is home to a popular annual book festival.

What do you or your organisation do?

I chair Ullapool Book Festival and this year would have been its 16th festival.

It’s a small (in size only!) festival held in Ullapool Village Hall which runs from a Friday morning right through to Sunday lunchtime in May. It is run by a committee and a team of volunteers, the best group of people I’ve ever worked with – just wonderful! (And I bet we’re the only book festival that has a Scottish Government minister running round with the roving mic!)

Our aim is to have an annual festival that attracts the writers that we and the audience want to hear and to celebrate. As our honorary president Chris Dolan has said: “This is a time for books and reflection and dialogue, for considering who we are and looking out into the wider world.”

We only invite the best, said I with true humility.

What has been the biggest challenge of the lockdown for you?

Undoubtedly it was taking the decision to cancel. The posters and programmes were printed and the mail-out envelopes to bookshops, libraries, organisations etc were all packed and ready to go in the post. The ticket selling site was all ready to go. Our funders and sponsors were in place. But we were getting nervous although there was no word out then about cancellation of gatherings.

So, eight weeks before the festival was due to start, we held an emergency committee meeting and took the hard decision to cancel. There were tears, I can tell you.

We decided we’d give Zoom a go. So on the Saturday of what would have been our festival we broadcast a taster event with three poets reading their just-written lockdown poems and music to replace our coffee and cake intervals. It was a steep learning curve and we couldn’t have done it at all if it hadn’t been for Martin Gilligan who did all our techie work.

In fact, the whole thing started with a socially-distanced conversation over his garden wall with me asking him about ‘this Zoom thing’ and ‘is it possible to do an event on it?’.

What are your next steps for emerging from the crisis?

We are planning an interactive community event during Book Week Scotland in November that will invite people to walk round Ullapool and stop at various points to read appropriate prose/poetry. I don’t want to give away too much just now though! But the main step is preparing for the next festival due to take place on May 7-9, 2021.

We can’t just assume that everything will be as before, so we will be putting together several alternative arrangements just in case – this time with more savvy about how it would work!

What can we, the public, do to support you and your work?

On our website www.ullapoolbookfestival.co.uk people can ‘subscribe to our newsletter’. Whenever we have any news, they will be the first to know. We are also on Facebook as Ullapool Book Festival and on Twitter as @UllapoolBookFes. Follows on either or both would be much appreciated.

Feel free to BRIEFLY plug one product or initiative.

Tales and Legends of Lochbroom.
Tales and Legends of Lochbroom.

As part of our fundraising efforts we sell Tales and Legends of Lochbroom. The stories were written down by Roderick Mackenzie (1850-1930), 'our local senachie' from the Gaelic seanchaidh, a reciter or recorder of tales. He was my granny’s stepfather. It is £6 including first-class postage. To buy a copy email info@ullapoolbookfestival.co.uk and find out how to pay by bank transfer.

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