Organising the Scarborough’s Books by the Beach festival

Heather French, one of the festival directors of Books by the Beach, Scarborough

Heather French, one of the festival directors of Books by the Beach, Scarborough - Credit: Archant

As authors descend on Scarborough for Books by the Beach, festival director Heather French talks to Jo Haywood about her literary loves. Photographs by Tony Bartholomew

Librarian and co-director of Books by the Beach Heather French

Librarian and co-director of Books by the Beach Heather French - Credit: Archant

As addictions go, it’s pretty harmless. In fact, you could argue that it’s actually quite life-affirming. But still, Heather French feels she has to get it off her chest.

‘About 20 years ago, I was given a copy of The Accidental Tourist and, ever since, I’ve been completely hooked on Anne Tyler,’ she confesses as we enjoy a pot of tea in the elegant surroundings of Scarborough’s Palm Court Hotel.

‘I’d love to get her here, but as she lives in America, is in her seventies and is a very private person, I think it’ll have to remain a dream.’

The ‘here’ in question is the seaside resort’s popular Books by the Beach festival, which Heather has been involved with for ten years and co-directed for the last three.

She’s a librarian by day, spending every moment away from work tracking down authors, signing them up, securing venues and generally disappearing beneath an ever-growing mountain of books.

But she doesn’t mind. In fact, she seems to thrive on the challenge of delivering a fresh and exciting programme of literary events every spring.

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‘I love my job but the festival is my passion,’ she said. ‘I’m never blasé about it and I never want it to become ordinary because it means such a lot to the town.

‘It’s great for the economy because we bring in thousands of extra visitors a year, and it’s also good in terms of putting Scarborough on the cultural map. People have quite rigid ideas about the town, but it actually has a very rich cultural life.’

For someone so passionate about books, running a festival has the obvious advantage of bringing Heather into close contact with some of her personal heroes.

After the 2014 event, she picked up a book by Louise Doughty in the airport as she jetted off with her husband Don (a signwriter, which comes in handy) for a recuperative break. She loved it, traced the author when she returned home and booked her for the 2015 festival.

This year’s roster of literary stars is very twinkly indeed, with Melvyn Bragg, Joan Bakewell, Peter James, Joanne Harris, MC Beaton, Tracy Chevalier, Vince Cable and Simon Armitage all heading to the coast this month. But there are still one or two big names Heather would like to bag.

‘I’d love to get Ian McEwan up here,’ she said. ‘I think he’s the best male author of contemporary fiction living today. He’d be a real coup.’

And, of course, there’s Anne Tyler, who she first came across while working in an antiquarian bookshop 20 years ago on a cold, wet day when she had more reading time than customers.

‘She writes with such wry, gentle humour about amazing yet recognisable characters,’ she explained. ‘They could be your friends, family or neighbours. She’s just celebrated 50 years in writing, and I’m hoping for many more to come.’

Like many of us avid readers, her love affair with books began with a childhood crush on Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. Heather has lived in Scarborough for 28 years but, as a child, she lived in Batley, West Yorkshire, and only visited the coast when it was time for the family’s annual caravan holiday in Bridlington.

‘One year, I was given Five Go Down To The Sea to read in the car on the way home,’ she said. ‘I’d finished it by the time we got back to Batley and couldn’t wait to start another.’

Her mum was a primary school teacher who taught her to cherish books from an early age – a priceless inheritance she’s passed down to her own children, Adam, now a computer systems creator in the medical research field in Cambridge, and Sarah, a studio operator for a television channel.

‘My mother read with me and I read with my children,’ said Heather. ‘It’s a great gift to give because you’re giving them access to a host of new and interesting worlds.’

So, she shared the Famous Five with them and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, another childhood favourite that she found much darker and sadder when read as an adult.

‘I was entranced by it as a child, but I’ve found that re-reading books at different times in your life gives you a whole new perspective,’ she said.

Among her more recent favourites are Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox, a tragic yet magically uplifting tale of an outspoken, unconventional young woman who’s locked away by her family, only to be discovered years later by a great-niece who didn’t know she existed; Håkan Nesser’s Hour Of The Wolf, a Chief Inspector Van Veeteren story about a drunk driver whose life spirals out of control after one terrible decision; and the late great Sue Townsend’s The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year, a dark comedy about a woman who dives under the duvet the day her twins leave home and inadvertently starts a protest movement.

‘I’m very much a fiction fan,’ said Heather, ‘but the festival has made me read more history and biographies and, for that, I’m very grateful.

‘Co-directing such an eclectic event has encouraged me to read outside my comfort zone. I think that’s an important step for everyone to take because opening a book can open you up to all sorts of interesting new possibilities.’

Author, author

A host of famous names and up-and-coming authors are proving they really do like to be beside the seaside this month as they pack their buckets and spades and head to Scarborough for the town’s annual Books by the Beach festival, which runs from April 13th-17th.

Here are a few edited highlights:

:: Alison Weir, the UK’s top-selling female historian with more than 2.7m worldwide sales, hosts a two-course lunch in The Old Kitchen at Wykeham Abbey and discusses The Lost Tudor Princess, her latest biography.

:: MC Beaton, queen of the village mystery and author of both the Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth series, pops in to Scarborough Library Concert Hall. Which is rather appropriate as she’s the number one most borrowed UK adult author in libraries.

:: Longtime festival friend Peter James hosts a dinner at the Palm Court Hotel, where he’ll talk about a career that’s notched up 15m sales in 36 languages and a CWA Diamond Dagger award. Oh, and he spends so much time with the police, they’ve now given him his own patrol car in Brighton.

:: Baroness Joan Bakewell comes to Scarborough Library Concert Hall to talk about Stop The Clocks, in which she muses in a thoughtful, moving and ultimately spirited way on all she has lived through and the values she’ll leave behind.

:: Melvyn Bragg takes to the stage at The Spa Theatre to discuss Now Is The Time, his first historical novel for 12 years. As well as producing numerous ground-breaking arts programmes, the broadcaster, writer and baron has written several screenplays, 21 novels and been long listed three times for the Man Booker prize.

:: Joanne Harris and Christopher Fowler talk ‘psychological thrillers and peculiar crimes’ at Scarborough Library Concert Hall. The former is one of our most versatile novelists, turning her hand to historical fiction, fantasy and psychological suspense, while the latter favours cult fiction, horror-pastiche and short stories.

:: Other names to watch out for are Poirot’s TV sidekick Hugh Fraser, former Lib Dem MP Vince Cable, Girl With A Pearl Earring author Tracy Chevalier, poet Simon Armitage and former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis.

For full festival details, visit