As the poet with “no money in the bank” is driving home, she imagines all the people she cares about living in the “blue clefts ahead”. With the sun and the sea as her companions on one of the most picturesque roads around, she is “embarrassed to be so rich”. Every time I travel towards the Cape Peninsula, I am reminded of Finuala Dowling’s poem “Riches” (Notes from the dementia ward, 2008) and that feeling of wonder and generosity which the mixture of urban and wild landscapes here evokes. It is no surprise that Dowling’s name features on the inaugural programme of the Books on the Bay Festival, a new brainchild of festival impresario extraordinaire Darryl David. After settling in Simon’s Town a few years ago, David realised how many writers lived in the town and its proximity, and when he reconnected with David Attwell, another recent addition to the growing number of local literary residents, the idea for another festival was born.
Earlier this month, I spoke to Attwell – Professor Emeritus, University of York, and Extraordinary Professor at the University of the Western Cape – about his move to Simon’s Town and his involvement with the festival. When he was a fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies five years ago, Attwell visited Simon’s Town for a weekend and was “drugged by the abundance of ozone, views, tranquillity and historical textures” of the place, so he and his wife, Joan, decided to retire here. They made architect Jack Barnett’s retirement home their own in 2020.
Why locate a book festival specifically here? “The obvious thing is the natural beauty, but it is a natural beauty with some rough edges, which makes it more literary,” Attwell said. “The town is full of narrative. There’s a story in every brick, and some of these stories are quirky, some of them are inspiring; a lot of them are painful, as Simon’s Town was hit very hard by forced removals. And many authors live in the far south, especially in Simon’s Town. We wanted to celebrate all these elements, but emphasise creativity. We wanted that to be the heart and soul of the festival.”
Talking to CapeTalk’s Pippa Hudson, David admitted that in the beginning he was hesitant about the project because of what was already on his plate. But he realised that Attwell was “super-energised for a retired person” and decided to go ahead. “I am a maverick; David is a networker,” he said. They brought local award-winning author Karin Cronjé on board to assist with the organisation. Between them, it was easy to attract big literary names to the festival – JM Coetzee, Antjie Krog, José Eduardo Agualusa, Sindiwe Magona, Jacques Pauw, Max du Preez and Damon Galgut among them. Coetzee, Krog and Agualusa will launch Books on the Bay at an early branding event taking place on 10 February and aiming at establishing the seriousness of the festival by bringing in these global authors to local audiences. Krog will read in Afrikaans, “keeping the festival oxygenated with different voices”, in Attwell’s words. The launch is sold out, but in an effort to reach out to all potential audience members (especially those without easy access to online booking), 20% of seats available for each festival event are allocated only at the door, so if you are still eager to join the launch, queue early.
The enthusiasm for the project from the local community, sponsors and writers is palpable. “The goodwill of the community has been astounding, with the Simon’s Town Civic Association providing the start-up funding,” Attwell told me. And as his co-organiser mentioned in his CapeTalk interview: “Book festivals and scenery go hand in hand, and it doesn’t get better than Simon’s Town.”
The enthusiasm for the project from the local community, sponsors and writers is palpable. “The goodwill of the community has been astounding, with the Simon’s Town Civic Association providing the start-up funding,” Attwell told me. And as his co-organiser mentioned in his CapeTalk interview: “Book festivals and scenery go hand in hand, and it doesn’t get better than Simon’s Town.” According to the festival’s website, the place is a “setting for bestselling fiction … and home to a number of South Africa’s most renowned authors”. Nineteen events – readings, panel discussions, music, spoken word poetry – in seven venues (a mosque, three churches, a hotel and a museum) will enchant readers over two days in March (10th and 11th). “There are a few emphases, but no exclusive positions,” Attwell said. “We definitely wanted to create a platform for writers who are in the far south, from Muizenberg to Scarborough. And we wanted to emphasise writing about Simon’s Town.”
Literary events of such a nature “give a place a sense of identity”, David told Pippa Hudson. They are also great options to “inoculate a culture of reading”. Of all his festival ventures, Books on the Bay is “the cheapest to run because so many of the authors live in the vicinity”. And with sponsors such as Standard Bank involved, the outreach literacy initiatives associated with the festival will offer amazing opportunities for young people in the area, especially from disadvantaged communities such as Ocean View and Masiphumelele. Getting kids and local schools and libraries involved is a vital component of the festival’s programme and will extend well into the year. The organisers aim to tap into the talent of writers based in Cape Town who are writing specifically for kids and young adults. They are also planning to host a big book drive, with the Simon’s Town Library as a central point for collections. Distribution to schools in the region will focus on two schools at a time.
For authors, the festival offers a different kind of opportunity. David told Pippa Hudson that the one thing he doesn’t like about book festivals is predetermined themes. Putting three authors with very disparate books on a panel with a contrived theme can result in artificial discussions which leave audiences wondering what the individual books are about.
For authors, the festival offers a different kind of opportunity. David told Pippa Hudson that the one thing he doesn’t like about book festivals is predetermined themes. Putting three authors with very disparate books on a panel with a contrived theme can result in artificial discussions which leave audiences wondering what the individual books are about. Having this in mind, David, Attwell and Cronjé approached prospective participants to engage them on the topics they wanted to speak about. They were also contacted by authors who pitched different ideas to them. As a result, the organisers paired authors with similar books and allowed space for quite a few single-author events. The open-ended, non-prescriptive curation process will give readers the opportunity to enjoy Barbara Mutch speaking about her bestselling The girl from Simon’s Bay, Chase Rhys and Herman Lategan talking about writing children protagonists, Sonwabiso Ngcowa and Sindiwe Magona telling Helen Moffett about their latest books, Damon Galgut and Wahbie Long discussing psychotherapy and fiction, and local poets presenting their craft at an open mic session at the end of the first day of the festival. The second day offers Simon’s Town in fiction with Justin Fox and his Wolf hunt and the Jack Pembroke series, forgotten histories with Mignonne Breier and Bongani Kona, as well as “a key event” of the festival, according to Attwell: “The translation of Die Heilige Quran by MA Baker: A son’s perspective”. This is a quintessential Simon’s Town story. “The translation was accomplished in the late fifties and early sixties, at a time of great stress for the community here, and clearly Imam Baker, as translator, was responding to a spiritual hunger among his people. It was just before the forced removals, but there was already pressure,” Attwell told me. Zeid Baker, Imam Baker’s son, will be speaking at the festival about “the personal, religious, intellectual struggles his father went through translating the Quran”. The session aims to “celebrate this extraordinary linguistic and cultural achievement that forms part of Simon’s Town’s identity story”. The event is free. A lunch will be served afterwards at no charge. “We want the festival to engage with the communities’ histories in Simon’s Town,” Attwell said, emphasising the plural.
Also part of the festival’s line-up are Nancy Richards, Tracy Going, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Jo-Anne Richards, Futhi Ntshingila, Denis Hirson, Elleke Boehmer, André Odendaal, Mark Gevisser, Ingrid de Kok, Gabeba Baderoon, Anastasia Maw, Kirby van der Merwe, Fred de Vries, Jan Glazewski and Xavier Nagel.
“You have a very large plane and a very short runway now. Is it going to fly?” Attwell was teased by a friend. After speaking to him and looking at the festival’s programme, I have no doubt that it will be a highly successful take-off. And we can all hope that Simon’s Town and Books on the Bay will become a welcoming landing space for many more literary riches of this country and beyond.
Tickets are available on Webtickets and at Pick ’n Pay (R60 per event). A few events are free. See the website for details: https://booksonthebay.simonstown.com/. Book as early as possible to avoid disappointment. The “community-supported non-profit festival” is open to donations.