Peripheral Treasure Hunting

By Simon Cole, Half Day Holidays

The main action at a literary festival takes place in packed rooms where authors talk about their work, sharing their travails on the long and winding road to publication. But there is always a lot of other activity going on and sometimes it’s on the periphery where you find unexpected delights or unconventional offerings.

Like walking artists Elspeth Penfold and Sonia Overall I’ve been using the space created by the Margate Bookie to experiment with creative wandering. I brought people by train from London, making an immersive literary day of it. I tried unconventional walking tours and interactive sea-watching installations. I’ve sought that elusive Proustian moment. The results have been interesting, if mixed. They’ve led me to reassess my definition of success.

Taking my experience in conventional travel and nudging it over towards experimental artistic practice has raised the old divide between art and commerce. I’ve had to redefine what is a successful project. When you’re used to groups of 40 tourists hanging on your every word and having a revelatory experience – and if it’s their first time in a country, that’s not as hard as it sounds – then a wander with a handful of savvy locals is a very different scenario. It’s more nuanced, especially if you’re asking them to co-create with you rather than be passive receptacles for your content.

If you’re used to being paid for your research time and your expertise, then art can be a very different kettle of Kent fish. We happily pay through the nose for passing treats whose existence is fleeting, but expect artists to give us the rich distillation of decades of praxis for free. That’s even though the effects of their alchemy might linger for years or even somehow change us inside.

Some of the most powerful moments have come from things not going how I imagined. A literary walk from the Margate Bookshop attracted just two people. We did some bookish talk about Existentialism but soon dispensed with the formal plan and sat in the shelter at the top of Fort Hill.

It was and still is a time of anxiety: Brexit, Trump and now the Corona Virus. As we gazed out over the sea we shared our own worries about the state of the world right now – and how we felt about it.

It wasn’t what I’d planned, but it was a beautiful conversation where we could open up and we could connect. I realised that when you bring people together and create a space of trust, important things happen. After we finished, we swapped email addresses. I felt nourished. I felt understood. We had really listened to each other, on a level that’s hard to reach often.

I’ve tried to make walks and tours less of a lecture and more of a collaborative experience where attendees can share something of themselves. Between us, we create something richer for the contributions from the other brains – and guts – in the room. It’s a bit like the Q&A after a conventional book talk: everyone comes from a different angle and between them they tease out new elements and alternative ways of seeing the original text.

So let’s call the Margate Bookie a literary festival. Let’s keep cherishing the worlds that books open up for us to travel to mentally. Let’s celebrate the labours of love that are dragged kicking and screaming to the printed page. But let’s also appreciate the value of bringing people physically together and the connection that happens when we share things face to face.

In self-isolation, this feels particularly poignant. Some of the most precious things in life are hard to show on a balance sheet or in a brochure. But we are social creatures and we seek connection. And so I will see you on the beach with books again, in better times.

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