Why Stroud has a Book Festival by Caroline Sanderson

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As co-director of Stroud Book Festival, the news that Stroud has been named “Best Place to Live” in the UK by The Sunday Times has entirely refocused my mind on the reasons why we have a book festival, just as we announce the 2021 dates for our (everything crossed) live and in-person events from 3-7 November.

First, let’s get out of the way a soupçon of smugness at a national newspaper having finally worked out what Stroudies – both the born-and-bred and the blow-in kind – have known for a long time. Stroud IS a wonderful place to live, for all the reasons that the Sunday Times article states, and so many more. Good on Paper, Stroud Brewery, Stroud Bookshop, Made in Stroud, Stroud Library, the Goods Shed, Lansdown Hall, Woodchester Valley Wines all additionally come to mind. So too, do our fellow festivals which celebrate film, music, theatre, food and more; flying in the face of the article’s short-sighted assertion that Stroud “doesn’t scream out cultural hotspot”.

But this being Stroud, any complacency at being crowned “Best Place to Live” is – quite rightly – fleeting. The announcement also prompted an immediate and trenchant debate on social media about all the ways in which Stroud is a far from perfect place to live; from its near non-existent bus service, and the closure of libraries, post offices, village shops, pubs and youth clubs to the social divisions created by the grammar school system, and the fact that house prices are already hugely out of kilter with local wages. There is powerful testimony from a woman of colour who grew up here and experienced ongoing racism. And walk up Stroud high street at any time of day or night and you’ll find homeless people sheltering in the doorways of closed-down shops. Finally, there’s the glaring and inconvenient truth that even your good fortune at living here won’t make the climate emergency any less urgent.

In short, the best thing about living in Stroud isn’t its clean air, or its schools, or its thriving farmers’ market, or even the stupendously beautiful countryside in which it nestles. It’s the fact that Stroud people are the least likely people to rest on the laurels of residing in the “Best Place to Live”.

That is also why we have a book festival. It exists not to pour an icing of middle-class literary chit chat on the property hotspot cake, but instead, we believe, provides a vital forum, both to celebrate all that makes us proud to be Stroud– not least its thriving community of writers and other creatives – but also to explore the ways in which we can make Stroud and the wider world better. Past festivals have included events about plastic-free living, about challenging racism, about the meaning and value of democracy, the importance of compassion and of forgiveness. We partner with organisations such as Transition Stroud, Stroud Valleys Project and Stroud Against Racism in the quest to tackle the issues we face as a society. And every year we strive to improve our festival outreach too, particularly to young people so we can increase access to the joy of books for all.

Along with the small glow of pride we feel at staging this year’s Stroud Book Festival (3-7 November) in what some are calling the “UK’s Best Place to Live”, comes a renewed determination to use books as a passport for change; change by which we can make this a truly great place to live, for everyone.

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