Mark Bowsher on Margate Bookie

Mark Bowsher attends Margate Bookie Festival and shares the literary highlights...

Today I won a lolly for a terrible drawing, wrote flash fiction from the POV of a ladybird and discovered Ian Brady’s snack of choice while purportedly on hunger strike. Apparently this is pretty standard fare for the Margate Bookie, now in its 5th year.

I grew up not far from Margate, back when its tacky seaside charm hadn’t yet developed into kitsch. I’m told in passing by someone at the Bookie that it’s now often playfully referred to as ‘Shoreditch-on-Sea’. It’s the perfect place for a literary festival which respectfully celebrates all kinds of authors without taking itself too seriously. 

Shortly after arriving at the bright, airy Turner Contemporary, waves crashing outside the long windows at the far end of the entrance hall (well, maybe not crashing but the sea is very much there), I’m introduced to organiser Andreas Loizou who grabs me a coffee and a tells me there’s no press pass; essentially I just have to smile sweetly at whoever’s on the door for each event.

I’ve missed the first session with graphic novelist Meirion Jones because I’m a lazy Londoner who didn’t want to set an alarm any earlier than 7am on a Sunday. I arrive in time for bestselling historical author Alison Weir’s talk on her latest book Anna of Kleve: Queen of Secrets. Weir gives a non-stop PowerPoint presentation, imparting torrents of fascinating insights on Henry VIII’s shortest marriage. Her love of the whole wealth of facts which she has uncovered is infectious. 

In the break before the next session I got to meet Madeleine White and Lena Smith from Pen to Print, who’ve just launched their magazine Write On! to bring the work of working-class and minority writers to the fore. I also get to meet David Chitty from Thanet Writers, a local non-profit publisher who’ve just released an anthology, Shoal. Having been to a number of stuffy literary events in London over the years, it’s uplifting to see initiatives to boost the work of writers from all backgrounds active at such an event.

Next up is a participatory session with positive psychologist Vanessa King and author Elise Valmorbida, linking mindfulness to creativity. Vanessa and Elise have us up and wandering around the room, making us observe the world from various perspectives, such as an insect or our eight-year-old self. We’re then given a few minutes to jot down our thoughts and observations on the room from each perspective. True to eight-year-old me, I write ‘Boring’, down my pen and sit there dreaming about how the bright, spartan room could be in a wrecked spaceship, crash-landed somewhere off the coast outside of the window. It’s a fantastically engaging session and there’s a real sense that everyone’s buzzing with positivity and creativity as they leave.

I use the break to catch artist, weaver and walker Elspeth Penfold’s rope-making and story-telling experience. I’ve arrived a bit late and most of the rope has been produced already, but I have a wonderful chat with Elspeth who, despite her name and accent, assures me she heralds from Bolivia. Her walking and rope-making excursions sound fantastic and she gives me a box with a QR code linking to an audio recording of a walk which took place in my home town of Gravesend. 

I also try the Listening Post, created by Penfold and composer Lucy Claire. The Listening Post plays leisurely-paced recordings of local authors reading short pieces with wonderfully therapeutic soundscapes from Claire underneath. It’s a pity I don’t have time to sit down on the cushions and relax with Claire and Penfold’s creations but I have to stuff down a sandwich and get ready for Mark Billingham’s talk.

Billingham, bestselling author of the Tom Thorne novels (and of course dim-witted guard Gary in ‘90s classic ‘Maid Marian and Her Merry Men’), is absolutely hilarious. He chats at length about his enthusiasm at David Morrissey’s portrayal of Thorne, how he ended recording his own audio books when nobody else was available and about Ian Brady’s secret Cadbury’s Creme Egg stash. He even reveals the identity of Jack the Ripper. Which is nice. 

Mark Billingham at Margate Bookie

And then, just when you think you’ve had enough fun, the final session turns out to be a burlesque living drawing class. Hosted by SelfMade Hero and Dr. Sketchy, compere Dusty Limits keeps everything campy, fun and self-deprecating. Meanwhile model Marianne Cheesecake poses as the heroines of various SelfMade Hero graphic novels, shoehorning in some self-promotion for the publishers with an enjoyable lack of subtly. As with King and Valmorbida’s session earlier, it’s tremendously inclusive, welcoming people of all abilities. I even win a sympathy lolly for my woefully bad final sketch. As a children’s author, it wouldn’t feel right to share the cheeky sketch I doodled but there was very much a trumpet involved. 

After a day’s exposure to the Margate Bookie, it feels like a festival with inclusion and participation at its heart. It’s a refreshing change from festivals that champion literary fiction above all else to take part in an accessible celebration of literature in all its forms.

Mark Bowsher is the host of the Poking Books podcast and author of The Boy Who Stole Time.

You can listen to Poking Books here: https://soundcloud.com/pokingbooks

…And buy The Boy Who Stole Time here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Boy-Who-Stole-Time/dp/1912618648/

Mark tweets as @MarkBowsherFilm (https://twitter.com/MarkBowsherFilm)

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