Our Back Pages – Litfest at 40

I have recently been commissioned by Litfest to curate a heritage exhibition marking the organisations’ 40th year. Litfest has a fantastic history, it is the 3rd oldest literature festival in England, its first festival took place in 1978, and it has gone through many transformations over the years. I had the pleasure of working at Litfest from 2003 to 2012, and was often called on to use my camera skills as a part of, and to record projects, publications and events. I did author portraits for almost all of the numerous Flax writers whom Litfest published and set on their careers, as well as several brochure covers and book jackets.

For this exhibition, I’ve delved deep into their archives to give a really broad spectrum look at their history, with brochures going right back to the original “Writing’78” festival to the current 2019 brochure, posters from across the years, handwritten letters of acceptance (and refusal) to appear at the festival, through to publishing projects like “The Midland Hotel”, “The Word Dress”, “The Sea Swallow”, “The Storey’s Story”, “Malkin Child” and the Flax books archive, through to projects including Litfest’s work in Prisons, libraries and other establishments to work in the built environment such as the “Flock of Words” in Morecambe, the Slave Trade memorial on Lancaster Quay and inspiring the sculptures along the Thornton-Cleveleys coast.

The exhibition takes place across two venues…
at The Storey, Lancaster from March 4th to March 31st (ground floor and first floor) and,
at The More Music gallery in Morecambe from March 1st to April 10th.

What follows below is a flavour of the exhibition together with additional items that we were unable to include… Enjoy! And don’t forget to visit Litfest 2019 which runs from Friday, March 8th to Sunday, March 31st. The Full event line up can be found on the Litfest website.

In the archives, I found this interesting document, explaining why a Litfest? and why in Lancaster?



In the early days of the festival, festival directors wrote by hand direct to authors (or their agents) and received handwritten replies, many of which were kept for posterity. My favourite, which I sadly couldn’t locate for this show was from the world-renowned science fiction author, who, when asked to appear, replied simply “Sorry, I don’t fly”! Here’s a few others I did find from amongst others Salman Rushdie, Roald Dahl, Kingsley Amis and Pete Townsend…

In 1994, a list was complied of all the artists who had appeared at the Lifest since 1978…



Early Litfest posters 1981 – 1990 by John Angus.

As a publisher, Litfest produced several books including “The Midland Hotel” which combined Simon Webb’s photographs of the dilapidated and run down hotel going through a process of regeneration with Urban Splash, with fictional vignettes from author Sarah Hall…

“The Midland Hotel” Photographs by Simon Webb, narratives by Sarah Hall.

“Malkin Child” by Livi Michael, a vivid, re-imagining of the Pendle Witches story from the point of view of a young girl for a younger audience…

… and “A Discoverie of Witches” by Blake Morrison, containing old and new work on the Pendle Witches story.

In the late 90’s and early 00’s, under Artistic Director Andy Darby, Litfest did a huge amount of work in Lancashire prisons using creative writing as a tool for self-expression. Below is a collection of recorded poetry made at Lancaster Castle prison with Sarah Hymas and “The Creators”, followed by a selection of printed prsion poetry works and publications…


Litfest moved into a new home around 2003 in The Storey, and was influential in the development of the building into a creative hub, including a purpose built performance auditorium. “Welcome To Your Mouths and Tongues” was commissioned by Litfest from poet Jacob Pollet, to welcome visitor’s to Litfest’s new home…

“Welcome To Your Mouths and Tongues” by Jacob Polley

As a part of the development of The Storey, Litfest worked on a history of the building, collecting memories from the building’s past users and commissioning new writing based on their recollections. “The Story’s Story” is available from The Lancaster VIC in The Storey.

“The Storey’s Story” Memories, Stories, Poems and Images of The Storey, Lancaster.

“The Sea Swallow” was an ambitious publishing project to attempt the embedding of new myths into a coastal community. Litfest commissioned a writer and illustrator to create a sumptuous illustrated children’s book, and copies were distributed free to hundreds of schoolchildren in the Fylde area in two school years. The book became the inspiration for a series of coastal sculptures that can be found at Thornton-Cleveleys.

“The Sea Swallow” by Gareth Thompson, illustrated by Hannah Megee.

Listen below to an audio recording of The Sea Swallow, read by Amy Rhiannon Worth.


Litfest also commissioned Lancaster dress designer Jennifer Pritchard Couchman to make “The Word Dress” from hundreds of pages of Angela Carter’s Illustrated Book of Fairytales. The dress inspired “A Book Tale” by Claire Massey (now Claire Dean) and Claire wore the dress for several readings of “A Book Tale” which is available as an e-book on Amazon Kindle.

I shot this cover for “A Book Tale” which is available for Kindle on Amazon.

Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, appeared at Litfest several times, memorable for me was this visit in 2010 when she asked if I could take her and her musical associate to see the Eric Morecambe statue.

Peter Sampson, Litfest’s longest standing board member, has been involved with the festival since 1979. Photo © Johnny Bean
“Harrogate Bedrock” by Sarah Hymas (video by Johnny bean)

Litfest established its new writing imprint Flax to present new writing from the North of England in new formats. Flax were amongst the first to publish many writers inc Andrew Michael Hurley (who later went on to win the Costa Book of the Year Award for “The Loney”) in Flax001: Square Cuts…

Andrew Michael Hurley from Flax001: Square Cuts

Flax looked to produce work across varied, unusual, highly distributable and often digital formats, including audio CD’s, short videos, digital books, posters, e-books and postcards…

Andrew Michael Hurley reading a short story
“Dottir” by Jan Petersen
(video by Johnny bean)
“The Weight of Water” by Mollie Baxter
(video by Johnny bean)
“Handing Down” by Trevor Matthews
(video by Johnny bean)
“Greed” by Carla Scarano
“Kowalski’s OGM” by Brindley Hallam Dennis
(video by Morph)
Wow! by Kate Davis and Sarah Robinson from Vanishing Act: Flax020

Every writer coming through Flax was offered a head-shot photo shoot to supply both Flax and the writers and themselves use of high-quality promotional images. It’s been lovely to see many of these images popping up on websites, in the press, the BBC, and on book covers and in festival programmes globally. Here’s just a selection…

Litfest worked with many other local arts organisations on events outside of the festival. Here, at More Music, they collaborated on a Songwriter’s Circle event with local musicians.

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