I take a great deal of comfort in having a recognised international booktown on my doorstep. I used to have the delightful Wigtown in Scotland, and now I have
Clunes in Australia – a small, old gold mining town not far from Melbourne. As far as I’m concerned, fostering the development of whole towns dedicated to books and bibliophiles must be the apogee of our evolutionary journey.
In two weeks time Clunes will be hosting its 10th Booktown Festival. I will be venturing there with thousands of other pilgrims to be immersed in the collection of booksellers, writers and speakers gathered from all over Australia and beyond.
Ailsa Brackley du Bois is the Artistic Director of the Clunes Booktown Festival; what a great gig! I wanted to know more about what a job like this – heavy with responsibility – entails. So I posed to her some questions about the attraction of book festivals, censorship and markers of success.
Why do you think people love book festivals? What do people get out of participating?
I grew up in Adelaide. As a fresh graduate, I went to the 1994 Adelaide Writer’s Festival, sat on the lawn, looked around at all the interesting people in the crowd, and thought “I’d love to run something like this in the future.” The very next day I caught a bus to Sydney, to enter the next phase of my long journey toward fulfilling that dream.
What I’ve always loved about book related festivals is that the tribes of people who attend are tribes I have an empathy for, and to whom I feel I belong. Readers find people fascinating. I think that’s a given. I know I like interesting characters.
Author talks, and conversations, create new points of connection and bring that extra dimension to the written word. I find the idea of interacting with authors intriguing. The fact that these people bare their soul and the inner most workings of their mind, and share that with the world, is terrifically brave.
So, to answer your question, I think people gain a sort of reassurance that they’re not alone, and a heightened sense of community, from attending book-related events.
What do you think makes Clunes Booktown Festival particularly special?
Books may be the main draw-card, but the incredible setting of our Festival enhances the whole experience. Having so many books laid out by a diverse range of traders, in all sorts of surprising and mostly old places, creates a ‘higgledy-piggledy’ appeal. It truly is a treasure trove, and I believe that book lovers are very visual people with strong imagination.
The character of our Festival is in large part dependent on the ever-changing involvement of publicly and privately owned or leased spaces. Every year is different, because people’s circumstances change with each year that passes. The ‘pop-up’ nature of our Festival ensures surprise factors every year and adds new exploratory interest in our old-world charms.
Through adaptive reuse of places not normally open to the public, our history comes to life with book vendors, performers, entertainment and food trucks full of delicious sustenance for all the people who love fossicking for books, along with their friends and family. We even have an exhibition. There’s a certain parallel here with the origins of Clunes when it was an active gold town – with lots of people on the hunt!
I believe the special magic of the Clunes Booktown Festival is the result of the coming together of old books, old buildings and quirky characters, creating an enchanting and nostalgic feel. In a world of digital intensity, it’s the physical reality of Clunes that strikes a chord.
In a world of digital intensity, it’s the physical reality of Clunes that strikes a chord.
Clunes Booktown Festival is the biggest regional book festival in Victoria, but it isn’t the size of metropolitan equivalents. Are there advantages to being smaller in scale?
We’re not actually a Writer’s Festival, so we’re not really worried about competing with the major urban events of this type. I lived in Sydney for nine years and Melbourne for a few years, and loved the hub-bub of the big festivals, but it can be over-whelming. What we’re doing out here in the country is quite different to that. We’re offering a genuine ‘get-away’ experience, so people are more likely to be in a relaxed mode, and less likely to see the same faces they see at the glitzy, literati style events. It’s an escape option, albeit one with like-minded others!
The advantage of being smaller in scale is that you can presumably manage to see everything you want to see over the course of the weekend. Though I admit I’m making that somewhat more challenging this year by doubling the range of choice!
What’s been the process for assembling the program for this year’s festival? Can you tell us how you got the ball rolling on the line-up?
I introduced a theme to provide a context for our 10th Anniversary. ‘Journeys through Time and Place’ was what came to mind as appropriate, as a strong but still elastic theme for a celebration of how Clunes has evolved over time.
In terms of programming speakers, I felt strongly that I wanted to maintain and honour our established strength areas: political content, memoir and biography, goldfields history and quality literature. It’s about assembling knowledge.
I also considered the wish list of the local community and the thoughts of our Board Members. I knew I wanted to engage a broader catchment of rural people, and photography and travel seemed like good genres for opening up opportunities for access and involvement. Ours is a book festival, first and foremost, so anything that people publish books on is fair game, as far as I’m concerned, so long as it is good quality, fits with the annual theme and is programmed carefully, and in the right context.
There has been recent controversy around the Tribeca Film Festival and the decision to cancel a screening of the anti-vaccine film, Vaxxed. How do you draw the line on what might be a useful, but controversial contribution to a debate, and what topics or authors overstep that mark?
We’ve recently bid farewell to our long-standing Punch’n’Judy show which was an intrinsic part of past festivals. For me it seemed a quaint, albeit somewhat disturbing, draw-card. However, when I first stepped into the position, discussions about domestic violence were in the eye of a media storm thanks to 2015 Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty. As it happened, our Board met to discuss entertainment preferences during White Ribbon week.
Coupled with complaints we’d received from other tree changers over the past year, we decided the act was out of kilter with current values, showed disregard for women and authority figures, and was not something we could sponsor any longer.
We know there are many people who are disappointed by this decision, and feel their kids are exposed to far worse on the nightly news, but I stand by the Board in regard to this decision. There comes a time when certain things are just not acceptable anymore.
You’ve been attending the Clunes Booktown Festival for many years. Who has been your all-time highlight?
As a keen patron of the nine previous festivals, I’ve relished soaking up the happenings amid the heritage streetscapes of Fraser and Bailey Streets. Every available space across the heart of the township is jam packed full of books for our annual event, showcasing all the ways in which old buildings can find new purpose.
For me, it’s been about ‘being there’ and soaking up the ambience. It’s not about being seen or even seeing a particular speaker, but more about having a really lovely weekend that satisfies the soul, and reminds you of all the things you treasure in life. It’s very tactile and embraces all the senses. Impulsive book purchases are a delightful indulgence too.
The speakers are a significant bonus, and included in our ‘one-price-fits-all’ entry price of a crazy low $10! That said, I do find political thinkers fascinating, so Anne Summers and Bob Hawke were two of the guests I got most excited about, personally.
How will you personally know that this year’s festival has been a success?
When I see the beautiful big 19th century church packed to capacity on Saturday afternoon, I will know! We’re preparing to screen outside the church too, so people can sit on straw-bales and watch from the church yard. We’ve filled the Warehouse before, but the church holds more than double the amount the people. I also hope to see good numbers at each of the talks.
I know we can’t please everyone all of the time. There will be constructive feedback and critical review. I’ll be taking note of that. But, the greatest sign of success will be when people start showing enthusiasm for next year, and say they want to come back for more!
The 10th Anniversary 2016 Clunes Booktown Festival, themed ‘Journeys through time and place’, will be held on Saturday April 30 and Sunday May 1.
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