When I first came to live in Woodstock in the blazing summer of 1976, Blenheim Palace slept behind its gardens of burned grass and the town was full of antiques. There wasn’t a book in sight. A small, badly-run bookshop opened and folded without anyone noticing. A friend of mine who taught computer studies told me with relish that the book was dead. In five years’ time, she said, we might still be reading newspapers but only online.
In 1978 I wrote to Blackwells in Oxford. Woodstock needs a bookshop, I told their Managing Director. A predictable reply told me to go away and shut up. Nobody in Woodstock could possibly want one. It would not be viable. The footfall would be non-existent. The implication staring out at me between the brutal lines was that nobody outside Oxford’s academia could either write or read.
I am so delighted now to be able to prove just how wrong that letter was. In the space of forty years, Woodstock has become a veritable centre of literary excellence. It has done so organically, through the dedicated passion of people who, like me, believe in the written word.
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The Woodstock Bookshop was first on the scene, under the expert ownership of Rachel Phipps. Her shop stocks more than 5,000 books, and Rachel also manages to find the most obscure titles from all over the world. Together with Merle and Janie, Rachel keeps the shop open seven days a week throughout the year. Not content with that, she also organises talks from today’s top authors, and has just celebrated her fifth Poetry Festival, a three-day event which gives today’s poets a much-needed chance to be seen and heard as well as read.
The second bookshop in Woodstock is run by a group of volunteers under the umbrella of Save the Children. Here you can find second-hand treasures collected from lofts, attics, halls and living rooms: gems that have staunchly stood the test of time, brilliantly chosen and elegantly displayed.
Linda Glees’s Woodstock Literature Society is another success story of planning and dedication. Cleverly and professionally organised, it brings authors, lecturers and well-read speakers into Woodstock’s Town Hall several times a year to talk about their current novel or particular passion.
The Woodstock Library has fought against the odds and budget cuts to remain on Hensington Road and to keep its selection of books for the young and old alike – and everybody in between.
And then we have the annual Blenheim Literary Festival, this year expanded to include film and music, in which celebrity cooks, winemakers, gardeners, poets and sportsmen joined the ranks of journalists and politicians to celebrate their work.
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For the past sixteen years I have worked the other side of the creative line as a fulltime author, publishing picture books, teenage novels, and historical fiction for the adult marketplace. During that time, The Society of Authors, now under the brilliant leadership of Nicola Solomon, has grown and flourished. More books and better books are published in today’s United Kingdom than ever before. But without the shops, the libraries, the talks, the book groups and the festivals, we work in silence and obscurity.
Thank goodness for towns like Woodstock who do so much to encourage, to support and to spread the word.