Many thanks to Claire Donnelly, who wrote this fantastic piece about our first ever Literature & Ideas Festival in The Guardian.
Forget McDonald's, it's time to shout about Rochdale's cultural heritage
Let's be honest. Things haven't been great for Rochdale recently. And if you've never been to the town, chances are you're not planning to visit anytime soon. The last few years have seen this corner of north Manchester come under agonising scrutiny – one that's been painful to watch for those of us who know it better.
After bigot-gate (I don't think Gordon Brown will be heading back here in a hurry) and grooming, there have been endless tales of benefit cheats and deprivation – the Falinge area of town has been the declared the worst council estate in the UK – and even of the demise of the town centre's McDonald's. As commentators made clear, forget the unemployment statistics – when McDonald's shuts up shop and leaves your high street, you've really hit rock bottom.
The lurid headlines have made it easier for people to write off this once proud, post-industrial town. But while the bad news raged, in the last 12 months good things have started happening here – much of it overlooked by the national press.
A multimillion-pound extension to Manchester's trams have connected Rochdale with the city centre and beyond. And while critics argue it could help people take their custom elsewhere, there's no denying it has already cleaned up a scruffy end of town. Half a mile from the new tram stop and its cafes, the town centre is undergoing a £100m revamp. And despite nationwide cuts, a new library was unveiled in March.
This weekend the stunning building is one of the settings for something just as exciting and important – the first Rochdale Ideas and Literature festival. Offering three days of dance, music, film, theatre and poetry (even Curly Watts makes an appearance) it's a rare chance to shout about the interests and values that people here still hold dear and to highlight the town's astounding cultural heritage – one that's come close to being forgotten.
When I first moved here – as a moody teenager, annoyed at being uprooted from 'cosmopolitan' Salford – I had no idea about Rochdale's impressive political pedigree. Like many people reading about it in the papers today, as far as I was concerned it was a Lancashire backwater, a place where nothing exciting had ever happened. But the people I met – at school, at the café where I worked on Saturdays and later in the pubs and local newspaper newsroom – soon put me right.
As they explained, this was a proper town with a truly 'pioneering spirit', somewhere that valued education and raised people who changed the world. The birthplace of the co-operative movement, the politicising of dissenter John Bright and the rallying of non-conformists and radicals, it had all happened here.
During long days spent revising for my A-levels in the local library and Sundays mooning about on the moors, I learnt to appreciate the town's complex history and hidden gems of green space. I still spend lots of time here having fun (I live down the road in west Yorkshire) – watching friends' bands, visiting the art gallery and playing hide and seek with my kids in the Healey Dell wilderness (a country park that's as lovely as it sounds). And that's the point. Despite the deprivation, this is a town that punches above its weight when it comes to producing great art and ideas.
Twenty-five years after my own reluctant conversion, I'm hoping this weekend's festival will make it easier for other people to discover this inspiring side of Rochdale, too. Never mind the schedule – including appearances from literary big hitters like Carol Anne Duffy and Simon Armitage – the way the event came about speaks volumes about the kind of place this really is.
This is a festival borne out of romance and reading. Alongside funding from Rochdale council and the Arts Council for England, it has been made possible by a hefty bequest from Frank and Annie Maskew, a local couple who met in the town library 60 years ago. When they passed away – in 1981 and 2006 respectively – they left a pot of money to be spent on celebrating both the passion for books and the place that had brought them together. They asked that their love of learning and of literature to be extended to all and that classic works were made accessible to future generations.
As organiser Mark Roberts says: "They were a truly inspirational couple, devoted to inspiring others and we think this will be a fitting tribute. Annie and Frank would have been proud to see people of all ages coming to their beloved hometown to enjoy the festival."
Today, milling around the stalls and event spaces, teenagers, pensioners and office workers mingle. As one of them, Jake Donbavand, 19, says: "I've come down for a mooch about, to see what it is actually all about. It feels dead positive. When people write about Rochdale it's usually about the bad stuff but there are good people here, we're not all stupid."
Beside him, selling copies of his new book is Robin Parker, 69. He's here with the Langley writers' group, one of many represented here, to celebrate something he says never went away.
"This is my adopted home," he says, "It has been since the '70s. It's a great place, with a real community spirit, it's just a shame that isn't always seen. Yes, we've had our fair share of nasty stuff but we are moving on."
And that's what makes this weekend so special. No one's denying Rochdale has some massive problems but as this festival will reveal, it's a town that's much more than the sum of its bad headlines.
This is a place that was built on big ideas. Let's hope this weekend throws up a few more.