Once Upon a Time in the West: How Penzance Literary Festival Began

Once Upon a Time in the West: How Penzance Literary Festival Began

Back in 2010, at a Society of Authors meeting at the Godolphin Arms, Marazion, history was made. 

Peter Levin, founder of the Festival, remembers it clearly. “Somebody said, ‘why don’t we have a literary festival’… I was the person who had the e-mail list, so it fell to me to organise it”.

Looking back on that first Festival, Peter says: “we ended up doing something quite ridiculous; a Festival for three days in town, then at the weekend in a marquee out at Trereife. It was like two festivals end-to-end: lunacy”.

Peter goes on to explain that “at that time the Acorn was ‘dark’, with no idea when – or even if – it would re-open. The headquarters was Trevelyan House in Chapel Street, and we had meetings at the Arts Club” (now Chapel House).

Patrick Gale, patron of the Festival, agrees. He reminds us of “the honoured far west tradition that we’re so out on a limb that we might as well make our own fun and not give a damn who is watching”.

Two memorable events set the Festival on the road to success. The first was the involvement of Patrick, who remains our patron. The second was the first donation, when, as Peter recalls, “a supporter chipped in £50″.

Patrick says: “Penzance LitFest is one of those small miracles of creativity that has grown by stealth to become a player on the nation’s book festival scene”. He puts this down to “Peter Levin’s infectious belief that we can do anything if we put our minds to it”.

That 2010 programme included a wealth of talks, some by contributors who have become stalwarts, such as Chris Higgins and Nicola Upson, who are joining us again in 2018.

Back then, most tickets cost only £2 and they had to be bought in person.  There was plenty of poetry, workshops, and talks on how to get published. Groups met to discuss Patrick Gale’s Penzance-set novel ‘Notes from an Exhibition’, still a favourite.

The Festival colour, back in 2010, was green. Where did the current trademark orange come from? And why? “We wanted something bright and attention-seeking”, says Peter, explaining that “this was long before Sainsbury’s cast their beady eye on the eastern approach to the town”.

So – what does Patrick have to say about how the Festival has developed? Reminding us that the Festival is still entirely reliant upon volunteers, he calls it “a lovely testament to Penzance’s buzzing sense of community”.

“Writing as a regular speaker at festivals”, Patrick adds, “I noticed from the outset that Penzance’s audiences are refreshingly different in their sense of active participation – they’ve read your book and now they’re jolly well going to tell you what they think.

“Writers are lonely souls and respond eagerly to that sense of an audience completing the circle and I’m sure that’s why I’m now regularly hearing from publicists, harried by their authors, asking if it’s true that this little festival at the end of the line is really worth the expense of an author’s train fare and hotel room. It delights me that I can answer them a resounding yes and, increasingly, warn them that there’s a queue to get in.”

And the organisers, in turn, are always grateful to Patrick for his generous support and the wealth of contacts and suggestions he provides.

Our tenth anniversary is just coming up over the horizon – so look out for a fuller retrospective on that occasion, and also, of course, a look forward. We wonder – what will Litfest 2028 look like?