Folkestone Book Festival 2023 – international to local

Jen Thatcher, art historian, and James Harkin, journalist, are the curators for the Folkestone Book Festival 2023.  Jen arrived in Folkestone in 2008 following an invitation, as an art critic, to give walking tours of the first Creative Folkestone Triennial.  Family and working life allowed for living here and working in a variety of places.  James followed 7 years later as a friend and colleague of Jen’s.  Together they have worked to deliver an exciting programme of 70 authors and writers for this year’s festival which takes place from 17th to 26th November 2023.  Folkelife spoke to them about their collaboration.

Jen: “James and I have worked together at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, running their talks programme for a number of years.  It was James’ wife Hazel who suggested we do this curator job.”

James: “She’s been responsible for many evils; the Lady Macbeth behind our endeavours, so we went for it!”

Jen: “Our interests have been really complimentary: James is interested in politics, journalism and technology; I am more attracted to the visual arts and cultural side of things.  But, we meet in the middle for fiction and film.”

James: “But Jen is also interested in politics and I’m interested in arts, so we stray into each other’s territory and that creates fascinating dynamics.”

Jen: “The idea is that people won’t be able to tell who’s programmed which part of the festival.”

Kim Joy
Grace Dent
Rev Fergus Butler Gallie
Michel Faber

Creative Folkestone Book Festival
Yomi Adegoke
Madeleine Bunting
Jeremy Deller

folkestone’s quirky sensibility

Jen: “I fell in love with Folkestone when I moved here. For me, it’s the perfect-sized town and I always thought I’d get my cultural fix from somewhere else. But that’s not the case.  Sometimes there’s too much to do; what a dilemma!”

James: “I started coming down to Folkestone 7 years ago, in fits and starts.  I was a reporter in Syria at the time and would come here to convalesce.  Then I moved here 3 years ago to live.  I came first because of Jen and then, it’s a bit like smuggling isn’t it?  You send one person in and they don’t die, so you send the next. I have always loved the seaside and boats, and Folkestone is a place which is small enough to inhabit properly.  You can get to know people and places and I like its pleasant, quirky sensibility.  

I was swimming in the sea at Mermaid Bay one morning and saw some asylum seekers arriving by boat.  Having reported in Syria and seen the beginning of the journey it was interesting to witness this part.  It’s important for us that we cover local issues as part of the Festival, and however local they seem, there’s an international element to be found there too.”

centre for investigative journalism

James: “I work for the Centre for Investigative Journalism and Jen and I wanted to represent journalism as part of the Festival.  We could add something stimulating about interesting local journalism.”

Jen: “It’s important to us to reach out beyond the narrow community of creatives to find something for everyone.  Between us we reach across many demographics.  James and Hazel have a toddler; my daughter is just starting secondary school and my mother-in-law lives here too.  We have access to many different audiences here.”

James: “The danger with book festivals is they can become a little formulaic with well-rehearsed speeches coming from the same obvious suspects travelling the country.  We’re the last Festival of the season so we want to mix it up a little.  When we were at the ICA we weren’t afraid of having something highbrow followed by the popularist event.”

Jen: “We’re not scared of having fun, and we have eclectic tastes too, so to introduce an element of debate without the finger wagging, or for things to become depressing.  We want to see the conversation go beyond the book, so we’ve curated events that will encourage authors to talk about the subjects around their books. 

There’s also something for every age-range. There are primary and secondary school events going on during the days, then we have family events at the weekends and things happening all the time.  We want it to feel chock-a-block.  There are 69 speakers and so it is full, and we want it to be a celebration too.”

post covid

Jen: “It’s important now we’re post Covid that we come together.  Every event is in person, there’s nothing online.  This is important as we feel that if you’re in the room you are feeling that energy with the others around you.  That’s very hard to do on a Zoom call.  To be proximate and physically together is something we want people to experience.  

It’s also so very true that we have so many interesting people moving to Folkestone.  We can create a list of guests who are local but have a much wider reach so we become global.  Having said that, we are inviting people to come who are national and international too.  From Madeleine Bunting who’s written a book ‘The English Seaside’ to the artist Jeremy Deller who likes the idea of coming here.”

Jeremy was one of the artists in the first Creative Folkestone Triennial in 2008 and he’s going to be in conversation with Sorcha Carey, the curator of the next Triennial.”

Showing off the town

James: “The Festival is also an opportunity to show off Folkestone to our visitors.  We’ve got a huge tribe of volunteers who are raring to go in collecting guests and giving them a tour.  We’re already creating a list of places of where to take them to eat.  That’s something that you don’t get everywhere else.  It’s all too easy to rush in and speak then rush off to the next event.   To be entertained by our volunteers mean our guests will experience Folkestone with a local, not as a tourist.”

Jen: “We want to shout about our Cost Of Living ticket which makes the Festival more accessible to people, and no questions asked.  All of our school and student workshops are free which is really important.  School is where you get access to books, and so that’s important to us.”

local energy

Jen: “Everything is in Quarterhouse this year which makes it simple and easy.  Fenton Bailey is coming, he’s the producer of Ru Paul’s Drag Race and so that will be popular and bring in people who might not have thought of coming to the Festival.”

James: “We also want to give credits to the local stakeholders, local bookshops and so on. Christ Church University do a fantastic job with their bookshop and will be with us again. There are really interesting things happening with the Tontine Bookshop for example, and it’s important to involve as many people as we can; bring all that energy in to the Folkestone Book Festival.”

Fenton Bailey

discover more about Folkestone below

Festivals and Family Events – the Folkestone Quarterhouse
Folkestone Artworks – The Largest Public Collection in the UK
Folkestone’s Fictional Crime Scene – Charlie Gallagher
Katie Ginger – Feelgood Romantic Novels

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