Former teacher Marc Rattray is the force behind the Lewes Speakers Festival, which he first started back in 2011, inspired, he tells me, by the Charleston Festival and Hay Festival. “I began by running a speakers’ society at the school where I worked – that gave me a taste for it. Then, I started a public one in Lewes in the summers. I also had a background in events – so knew something of what I was doing. It grew from there.”
This January, on the programme, are speakers as prominent as Simon Jenkins, Peter Hain, James O’Brien and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. (On a light note, I was drawn to the idea of Lynne Truss’s ‘Constable Twitten’ – though the Brighton described is not one we would recognise in 2018: ‘Brighton, 1957. Inspector Steine rather enjoys his life as a policeman by the sea. No criminals, no crime, no stress.’)
So, how are speakers chosen? Marc laughs. “People often assume the programme is carefully crafted, and of course it is to an extent. But the reality is you have to ask an awful lot of very busy people: they’re either available or they’re not.”
He’s pleased with this January’s line-up of sixteen. “Yes, it’s quite a strong programme, and this year there’re also a couple of new things I’d like to highlight: we’re doing a wine-tasting, from the Fine Wine Importers in Lewes; and we’re also incentivising a younger audience. Any university or school student who’s interested in attending should email us in advance and we’ll set aside half-price tickets.”
The Speakers Festival has grown over the years: Marc now also orchestrates them in Chichester and Winchester. So why did he start in Lewes?
“For one thing, it was local”, he says. “But it’s also a great setting. The people in Lewes are politically active. Some festivals shy away from that, and end up solely ‘literary’. No need in Lewes.”
I wonder if this is the moment to raise the vexed question of Katie Hopkins’ inclusion a year ago? “It was very unfortunate”, Marc says. “If the festival stands for anything, it stands for free speech – and she was on the schedule to talk about her autobiography, not politics – but I didn’t anticipate the ensuing violence, and it was awful. It was organised violence brought into the town – although of course, some locals did also turn out to demonstrate.”
The Speakers Festivals are all about stimulating discussion, he says. “They’re a great forum – people leave really stimulated, and that’s what it’s all about. Of course, there’s a charged atmosphere in the UK at the moment: we all know this. But events like ours are about getting people to discuss things in a reasonable way. Hopefully they help.”
25th, 26th and 27th in the All Saints. All Festival passes cost £75 and individual event tickets £12.50. If you buy 2 or more tickets together they are £11 each, or £10 for each for 3. There are various other pricing options.