A celebration of the written word has been held in the North East with actors, authors, journalists and broadcasters from around the country.

Durham Book Festival took place at the weekend, featuring more than 40 authors across 35 events in Durham City.

Much of the action centred around the Gala Theatre where speakers included the food critic Grace Dent, writer and broadcaster Melanie Sykes as well as internationally bestselling author Jeanette Winterson.

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The Northern Echo: Melanie Sykes Melanie Sykes (Image: Contributor)The Northern Echo: Grace Dent Grace Dent (Image: Contributor)The Northern Echo: Jeanette WintersonJeanette Winterson (Image: Contributor)
Actor Toby Jones gave a world-exclusive live reading of Benjamin Myers’ novel, Cuddy, which is inspired by the life of St Cuthbert and his journey to his final resting place in Durham Cathedral.  

There were also new commissions with Zaffar Kunial, the Durham University Festival Laureate, writing a new poem inspired by Durham.

The Northern Echo: Toby JonesToby Jones (Image: Contributor)

Durham Book Festival is a Durham County Council festival, produced by New Writing North and supported by Durham University and Arts Council England.  

As part of the festival, the Turn Up for the Books programme, supported by the County Durham Community Foundation, gave young people the chance to programme their own event and learn about many aspects of the process, from marketing and promotion to reviewing books.  

Here some of the region’s young people tell us what they thought of  of the festival.

The Northern Echo: Catherine Dent Catherine Dent (Image: Contributor)Catherine Dent, 25, who lives in Durham, and is studying for a PhD in English Literature at Durham University  

Durham Book Festival's first day of events ended on a high with Comfort Eating with Grace Dent (no relation!) in conversation with Terri White.

Building on the success of her award-winning podcast of the same name, Grace explored the emotional significance we attach to the foods we turn to in search of comfort. 

With her signature wit and warmth, Grace treated audiences to insights into quizzing her celebrity guests on their favourite comfort foods, why she resorts to Heinz Peppa Pig Pasta Shapes after a day of filming MasterChef, and "why potatoes are proof of a higher power." Covering everything from childhood memories of caravanning in Silloth to caring for her terminally ill parents, however, at times the conversation inevitably turned to those more poignant moments when love is best expressed through food.

Without shying away from life's more difficult moments, Grace managed to find the humour (and, indeed, a little comfort) in even the most emotionally bruising of situations - with a little help from cheap marmalade, fruited malt loaves, and supermarket trifles. 

Attending this event was a real treat and Grace's heartfelt, humorous new book will be sure to appeal to fans of her 2020 memoir, Hungry. 

English Literature student Hailey Loke Wing Yee, 21, who lives in Durham

 Janina Ramirez introduced her newest Sunday Times bestseller ‘Femina’, alongside Michael Hampel, the vice dean of Durham Cathedral.

From the moment she stepped on stage, Ramirez’s charming attitude and bubbly personality captured the attention (and the hearts) of the audience.

The title was inspired by the destruction of manuscripts detailed in forgotten catalogues.

From reasons of heresy to witchcraft, Ramirez stumbled across ‘femina’, the Latin translation for female.

Not only were women written out of history but the majority of women’s writing too were erased from existence.

Though the book focuses on female influence, men too played an important part in shaping the history of the feminine.

St Bede, a local to Durham cathedral, often wrote about women in his historical works, preserving valuable glimpses of the lives of medieval women.

Hence, it wasn’t a hard decision for Ramirez to begin her book here in the North East.

Ramirez emphasises that history can’t be translated through an individual but it requires a community.

She closes the discussion advising the need to start redefining what history means.

To quote Ramirez, “History is not just a social science but a way of captivating and inspiring the future generation through education.” 

Read next: How the death of a County Durham teenager has shaped Labour's knife crime policy

The Northern Echo: Megan Adams Megan Adams (Image: Contributor)

Newcastle University graduate Megan Adams, 24, from Consett

Jeanette Winterson drew a large, very excited crowd.

Death was the topic of the hour; Winterson discussed how she believes AI will destroy death, we will be haunted in different ways in the future.

She asked; if AI disrupts death, where does that leave us?  

After an absorbing monologue about her own experiences with ghosts, Winterson read a story from her new collection.

It was about a woman who had been kidnapped by a watery ghost and forced onto a trawler to row to the ’night side of the river’ forever. 

A quote from the story that has stayed with me is: “I used to believe that the world was dry with firm edges.

“I used to believe that life and death were different states. I now know that death is porous, not solid at all.”  

Both the reading and talk from Winterson were perfect for the season. She was lit up by ghostly green lights and was welcomed onto the stage with fog.  

Her closing message was: “Maybe when you’re faced with death you have to go faster and get more out of life”.  

The Northern Echo: Lucy Eleanor TwiggLucy Eleanor Twigg (Image: Contributor)Twenty-year-old Lucy Eleanor Twigg, a Humanities student at Northumbria University, from Annfield Plain

Melanie Sykes' debut memoir conveys how after leaving the media industry behind, she experienced a new beginning from being diagnosed with ADHD and autism at 51.

Melanie describes how this diagnosis allowed her to shine a light on her true self which she previously had to repress to fit societal expectations.

As the event began, Melanie opened with an apology in advance for becoming emotional on stage, one which was wholly unneeded and should instead be celebrated.

Giving room for a beautifully warm and open conversation with the audience about realising the joy within her true self after her diagnosis, Melanie discussed her debut memoir.

Her title Illuminated speaks volumes for the way she has made strides to shine a light on her true self which has been buried for so long, expressing how 'it is not negative to feel…autism is not a disability' and that neurodivergence may not be as niche as we once believed. Covering everything from her career, family, and navigating relationships in a world which was designed against her, Melanie delivered a liberating discussion about neurodivergent joy, described as 'autistic glimmers' by an audience member.

It was an inspiration to hear her speak so openly about these topics, which for too long have been the subject of shame, and will surely inspire others to step into their own authentic selves. 

A-Level student, Juliette Pepin, 18, from Durham 

(Re)Telling Shakespeare’s Women with Natasha Solomons and Isabelle Schuler - 

'Can the story end in another way?’ 

Enthusiasts of retellings, powerful feminist protagonists and Shakespeare’s classics were captivated by the conversation between Natasha Solomons and Isabelle Schuler, discussing their reclaimed archetypes of Shakespeare’s Rosaline and Lady Macbeth.

Chaired by Natalie Ibu, the event celebrated female ambition and expression, and gave a new insight into literary classics.  

Having existing connections with Rosaline and Lady Macbeth sustained the audience’s attention.

Once a sidelined love interest, Rosaline becomes an active participant attempting to free Juliet from Romeo’s predatorial pursuits, and Lady Macbeth once villainised becomes celebrated for an ‘unapologetic, go-get-em’ ambition.

Both authors presented ‘familiar stories from an unfamiliar angle’, reclaiming Shakespearean women for modern generations.

By the end, this enthusiasm was echoed by the avalanche of audience questions. 

Playing on preconceptions of Rosaline as a side character in a tragical romance that ‘at some point features a balcony’ and Lady Macbeth as a Machiavellian femme fatale, the event encouraged the audience to reconsider Shakespearean women.

Fictional retellings are not a phenomenon, but an endless process of re-evaluation.

Solomons and Schuler encourage readers to hold a continuous dialogue with Shakespeare.

Their loyalty to their protagonists was conveyed through their dedication to stripping them of false identities rooted in misogyny.

By reimagining classic interpretations, they inspire modern generations to re-engage with literary archetypes.

Rosaline is no longer silenced, and Lady Macbeth no longer villainised. 

Read more:

The Northern Echo: Zaffar Kunial Zaffar Kunial (Image: Contributor)Molly Knox

 Festive Laureate Zaffar Kunial set Durham Book Festival off to a roaring start with reflective and touching readings from his book: ‘England’s Green’, as well as his festival-commissioned poem ‘Vapor Trail’. 

In his commissioned piece, Kunial ruminates on the body of Cuthbert and the death of his father, weaving a tapestry of language and dates stretching through Northeast history.

Kunial’s readings breathe even fresher air into the pastoral beauty of his written words, commenting on the magic of where “public” and “private” poetry make contact.

A particular highlight of the evening was his reading of ‘Scarbrough’, where Kunial creates gentle connections through a misspelling of his mother’s middle name ‘Ann’ on her death certificate, to Ann Bronte’s interior world. 

“The tide. It’s an/ oxygen machine, still going”.  

One of the UK’s best loved poets, Kunial entranced the room with the wonder he forges through sound and memory. Kunial’s seeks what meaning can be contained inside words, exploring the “ins”, “outs” and “ings” of his surroundings. “Ing is what makes things carry on”, he suggests. 

Well, one thing is for sure after this night of poetry, is that ‘England’s Green’ is a collection worth reading. 

The Northern Echo: Bea BennettBea Bennett (Image: Contributor)Bea Bennett, 22, from Durham, who is studying for an MA in English Literature 

The Durham Book Festival concluded its 2023 run with a world-exclusive: a dramatic live reading of Benjamin Myer’s newest novel Cuddy.

Performed by BAFTA winning stage and screen actor Toby Jones and writer and actor Samantha Neale, the gorgeous prose of Myers’ Cuddy transported its audience back to the medieval wilds of Northumbria.

Accompanied by North-East alt-folk band The Shining Levels, the stage was set for a conjuring act; ready to bring St Cuthbert, ‘Cuddy’, and his world back to life for one evening.

Set to the strains of original and especially commissioned music by The Shining Levels, Toby Jones began the evening as a ‘Cuddy from beyond the grave’, beginning as it were, in the moment where his tale to Durham began- at his death.

As he says himself, ‘they say Cuddy does not want, but all I see is a stone box in search of a plot’.

And so, his journey begins.

Told by Samantha Neale in her brilliant rendition of Edvida; a once-orphaned child and now healer/cook to the monks of Melrose Abbey who accompanies Cuddy’s body to his final resting place.

Indeed, just as she is presented with visions of the cathedral to be which ‘rears up like a mountain, like a great beast’ and communes with the spirit of Cuddy, the audience was once again borne back into the past through the actors’ performances, The Shining Levels’ evocative music and Benjamin Myer’s entrancing prose. 

Creative writing PhD student at Durham University Lucy Atkinson, 25, from Trimdon Village saw 'The Power of the Classics' with Edith Hall and Jennifer Saint 

Sunday Times best-selling author Jennifer Saint spoke about her newest novel Atalanta in conversation with classics professor Edith Hall at the Durham Book Festival this year and the result was a fascinating insight into the process of reimaging classical texts.

“We want to see ourselves in these stories that are so ancient and so powerful,” Saint said when asked why she thought classical reimaginings have become so popular in recent years.

Exploring her own passion for classics and its roots in a childhood trip to Cyprus, her years of studying classics in school and watching the way that students interact with the classics in her time as an English Literature teacher, Saint talked about the power these texts have to capture almost any audience.

With two wonderful readings from Atalanta, plenty of insight into the trials and joys of writing around the classics and even a few hints about the next book Saints is working on, this event was truly a treat to witness at this year's book festival.