The organisers of this festival in eastern England reckon that literature needs its Glastonbury.
Latitude merges literature and music
If literature is the new rock'n'roll - witness Dan Brown's latest book getting the kind of advance hype a new U2 album might receive - then it needs its Glastonbury. One festival in a picturesque corner of eastern England is fast becoming just that: a place where, for a short period, authors feel like rock stars. Meanwhile, the crowd meanders around brightly coloured sheep, the Royal Opera House brings ballet to a stage on a lake and the Royal Shakespeare Company leads its charges on a spooky ghost trail. No surprise, then, that festival director Melvin Benn reckons Latitude is "unlike any other festival in the world".
As Latitude's director, he might be expected to say that, but for once the hyperbole is spot-on. Benn calls it a "festival of his life", and certainly it's more than just a music extravangza - the three days see the Pet Shop Boys, Grace Jones and Nick Cave headlining - with some literary events tacked on. The readings from Simon Armitage, Patrick Neate, Jonathan Coe and Blake Morrison, the talks from the likes of Vivienne Westwood and the pop artist Sir Peter Blake, the poetry performances and the theatre are all central to an experience which attracts as many young hipsters as it does bookworms to its venue in Southwold, Suffolk.
"Oh yes, it's absolutely key that literature and poetry are at the heart of the festival," says Benn. "Actually, when you come into the festival over our magical lake, you're not confronted with a giant music stage. The first things you encounter are the literature and poetry stages. That's how central I wanted them to be because that's how central they are to my life." And it really works. Robin Ince, who brings his Book Club to the festival each year, compares it to the Hay-On-Wye literary festival, but only in the sense that Latitude has taken the atmosphere there and moved it in a far more populist, and perhaps more irreverent, direction.
"There isn't an opportunity like this for authors," says the comedian, who has invited (among others) the science writer Ben Goldacre, the comedian Josie Long and the Dublin-based author Johnny Candon to bring both good and bad books to life. "They arrive thinking that people have come to see their favourite band and might catch five minutes of a reading when they're queuing to get some food, but what they don't realise is that there is this great appetite to see someone lark about on stage, to see something that might make them think rather than stand and watch five blokes play guitars. It's fantastic in that way - it's absolutely not the case that the music sucks all the crowds away from the more cerebral stuff.
"In any case, that's not how people consume their culture anymore," adds Benn. "Life isn't all about the music in exclusion to everything else. Our interests are not that singular. So film, theatre, television, literature, poetry, art, comedy... these are all things that people enjoy across the board and they're things you end up developing a similar love for. When I realised that, yes, we could cater for all this in a festival, I knew I had to do it."
What's interesting is that Benn isn't from a literary background. His career has been all about putting on rock festivals such as Reading and assisting Michael Eavis with Glastonbury. Latitude is something different, a festival of ideas, and Benn is quite clear on why it has been such a success. Latitude, it transpires, was chosen as a name because he feels artists and the audience have a certain latitude to do as they wish. It's the chance, he thinks, to check out of the grind of daily life and give yourself the space to think. "If one thinks of non-Western cultures and often how stories are passed on, it is through storytelling, through the spoken word. Of course it's existed for centuries, but in the western world we've lost that," he says.
So is Benn really suggesting that Latitude can change all that? "I wouldn't be so presumptuous," he laughs. "But it is true that when you're very little, your parents, grandparents, teachers and babysitters all have one thing in common. They read to you. And it's a gorgeous thing, isn't it? Then, when you're young and in love, perhaps again someone will read something to you and you adore them for that. It's one of life's wonders to be able to sit and have a story told to you. And I can tell this isn't just what I think - not only by the numbers of important authors who want to come and read at Latitude, but by the sheer popularity of the stages. I'm really proud of that aspect of it."
One of those storytellers will be William Fiennes, who liked performing at Latitude so much he came back as an attendee just to experience "a really special, unique atmosphere". He had no book to promote, no slot to perform in. He just bought a ticket and enjoyed the acts in the same way as anyone else. "It is odd. You do feel just a little like what it must feel to be a frontman in an indie band with a fair following," he laughs. "Even when you're reading from a memoir which tracks the migration of snow geese..."
If Fiennes is likely to show up and read from his new book, The Music Room, this weekend, Ince represents another way of doing things. Thanks to the camaraderie and atmosphere at the festival, he can grab an author five minutes before he is due to start his Book Club and ask them to do something totally experimental. "You don't often get that opportunity," he admits. "For example, we've got the singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock this year. He asked me what I did and how it would work, and I told him about a time recently when I was reading a book about giant crab attacks over the top of an orchestral backing. So now we're going to try and write a musical of that together, live on stage."
Surely such wild experimentation also has the potential to be toe-curlingly embarrassing - even self-indulgent? "I don't think so," he says. "It's all about getting idiosyncratic, compelling people who aren't worried about the possibility of it all falling in on itself. It creates a relaxed atmosphere I think, when people aren't being all starry, and the audience feeds off that. In fact, they positively like it when things don't go perfectly."
So at Latitude, the comedian Ross Noble can lead everyone from the comedy tent on a 3,000 strong conga around the festival to a vegan food stall, where they will all shout "sausage rolls", and what appear to be flesh-eating zombies can emerge from the woods to gather at the theatre arena. What is so encouraging is that although it would seem to be very much of its place, in a beautiful country park in Suffolk, Benn actually believes that, with care, this atmosphere can be reproduced elsewhere - perhaps even in the UAE.
"Yes, that part of the world is somewhere I'd quite like to take Latitude, and I've actually been in discussions with a few people," he reveals. "It's finding the right place that is important now." How does he think a Latitude in, say, Abu Dhabi would work? "Well, I must stress that it is early days. Still, not only is there a big expat community but the cultural influences and interests could reshape a Latitude that really works for there."
However far off Benn's dream for an international Latitude might be, and even if it were to be on a far smaller scale than the 25,000 people who will flock to East Anglia this weekend, you sense the aims will be the same: to attract the kinds of people who would not go to a festival under normal circumstances, but could be enticed by something a little different. Reaching the demographic that enjoys the Edinburgh Festival but under normal circumstances wouldn't dream of swapping its hotels for tents, essentially (at Latitude, there's luxury camping already set up if pitching tents is too much effort).
As for this weekend, Benn is almost giddy with excitement about Thom Yorke from Radiohead's first ever solo performance, saying: "He's this icon of what music can be. For him to say that he'd come and perform is almost like being knighted." This kind of enthusiasm sums up both Benn and Latitude - especially the fact that he is just as effusive about the arrival of the former poet laureate Andrew Motion.
"I'm so keen to listen to him. I don't know whether the poet laureate actually does this, but in my mind he reads poems to the Queen," he says. "Now he has retired from doing that and, instead, will read them to the masses. I think that's rather nice, don't you?" Benn's vigour is infectious - although, whether you'd describe Ince's best Latitude memory as "nice" is another matter. "I persuaded the British actor Ian Hart and the Spider-Man star James Franco to remain on stage as 100 people sung songs about maggots with them," Ince says with a laugh. "Meanwhile, this Byronic electro-pop creation Gary Le Strange provided the backing. It was at that point that Franco realised that Latitude, and England, was a little odd."
As the gorgeous flowery plastic cups at Latitude proclaim, it is "More than just a music festival". "Glastonbury has its comedy and cabaret stages, and Hay-On-Wye even has music now. Most festivals try to diversify. But really, we don't. All these great things are all genuinely as important as each other. You can have whatever festival you want here, which was the initial inspiration and something we've achieved. It's a great satisfaction to me," says Benn.
Latitude runs from tomorrow to Sunday 19 July. www.latitude festival.co.uk.