There’s a sign outside the café at Snape Maltings, which is where the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival was held this year, that tells you not to climb on the benches because you might fall off. There are a LOT of signs. It’s an arts centre, encompassing an array of different halls and studios and cafés and shops and car parks. The halls and the studios are lovely. The whole thing is six miles inland from Aldeburgh.
In its first year the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival was attended by a few hundred people; now in its 24th year, the attendance is around 5,000. (I’m not sure if that is number of people attending or number of ticket sales, which are very different things, but that’s still a big achievement.) This growth is itself the reason for the move from Aldeburgh to Snape – where the venues are more comfortable and can accommodate bigger audiences, where the whole thing has a more ‘professional’ sheen. No longer need the organisers apologise to the invited poets (a number of whom have travelled half the world to be here) for the buckets on the floor catching rainwater.
The move: good thing or bad? Me, I think they should have stayed in Aldeburgh, and fixed the roof. Among the things lost: after a reading, strolling directly onto the beach, or into the nearest pub or chip shop. The trestle tables stacked with books that were part of the set in the main reading hall, where you browsed as you chatted. The hugger-mugger of everyone being in one location (as opposed to, this year, swinging back and forth on the shuttle bus between Snape and Aldeburgh, where almost everyone staying for the weekend still lodged). Not least, and especially for townies, the SEA. But I’m not representative of the main audience the festival now attracts: regular lit&music-festival-goers, with cars, and with incomes that seem not to be severely dented by the price of tickets (£15 for a three-person reading, £7.50 for the half-hour slots, and these on top of travel and accommodation). It’s this audience that is growing, and that is quantifiable – in terms of numbers in columns on applications for funding. Neither the sea nor the old huggermuggerness can be counted in the same way.
Absolutely no criticism is implied here of those who put on the festival – who remain, as ever, wonderfully welcoming, friendly, adventurous and inventive in their programming, committed with all their hearts to the work they present, non-corporate. They themselves are a big part of the joy. There is at least this continuity. (In its 24 years, the festival has had just two directors, Michael Laskey and Naomi Jaffa.)
Little waves of idealism or contrariness are what small presses arise on, and probably festivals too, and if they’re to stay true to their roots most have a lifespan of no more than a decade. Aldeburgh has had an amazing and glorious run of over two decades. The tricky thing is the momentum of success, that it can – but doesn't have to? – put at risk the essential character of the enterprise.