Preview: The Soho Literary Festival

Report by Imogen Greenhalgh

With the opening of the inaugural Soho Literary Festival fast approaching, finding a moment to speak to the organiser, Claire Daly, wasn’t easy. Based at the Soho Theatre in Dean Street, the festival boasts almost 40 separate events and performances, which are taking place on the weekend of the 23rd-25th of September.

Behind each one of these events is the hard graft of Claire, who juggles the running of the festival with being Richard Ingrams’ editorial assistant at The Oldie. No mean feat. When I finally managed to find an chance to pick her brain about what it is like to set up and coordinate a festival, its launch was only a week or so away, and Claire was packing her bags to go to Rye.

“The festival was the brainchild of The Oldie’s publisher, James Pembroke. He felt that central London lacked the literary festival it deserved, and that with Soho having as rich a literary past as it does, it would be the perfect place for the launch of a new one.”

Claire’s trip to Rye, a well-established progenitor to Soho’s own festival, illustrates James’ and Claire’s point. “It’s for those who don’t want to trek all the way to the other side of the country to see their favourite London-based writers. And for London writers to be able to participate without needing to up sticks.”

Of course London has more writers than any festival could ever dream of hosting, but Claire explains that those asked were those most connected to Soho and it’s surrounding area, without sacrificing variety. “We have everyone from children’s author and illustrator, Judith Kerr (the creator of Mog), to the controversial journalist and blogger James Delingpole. We also wanted to invite our favourite Oldie writers – Maureen Lipman, Virginia Ironside, Paul Bailey and Marcus Berkmann.”

The line-up is certainly diverse – comic book shops are salivating at the bringing together of Alan Moore’s artistic partners Kevin O’Neill and Melinda Gebbie. Film devotees can listen to Ken Loach and Molly Dineen discuss their life and work. The most surprising entry into the programme of events is, for Claire, Rich Fulcher. “As a member of the Mighty Boosh family he is a huge highlight, but an unexpected one. His show did incredibly well at Edinburgh, but he is mainly popular with the younger audience, so we didn’t think an Oldie event would appeal to him. It’s a huge bonus though, we want the festival to entice any age.”

It seems that founding something new in this city generates a great deal of support. For Claire it is the Wallis Simpson event that most excites her, with two “extraordinary writers Kate Sebba and Kate Auspitz”. Choosing, however, was tricky. “I’m also tremendously intrigued to see Craig Brown’s new show with Simon Russell Beale and Eleanor Bron… Hopefully I will have time to attend!”

From a peek at Claire’s schedule, and numerous to-do lists, putting on such a multi-faceted event has its difficulties. Indeed she admits that the support of local businesses like Black’s Club, and the many nearby cafes and bookshops handing out programmes, has been a life-line. “We don’t have a green room or anything like that at the theatre, so thankfully Black’s are allowing the speakers to become temporary members so they can have somewhere to relax outside of the auditorium. The busy Oldie office could never have housed them all. We are also hugely proud to be collaborating with Clerkenwell Tales and Peter Ho, an independent bookseller based in Exmouth Market. They have helped enormously.”

Unlikely friendships, then, are the theme of the festival’s creation. and will, it’s hoped, turn out to be the ingredient for success. Another legacy for Claire is an inside-out knowledge of all of Soho’s winding streets. “For those coming for their first time, I’d recommend Ronnie Scott’s and the Star Cafe – I feel they’d give you an authentic Soho experience.”

And if the numerous bookshops, musical venues and poetry cafes aren’t enough to entice a bookworm into Soho, then perhaps this festival will be.

More details on the festival can be found at

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