Volunteering at the Boswell Book Festival

The Boswell Book Festival, held at Dumfries House in Ayrshire, is the only festival of biography and memoir in the world and I’ve been to it many times and enjoyed every visit, but being a volunteer exposed me to all sorts of different experiences from what I expected.screenshot

I met loads of lovely people, even a blast from the past as a former colleague put it when she approached me, stroked an 8ft Burmese python called Richard, was the first customer in the new Hayloft cafe and stood beside Nigel Havers as he waited to go on stage on the opening night.

I took tickets at the venue doors, directed guests along the necessary one-way system as Dumfries House wasn’t designed for masses of people trooping along its corridors, and sold tickets for the children’s festival. It was such a delight to see so many kids keen to listen to their favourite authors and buy their books. There were plenty of events to keep them occupied too.

pythonKirsty’s Kritturs had brought along a variety of intriguing creatures that had the children slightly cautious at first but then enthusiastically holding giant cockroaches, patting the Egyptian Uromastyx (or lizard to you and me) and peering in at the tarantula and the scorpion. And of course, stroking Richard the python. He was soft and quite cold so wasn’t really enjoying what passes for early summer here.

The speakers were, as usual, excellent. We were able to attend the events we were working at so I heard Alan Johnson MP deliver his usual insightful, funny and totally self-deprecating interview about his life, from a child in a London slum to being Home Secretary in Gordon Brown’s government.

Richard Ingrams, formerly of Private Eye and now of the Oldie discussed with New Zealander Paul Tankard, the role of James Boswell in journalism and the state of it today with fake news and loss of freedom of speech.alan johnson

And Robert Crawford spoke most interestingly of the poet TS Eliot and his biography of his early life. There were many other speakers that I didn’t manage to see (there are over 60 events crammed into a weekend) but whose books I will probably buy.

Nigel Havers and a play on the life of Joan Eardley the painter, bookended the festival and both were fascinating in different ways and provided a satisfying beginning and end to the 2017 festival.

Would I do it again? For sure! It was quite hard work at times but so well organised that we did manage to have breaks in between events. It is quite a logistical nightmare to ensure that everything runs smoothly, that speakers are ferried to and from airports and train stations, that the audience gets to the right venue (there are six different ones) and that the speakers’ books are on sale.  Kudos to the Waterstone’s staff who rose to the occasion! And of course the organisers themselves, who are, like us, volunteers and do it for the love of it.

Roll on next year!

Boswell Book Festival and More Letterboxes!

We’ve just received our duty roster for the Boswell Book Festival. Being first time volunteers, we’ve to prove ourselves before being let loose on the big events but what we’re assigned to sounds lots of fun.

screenshotOn the Friday opening night we’re helping out when Nigel Havers is speaking. His blurb describes him as being able to ‘charm the knickers off a nun’! Should be a fascinating evening!

Saturday sees us at the Children’s Festival where there are all sorts of happenings. Not quite sure what we’ll end up being involved with but later we’re at the discussion with Richard Ingrams, Paul Tankard and James Knox. Fake news is bound to come up then!

A different experience on Sunday – we’re in the box office. We’ll need to sharpen our mental arithmetic though I’m sure modern technology will keep us right. And then to Professor Robert Crawford talking about his biography of TS Eliot. I read Eliot for the first time at university so I’m looking forward to this.

And in between, no doubt we’ll be able to be part of the audience at the many other events taking place. I just hope the weather is kind this year. It’s not always done so, but fingers crossed.

And the letterboxes? I’m nursing a sore hand from a very nasty, finger-eating letterbox. I was delivering the last of the leaflets and this one particular brass (and brassy, brass-necked and every other brassy epithet) took a particular dislike to me. Never mind, I’ll heal in plenty of time for the Festival. Hope to see loads of you there.

Boswell Book Festival


The Boswell Book Festival is held annually in May at Dumfries House near Cumnock, south of Glasgow.

We’ve attended most years and this year decided to become more involved and become  volunteers.screenshot

We could take bundles of leaflets to distribute so I thought I’d kill two birds etc and combine my daily walk with pushing the leaflets through letterboxes in my neighbourhood.

I learned a lot. First, utter respect for all postmen and in particular, mine, who must walk miles each day as part of their job and in all weathers. Having written Postman Pat stories for many years, I should have been aware of that! I had a glorious day with the sun beaming down on the spring flowers and it was a very pleasant, if tiring escapade. What would normally take me twenty minutes to walk took almost three times as long as I meandered up and down garden paths of all descriptions.

You can tell a great deal about people from the state of their front door. The letterboxes, for example, come in all types; some are just a simple flap which makes it easy to poke things through, many others have brushes inside which catch your fingers while the worst are stuck near the ground and require bending and stretching to deliver your goods.

Some front doors are very welcoming – kerb appeal, I think it’s called in estate agent parlance – with highly polished letterboxes and numbers, pots of flowers and welcome mats. One even had mini decorated Easter eggs in a tub of pansies.

Other houses had forgotten toys on the grass or piles of muddy boots and bikes in the porches, evidence of families with children to care for. Some had all their blinds and curtains closed. Well, it was a Sunday morning but not that early.

Cars were a bit of a nuisance, parked on driveways with very little space to squeeze through. Obviously some households have a car for everyone and have parked them on what passes for a lawn. They’re better than a spiky hedge for keeping people away.

Some houses are anything but welcoming. Scruffy peeling doors, chipped steps, even a locked gate stopping you approaching the front door. Signs were common – No cold callers, no charity bags, no flyers (they got one regardless!), no religious groups. One had even gone to the trouble of having a metal sign made repelling all boarders who dared to ring his bell (perhaps press his buttons might be more appropriate).

As I walked along, I found myself creating the characters that might live behind all those doors. Old and young, alone or in a family, tidy or sluttish, busy and rushing everywhere or lonely and keeping to themselves. By the time I’d posted every leaflet through many doors, I had enough characters and story situations for several short stories and a pile of novels to boot! Now just to write them.

But first, there’s the Boswell Book Festival to enjoy. I hope you’ll come too. Tickets are now available and they go fast so don’t miss out.