After years without is own dedicated festival, the British capital finally has a celebration of the written word that reflects both the city's diversity and its literary influence.
Over the next two weeks, London's Southbank Centre is playing host to the third annual London Literature Festival. The arts centre, which is the largest in the UK, will hold talks by some of the world's most recognisable writers, as well as actors, pop stars and even an astronaut. The diverse programme of events includes innovative presentations of classic stories, which reveal the enduring relevance of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Coleridge, Austen and Conrad, plus topical debates on contemporary issues of justice and democracy by leading social and economic commentators.
Sat in the riverside venue overlooking the Thames, listening to speakers exploring notions of journey, escape and migration, visitors are both firmly rooted in London and transported to foreign shores. Festival highlights are set to include two Booker Prize-winners: Aravind Adiga giving a reading from the widely anticipated second novel Between the Assassinations, and Arundhati Roy, addressing the subject of democracy. Meanwhile, the astronaut Buzz Aldrin will talk about his memoir, Magnificent Desolation, published to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing.
One of the UK's pioneering performance poets, Benjamin Zephaniah, will read new work at an event that sees him return to the Southbank Centre after a 10-year absence. Elsewhere, the historian and writer Peter Ackroyd will discuss his retelling of The Canterbury Tales and Sarah Maitland will speak about the motivations behind her new work, A Book of Silence. In the Global Village, a selection of authors including Olive Senior, Adam Thorpe, Courttia Newland, Sophie Woolley, Manzu Islam and Gemma Weekes will share short stories and music, while a special performance of Beckett's monologue Not-I and a recital of Shakespeare's sonnets set to music by leading contemporary composer Gavin Bryars and musicians including Antony Hegarty, Mira Calix and Natalie Merchant will contribute to the theatrical character of the festival.
"This year's London Literature Festival offers a fortnight of the world's best and most exciting writers, thinkers and poets", says Rachel Holmes, the Head of Literature and Spoken Word at the Southbank Centre. London's literary heritage makes it a fitting location for a festival of this sort. From Wordsworth's Composed Upon Westminster Bridge to Ben Jonson's visceral, street-level comedies and the novels of Charles Dickens, the London of literary posterity is populated with colourful characters and charged with a vibrant energy.
More recent literature, such as Monica Ali's Brick Lane and Gautam Malkani's Londonstani, has emphasised the multicultural nature of the British capital. Yet in spite of its credentials, London has lacked a long-term literary festival. "I've always thought that it's very ironic that Londoners have never had that kind of festival," says the author Jake Arnott, who will appear at the festival to discuss his latest novel The Devil's Paintbrush. "It's the most literary city in the world. We've had Chaucer, Dickens, Shakespeare; the list is endless. The one thing that the English do, and that Londoners in particular do very well, is write."
Other writers and performers have also been keen to show their support. The best-selling novelist Sarah Waters will speak about her new novel The Little Stranger; the poet and illustrator Laura Dockrill and the singer-songwriter Kate Nash will collaborate in an evening of words and music; the Southbank Centre and the Young Vic will stage an outdoor participatory performance based on Coleridge's epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Hanif Kureishi, DBC Pierre, Kamila Shamsie and Jeanette Winterson will read their stories from the Ox-Tales collection on behalf of Oxfam.
Visitors can also explore a series of special events at the Southbank Centre Book Club, including "bibliotherapy" sessions from the School of Life bibliotherapist, who offers visitors a reading prescription to suit their needs, and the Creative Writing Summer School. Since launching in 2007, the festival has quadrupled in size. This year, events will be held for the first time in the Royal Festival Hall and figures for the opening talks have been promising. Buzz Aldrin's talk sold in excess of 2,400 tickets and Arundhati Roy's rare appearance, in conversation with Shami Chakrabarti of the civil-rights organisation Liberty on the subject of democracy, attracted an audience of 1,000, with tickets selling out 10 days before the event. In addition, advance ticket sales are considerably higher than last year.
"So far, the impact of the economic downturn has meant that we are selling more festival tickets to bigger and more diverse audiences," says Holmes. "I think of audiences as plural rather than singular. There is no 'mainstream' audience, and there is no 'outside' to the range of writing, live performance, classic text, innovative work that we work to programme. We have book clubs and, a creative writing school and an online community through blogs, our website and Twitter. As we are based in central London, our core audience is more urban, edgy and metropolitan than some of the more rural literary festivals, but we also have many visitors from outside London.
"I am particularly committed to identifying, encouraging and supporting new and emerging work and the artists of the future, and to providing a platform for young performers, curators and artists. This year we even have a Young Curators programme for 15 to 20-year-olds, who train and programme their own events in the festival." With such a wide range of events, the festival's organisers hope that the audience will experience literature in a new way and return home with new ideas about a variety of international writing.
"We're encouraging our festival audience to join us and travel the world from our deckchairs," says Holmes. "From here, they can enjoy adventures in both imagination and creativity."