Meet the extraordinary woman behind Stoke Newington's Literary Festival
Liz Vater has spent the past decade bringing storytellers to Stoke Newington, celebrating feminism and political dissent.
Now, the Local Buyers Club is telling her story.
Liz is the brains and energy behind Stoke Newington Literary Festival, which was hailed by one critic as having: “thrown its pretensions in the skip” and by another as: “the coolest literary festival of the summer.”
But for Liz, whose lightbulb moment came after a dreary day at a literary festival in Henley on Thames, her goal is bigger and altogether more inspiring.
She’s driven by a wider social goal to entertain, delight, move and inform – to get people from all walks of life storytelling, asking questions and listening, to instil interest and respect for those who have contributed to the area’s rich history and to provide an opportunity for community engagement.
"We are standing on the shoulders of giants,” she said. “Remarkable people have lived in Stoke Newington – many still do. Yet increasingly older people can feel invisible to kids living here.”
√10% off Stokey Lit Fest tickets for a limited time
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10 years ago, Liz was running her own PR company, working with big advertising agencies.
She has always been an avid reader and her husband is the acclaimed food and drink author and broadcaster Pete Brown.
She added: “As I sat listening to a dull speaker at Henley, my first thought was ‘why isn’t there a literary festival in Stoke Newington when the area has such a rich history of writers – from Mary Wollstonecraft and Edgar Allan Poe to Daniel Defoe. My next thought was ‘oh shit! Now I have to do it’.”
Liz, who has lived in the area for 30 years, invested her own money into setting up the first festival – spending around £5,000 on branding, creating a programme and venue hire. And though there were highs that first year – like comedian Stewart Lee agreeing to appear – there were also lows.
(TV Chef Nigella Lawson is among those appearing at Stokey Literary Festival 2019)
She said: “I remember standing at the Farmers’ Market, which at that time was at William Patten School, and handing out leaflets. When hardly anyone took a leaflet, a tear came down my face.” But that first festival was a huge success.
Liz said: “That old adage of ‘if you build it, they will come’ couldn’t have been more right. I asked and they came."
Among those preparing to speak at this year's Stoke Newington Literary Festival are TV chef Nigella Lawson, actor Roger Robinson and former Home Secretary and author Alan Johnson. Other speakers and performers will include actress Zawe Ashton, Stephen Morris of Joy Division, historian Yasmin Khan, presenter and writer Johny Pits and singer songwriter Tracey Thorn.
Liz added: “The festival has always washed its face – we’ve never made a loss. We set it up as a community interest company; everything we make goes back into literacy projects locally.”
Stoke Newington Literary Festival works closely with Hackney Library Services and the Community Library Service (bringing books to housebound residents), with the children’s literacy charity Beanstalk and the refugee charity Welcome Group.
Recognising not all families make it along to the festival and driven by Liz’s desire to ensure the it reaches people from all walks of life, the festival team organise a programme of literacy events at local schools during school hours.
They included a project at Stoke Newington High school where older generations came tell their stories and to be interviewed by pupils. Among those questioned by the students were artists who lived in local squats, the woman who set up Stoke Newington’s first vegetarian Indian restaurant and local poet Tim Wells.
Liz’s core team includes Kate Manning, who organises the children’s events but, during the week of the festival, they’re helped by around 70 volunteers.
Liz added: “Some volunteer because they simply love the festival and want to help, some are undergrads who want to get into publishing and for others it’s a really good step into the community.”
As the Festival’s reputation grows, so people come from further afield – many book local accommodation and the event is undoubtedly great for local traders.
This year’s festival takes place from June 7 till June 9 and Local Buyers Club members save 10% on tickets for a limited time. Join here for just £12 and you will be emailed a code. Use code STOKEYLITFEST when joining the Club and £5 goes to children's literacy charity Beanstalk. Members can also get 2 for 1 tickets to the Gala Night.
Visit the Festival Website for the full line-up and to book tickets.
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