Aspects Irish Literature Festival 2014

Terry Blain takes in the 2014 programme from a deckchair overlooking Bangor marina

It's a balmy Tuesday morning, and I am by the seaside, sitting in a stripey deckchair, listening to an end-of-pier entertainer strumming a ukulele, and munching snacks contentedly.

In the convivial mêlée around me, a bunch of local dignitaries, media types and people with official-looking name-tags sip coffee and engage in animated conversation. This is what we journalists call ‘working’.

The blandishments are courtesy of the annual Aspects Irish Literature Festival, and this morning's gathering has been organised to launch the 2014 programme, which runs in Bangor from September 25 – 28.

The festival is rapidly approaching its quarter-century, but for Esther Haller-Clarke, who programmed this year’s event, its raison d’être remains basically unaltered.

‘It’s really to open up the vibrant world of literature to new audiences,’ Haller-Clarke comments. ‘To combine some popular culture genres and names with new and established writers, and to get people excited about words.’

Words are one thing that Aspects 2014 will certainly not be short of. Alongside ‘in conversation’ appearances by national media figures Fergal Keane and Martin Bell, and Falklands veteran Simon Weston, there are numerous slots reserved for Northern Irish writers.

Among the most eye-catching of these is former Belfast Telegraph journalist Alf McCreary reading from Behind the Headlines, his absorbing autobiographical memoir, and novelist David Park presenting excerpts from his recent novel The Poets’ Wives another obvious highlight.

Big names apart, Aspects 2014 has, as Haller-Clarke is quick to emphasise, many fascinating byways for those inclined to broaden their literary horizons. ‘I'm very excited about it all.

‘I've tried to convey my own personal passion for books and words, but a few particular highlights include Mod icon Paolo Hewitt in conversation with Paul Stafford, and The Aspects Book Club, where Marie-Louise Muir hosts an evening of discussion on Jan Carson's novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears, in the informal setting of the Salty Dog bistro.’

Haller-Clarke also singles an exhibition by Newtownards-born photographer Bill Kirk as being of special interest. Currently on display in the Red Barn Gallery in Belfast, in Where Are They Now?, Kirk – a seasoned chronicler of Belfast and its people – re-pictures individuals featured in previous images, and hears where life has taken them in the interim.

Photography at a literary festival? Purists might object to that, but Haller-Clarke insists that continuing to push the envelope by intelligently cross-fertilising different genres of artistic expression has been crucial to the longevity of the Aspects festival – now in its 23rd year – and will continue to be so in the future.

‘The passion infused by each programmer in any festival is one of the main reasons a festival succeeds,’ she argues. ‘But also listening to your audience, observing trends, and delivering a combination of talent and artistic innovation.’

The search for new angles to the traditional literary festival template means visitors to this year’s Aspects, which takes place in venues across Bangor, may find themselves stumbling upon unusual happenings such as ‘Dr Seuss Storybook Yoga’, where families and children can throw healthy shapes together, with the Cat in the Hat movie to follow.

A special showing of the classic Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night in a new digital restoration is also scheduled, as is the intriguing ‘Aspects Poetry Slam’, where aspiring laureates get the opportunity to recite their own creations and be crowned inaugural Poetry Slam Champion.

There is drama too, as Northern Irish actor Ian McElhinney reprises the part of William Pirrie, chairman of Harland & Wolff, in John Wilson Foster’s A Better Boy, a monologue reflecting on the construction and eventual tragedy of RMS Titanic.

‘Keep an eye out round town for additional Aspects activity,’ adds Haller-Clarke, ‘including our 'Prose Surgery', where the public can pop in and pick up a piece of writing to help heal ailments, or our book swap where visitors can trade books for free.’

Traditionalists can, however, rest assured they will have plenty to keep them busy, with Northern Irish authors Bernie McGill, Tara West, Tony Macauley, Sheena Wilkinson, Rebecca Reid, Damian Smith and Nathaniel McAuley all slated to do readings from work completed recently.

Back at the festival launch in Bangor we’re being treated to a stand-up performance of our own, in the shape of actress, comedienne and writer, Nuala McKeever.

Adopting the persona of an ‘executive consultant facilitator’, McKeever cleverly deconstructs the painfully arid PR nostrums habitually trotted out on such occasions, inviting the audience to admire her ‘interactivity’, and marvel at her practiced use of ‘humour, eye contact, affirmation and communication’ – all honed, she claims, in ‘the university of experience’.

All very naughty, knowing and post-modernist. But there is a serious point at issue as well – which is that, even in an era where information is instantly available on the Internet, and where books can be downloaded at the click of a button, there is still nothing like the extra frisson created by a live performance.

It sharpens the attention in ways that virtual realities struggle to emulate, and reminds a digitally inundated 21st century audience that poems, plays and novels are made in real time, by real people, and remain obdurately flesh-and-blood creations.

It’s a point which Haller-Clarke is keen to develop. ‘There is nothing like a live event. I don't think festivals have much to worry about on that front – the passion and unique atmosphere of live festivals cannot be translated across social media platforms, though social media does help spread the word about the arts, which is always a great thing in my book.’

The launch is over now, and the stripey deck chairs are being folded. I’m flicking through the Aspects 2014 programme, part of a complimentary grab-bag including a bucket and spade and a stick of Bangor rock that departing guests are handed.

I spot other enticing offers – a one-woman show by agony aunt Virginia Ironside, a session on ‘mindfulness’, collaborative storywriting for children, a culinary demonstration with Paula McIntyre, and a young people’s writing workshop.

‘Something for everyone, then?' That’s Haller-Clarke’s claim for the Aspects 2014 festival. With its mixture of tradition and innovation, of well-established with up-and-coming, of unusual and reassuringly familiar, for once the hype seems admirably justifiable.

Aspects Irish Literature Festival runs from September 25 – 28. View the full festival programme.