Reading is one of my greatest pleasures and a huge and joyful part of my life. So, as one of the organisers of the Off the Shelf festival, I pretty much have my dream job.
Off the Shelf Festival of Words is Sheffield’s annual celebration of all things literary with events taking place all over the city. Since beginning 23 years ago the festival has grown from a handful of events to the 240 that it encompasses this year. It has developed from a largely local event to one which, whilst keeping its grassroots and locally sourced talent, has added some rather well known names to the mix too. Household favourites, acclaimed authors, famous poets are all part of the line-up now.
And what a line-up we have this year. Guardian food writer and chef Yotam Ottolenghi, ex- Sex Pistols musician John Lydon, comedian Paul Merton, MP Alan Johnson, broadcaster Kirsty Wark, Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison, beloved children’s author Michelle Magorian and Swedish crime writer Arne Dahl are all coming to the festival this autumn. Journalist Laura Bates is guest curator and has created a day debating aspects of modern feminism. And there’s a dawn to dusk Dylan Thomas day with talks, Welsh music and poetry and a screening of the film Under Milk Wood. Personally I’m looking forward to hearing female falconer Helen MacDonald’s talk followed by a screening of the classic Ken Loach film Kes, meeting punk musician Viv Albertine and learning ‘The Knowledge’ ( of how to survive after the world we know has ended) from scientist Lewis Dartnell. (Could be useful – hopefully not…) I think it’s a brilliantly diverse,eclectic feast for the mind.
Not everyone is as enthusiastic. When people discover my job they sometimes say ‘Oh, but I’m not much of a reader’. Or people think it’s all going to be very high brow. In fact Off the Shelf is very inclusive and accessible. Yes, we do have Howard Jacobson who is on the Booker Prize shortlist but that’s just one event of 240. Of the other 239 you could attend a discussion on writing and motherhood, a local history talk recreating Sheffield as your Victorian ancestors saw it, a whisky tasting, a book swap, a session on digital fiction, a writing bootcamp and a story walk in the Rivelin valley to name just a few . Because all of us are readers – it’s just that we like to read different things. It might be comics or magazines, recipes or song lyrics. We hope the festival caters for whatever your own reading preference might be.
But why come to Off the Shelf – why not just read the book or watch someone on TV or on-line? For me it’s the difference between listening to your favourite band on cd or going to hear them live. The excitement of a live event is there are no retakes or edits – no pause button. Off the Shelf offers the opportunity to be entertained and enlightened but also the chance to savour the moment. How thrilling is that? Like I said – best job in the world.