Lockdown diaries: the festival programmer

This spring/summer was meant to look very different (a statement that could be applied to literally any person on the planet, I know, but bear with me just so I can give context). After 10+ years working my way up through the arts, and a particularly big year at Cheltenham last year delivering its 70th anniversary edition, I’d negotiated with my company to take a sabbatical this year and take six months out to hike the 2,000+ miles of the Appalachian Trail in the US.

My gear was ready, my flat was rented out, my life was in storage and I’d worked at a mad pace in the preceding months to line up things ahead of my absence. And then the US travel ban came into force and hit a big pause button on it all.

At first it seemed like a hiccup, a hurdle, perhaps something that might push my departure date back a couple of weeks but nothing more. Friends sent commiseration messages and colleagues exclaimed what bad luck it all was, but I knew in my gut we were in for something far bigger, and that my thwarted trip would soon pale in comparison.

Sure enough, within days infection rates rocketed, countries began locking down and BBC News alerts bringing rapidly rising death tolls overtook any final consolatory messages coming through to my phone. It’s surreal to think how in the space of a week you could go from mourning a ruined trip to simply hoping that all your family and friends will be alive come Christmas - but the world really did feel like it changed that quickly. 

Once I’d unravelled the arrangements for the hike, my reaction to lockdown was one of acceptance. Given the Herculean efforts being made by NHS staff in deluged hospitals or other key workers in supermarkets and delivery businesses putting themselves at risk - often on minimum wage - to keep the bones of the country running, being made to stay indoors and switch to Zoom meetings and digital drinks didn’t seem like a big ask in the grand scheme of things. 

I’m an ambivert though: I’m sociable and confident in lots of scenarios but need alone time to recharge so I’ve probably adapted fairly well - I know things have been a lot harder for extroverts or those with very challenging home circumstances. While I of course miss the more social bits of life (and going to a sweaty gig or packing into a fringe theatre with friends is top of my post-lockdown bucket list), I’d always pick a good, deep conversation over small talk - and those have never been off the menu. I’ve also had a fairly peripatetic twenties meaning many of my closest friends are quite spread out, so screen catch-ups were already a part of some of these friendships.  

I live in a very mixed area of Bristol and in close proximity with some of the communities who’ve suffered most from Covid. Every week there has been a different death notice in the window of my corner shop, so the devastating consequences of the pandemic have never felt that far away and I’m proud of how my community has pulled together to help each other through the worst parts. Now that lockdown restrictions are easing, I’m doing some sensible socialising, supporting local businesses in safe ways and getting back to some distance-friendly sports but social responsibility will continue to be the guiding factor in deciding how I act.

I was very grateful to my team at Cheltenham for their understanding around my squashed sabbatical plans, and to have been able to slot back in to working throughout this period. There’s been no shortage of things to do as we figure out what a festival in the time of Covid can look like. In a normal year, Cheltenham will play host to almost 1,000 writers from all over the world and welcome c.140,000 ticket buyers. How do you begin to replicate that when travel is still highly restricted and mass gatherings may be the last element of normal life to resume? 

We’ll be announcing our plans for this year’s festival shortly but I have to say how heartened I’ve been by the whole sector’s willingness to share ideas, learnings and resources during this tough period. Hannah Trevarthen set up a fantastic peer group of literary programmers who have been exchanging knowledge generously and as a board-member of BAFA I’ve been seeing festival directors and curators from all sectors willingly sharing key advice and pitfalls with each other. While I think there are huge challenges ahead for the live event world, I do think the kindness,  innovation and adaptability of those working within these industries deserve a real shout out. 

I’m far from the first to say it, but I think this period has carried some invaluable lessons about slowing down. The book and event worlds both move at a fast clip and working at the intersection of both can make for an unsustainable pace at times.

Pre-Covid, my average day would involve a three-hour round-trip commute to Cheltenham, 8-10hrs of desk-time and meetings and then usually travelling somewhere else in the evening for an event, often meaning a minimum 16-hour day away from home. Add in moving in and out of London for meetings, travelling to other festivals on weekends and making sure you have a life around all that, you can quickly get to the end of a week without eating a vegetable or having a proper night’s sleep in your own bed. Or at least I could. I’m not complaining - I love my job - but learning to live at a more sensible pace has been no bad thing and I think the leap forwards we’ve made on remote working could have a huge impact on widening access to jobs in the arts (something as a state-schooled northerner I’m incredibly passionate about).

Having extra time in Bristol has been a revelation too. I’ve lived in Bristol for over four years but if you added up the solid time I’d spent here, it would come to an embarrassingly small amount. Being here more consistently has reminded me of just how brilliant a city it is and its kind, liberal, community-minded values have really shone during the pandemic. Seeing it become the epicentre of the UK Black Lives Matter protests was incredible and watching the Colston statue fall felt like being part of history. I’ve felt nothing but pride for how the city and our mayor, Marvin Rees, handled the global press attention that followed. 

Black Lives Matter and Corona have exposed huge inequalities in our societies. While I’m appalled that it’s taken such a level of tragedy to push these issues up the agenda, I’m glad we’re confronting them - and that the book world is making some important moves of its own. Those of us who have a platform and some influence need to make a commitment to ensuring these promises are followed through.

Spending six months hiking in the woods this year would have been wonderful but it feels like the world has changed and my sleeves are rolled ready to do whatever I can. 

Lyndsey Fineran is the programme and commissions manager for Cheltenham Literature Festival. She was also a 2019 Bookseller Rising Star.