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The West Port Book Festival – Interview with Peggy Hughes

Published by Dewayne Payseur

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It all started in 2008 when a building in the West Port area of Edinburgh fell down. “The West Port was closed to cars for about two months and it really took its toll on the traders,” says Peggy Hughes, West Port Book Festival’s Programme Director. In particular, a number of second hand bookshops, including Armchair Books where Peggy used to work, were feeling the pinch.

Peggy teamed up with her friend Hannah Adcock to launch the first ever West Port Book Festival, a programme of free, book inspired events featuring author talks, bookbinding workshops and cakes. “We wanted to show people that West Port was great and drive them back into the second hand bookshops,” Peggy explains.

An Independent Book Festival

In 2008 and 2009 the West Port Book Festival took place in August, coinciding with the Edinburgh International Book Festival. This timing meant there was a ready-made audience of book lovers and a high concentration of authors already in city – a big advantage when it came to programming events for the West Port. “In our first year we were lucky to find a lot of the folk we wanted to invite were already planning to be in town.”

There was, however, a major disadvantage to the overlap. “People thought we were a fringe to the main Book Festival. It was a bit frustrating. We’ve always thought we were a book festival that was a bit different, a bookshop led festival.” In 2018 the West Port Book Festival moved to June, clearly asserting its independence from the Edinburgh International Book Festival. “It was a bit of a risk because we weren’t sure how much of our buzz came from the other Edinburgh festivals but 2018 has been our best year yet in terms of books sold – both new books and old books – and in terms of audience numbers.”

West Port Book Festival Speakers

Although Peggy keeps in touch with what’s going on in the publishing world, she stresses that the West Port Book Festival is not about giving well known authors the chance to promote their newest release. “We’re not publisher led and we don’t see ourselves as on the book festival circuit. If we do get a big name we like to challenge them to talk about something that you wouldn’t hear at other book festivals. In our first year we had Ali Smith but even though Girl Meets Boy had just been published, she didn’t talk about that. She talked about Carson McCullers,” says Peggy, explaining that like Smith, she has a bit of a McCullers obsession.

Events at the West Port Book Festival frequently feature local writers and there are a couple of veteran speakers, poet Douglas Dunn and literary historian Owen Dudley Edwards, who have appeared in every West Port Book Festival programme so far. “It’s become like a wee institution that we get them. They don’t do the same thing every year. Owen’s done a few different storytelling recitations and he’s such an expert on so many things that he could probably come back ad infinitum with something different every time.”

Regular Events at the West Port Book Festival

Every year the West Port Book Festival organisers join forces with Isabelle Ting of Edinburgh’s Owl and Lion Gallery to organise the extremely popular Bookbinding Workshops. “The West Port Book Festival is kind of about the physicality of the book and a lot of people really know us for that,” says Peggy.

In the last two years the West Port Book Festival has struck up a partnership with the Gaelic Books Council that has enabled them to host events with Gaelic writers that they wouldn’t otherwise have had access to. “Last year we had the poet Angus Peter Campbell – we could never have afforded to bring him ourselves – and this year we had the German and Gaelic event with Michael Klevenhaus which turned out to be a weird favourite of mine. I just speak high school German and can say ‘How are you?’ in Gaelic but although I wasn’t able to fully appreciate what was going on, I thought that the way he read was so beautiful.”

Future of the West Port Book Festival

In spite of its steadily increasing popularity, Peggy says that the West Port Book Festival is not a fixed feature of the Edinburgh Literary calendar. “It very much depends on where Hannah and I are and if we’ve got the time. We love doing it but every year we ask each other, ‘Are we going to do it again?’”

One thing is certain: for as long as the West Port Book Festival runs, Peggy and Hannah will be working to ensure that the continually evolving programme has something fresh and exciting to offer audiences. “We revisit the concept of the festival every year, looking for what we can bring that’s different.” And of course, the central ethos of the festival will remain the same: to provide a small space where people can meet writers they admire, eat cake and talk books. That’s what it’s all about, says Peggy: “An intimate venue where people can pop up and say to someone, ‘Hey, I loved your book!’”

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