Cambridge Literary Festival Goes Digital: An Interview
Cathy Moore, Director of the Cambridge Literary Festival, is no stranger to pulling off astonishing events. The very first Cambridge Literary Festival included interviews with Jackie Kay, Polly Toynbee and George Monbiot; over the next seventeen years the Festival has hosted figures from Tony Benn and Nikesh Shukla to Jacqueline Wilson and Bernardine Evaristo.
Cathy’s favourite event of the hundreds she’s now put on was watching Patti Smith, author and musician, performing live as part of the Festival in 2019. “I was sitting next to Ali Smith, and we kept looking at each other in astonishment. I was just amazed to have pulled the event off,” Cathy said. “Patti played her set with just a guy at the piano and her on the guitar, singing ‘Because the Night’ acoustically to a packed audience at Cambridge’s West Road Concert Hall.”
The idea for the Cambridge Literary Festival came from a chance meeting in 2003 with Ali Smith, who later became a friend. “I was working as a bookseller in a part-time job with Waterstones, and I gradually ended up running events in the Cambridge branch. Ali Smith, who lives in Cambridge, had just published Hotel World, so I invited her in to sign copies. I’d never met her before,” Cathy said. “We ended up having a conversation about why there wasn’t a festival in Cambridge. At the end of the night, by the time I’d cycled home, I had the whole festival planned out.”
The Festival has grown from its origins, incorporating a Winter Festival in 2008. “That came from the threat of financial ruin,” Cathy remembers. That year, the regular Spring Festival had been expanded to three venues, which increased costs but didn’t attract a larger audience. The finances weren’t looking great, and Cathy was wondering what she was going to do. “Hay were running a Winter Festival, so I thought, if Hay can do a Winter Festival, I can do a Winter Festival!” The first Winter Festival only had eight events, all at a theatre on a single Sunday in between Christmas pantomime performances. “We had Tony Benn, Jonathan Coe, Kate Summerscale, who then went on to win the Samuel Johnson Prize for Mr Whicher…” It was a brilliant programme, and the audience loved it. It gave a vital boost to the Festival, and the Winter Festival has remained a fixture ever since.
But 2020 has been the Festival’s biggest challenge so far. Cathy’s first reaction to the lockdown in March 2020 was, “Oh my God, we’re ruined!” The Festival team is a small, hardworking organisation, and they were only a month away from the 2020 Spring Festival.
Cathy had considered some form of digital offering, but knew she didn’t have the skills needed to put together a well-produced online event. It was only at a friend’s virtual book launch that she realised that with the right help, she could put together something online. She contacted the producer of the event, Tilly, and together they put together the Listening Festival, which ran in April 2020.
The learning curve has been steep, but also exciting. “It was sort of a shot in the arm for me,” Cathy said. “I’ve been doing this for eighteen years, pretty much full-on, and so my enthusiasm for it all was starting to dwindle. It was really exciting to go digital, but also terrifying until we understood it and could see that it would work. Once that fear went, it was transformative; we were working in a completely different way than I’d done for years, we were seeing audiences coming back, and we could open up the Festival to so many more people from across the world.”
I did wonder what impact moving online would have on the Festival’s future, particularly as the Cambridge Literary Festival has such close ties to the city and the university. Cathy acknowledged the draw of the architecture, the history and the prestige of the city for visitors to the Festival. However, one of the things the Festival has done is open the university up to those who live in Cambridge. There are some big divides within the city, and there are many people who have lived in Cambridge their whole lives and have never been into the university. “I think one of the things the Festival does is break down those barriers,” Cathy says. “Having these amazing events in these beautiful environments, which many people haven’t seen before, is really special.”
Anna Willis is a freelance journalist. You can find her Twitter at: @annawillis101.