THOSE leather armchairs on the Kings Hall stage are a stroke of genius. Alan Bennett looked very comfortable as he kicked off the 2017 Ilkley Literature Festival in fine style, reading from Keeping On Keeping On, based on his diaries. His approach was thematic, with a brief foray into politics, where Bennett’s comments on Cameron, Johnson et al left the audience in no doubt as to his sympathies – or antipathies. His readings then ranged from eccentrics on trains via his experiences of surgical procedures to the pleasures of working with Maggie Smith on the play and the film of The Lady in the Van. Bennett is humane, witty and self-deprecating to the extent that it is easy to forget just how many brilliant plays he has written and the hugely innovative nature of Beyond the Fringe. He is deeply attached to his roots and evoked his parents and grandmother with great respect and affection. He also paid tribute to Richard Hoggart, whose Uses of Literacy had a profound influence, and to the educational and cultural opportunities afforded by Leeds to both Hoggart and himself.

Later in the same venue, Stuart Maconie presented his Long March from Jarrow. In 2016, he celebrated the 80th anniversary of that march by following in the miners’ footsteps. He took three weeks, as they did, and stayed in the same places. Jarrow in the 1930s was memorably described by JB Priestley as a penal colony, its inhabitants sentenced (for no crime but class and economics) to a life of poverty, rickets and diphtheria. The march achieved very little but, amazingly, the marchers put on weight thanks to the food they received on the way. Such solidarity also saw sufficient funds raised to send them home by train with a warm coat each. Maconie’s three-week walk through Brexit Britain encountered 21st century social problems, but also similar hospitality offered by various ethnic communities. The journey sparked much humour and serious reflection and the resulting book is a hymn to diversity and the varied faces of contemporary England.

Another modest, self-deprecating writer of very English comedy occupied one leather chair at Kings Hall on Saturday afternoon. Facing Tim Brooke-Taylor in the other one was Chris Serle, a masterly interviewer. What resulted was a hilarious series of anecdotes, a succession of clips of The Goodies and some serious discussion of the business of writing comedy. One of the first was Tim’s account of an initiation rite at his reluctantly attended public school, involving running up a hill being beaten with branches by older boys – and his disappointment when the practice was banned the following year. The clips included classics such as the plain-clothes policemen and the discussion paid tribute to the contribution of Dennis Norden to the team.

Saturday evening saw Stuart Maconie on stage again, this time at the Playhouse with One for the Road, a compilation of pub-related poetry in collaboration with Helen Mort. Maconie and contributor Kim Moore talked about the project with their publisher and read their choice of poems. Some were dark, some funny, others life-affirming, all clearly hitting some spot with the audience. Kim read her piece, Tuesday at Wetherspoons, evoking a deadly banality like a circle of hell. Facing it in the book is another of Kim’s, The Red Lion, where the younger sister of the barmaid clears glasses in another noisier, smellier and hotter circle. Maconie pointed out the value of a second reading of most poems for a full understanding and demonstrated with Digits, by Roy Marshall. The anthology covers all the bases in pub culture and includes prose pieces as well as notes on the impressive list of poets.

Saturday ended on a high note with Sarah Dunant in St Margaret’s Hall presenting her second novel about the Borgias, In the Name of the Family. Sarah Dunant is a joy to hear. She wears her immense scholarship lightly and has a state of the art visual presentation to illustrate her lecture. Her theme is the misunderstanding down the ages of the character of Lucrezia Borgia, whom she rehabilitates in spectacular style while giving generously sympathetic portrayals of her father, Rodrigo, and her various siblings, moving on to the equally misunderstood Niccolò Machiavelli and the post-Borgia scene in Rome.

Sunday featured illuminating contributions from four of the best known women writing today. Rachel Joyce presented The Music Shop, the story of Frank, whose unconventional mother gave him a deep love of music. Frank passes on its healing power to those around him and is the focus of his small community, aptly named Unity Street. Joyce has written many radio plays and has an acute ear for voices. She is currently adapting Wuthering Heights – a treat in store. There is much cross-fertilisation between the media; Sarah Dunant’s When Greeks Flew Kites is a must and Amanda Coe adapted Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard for TV. Coe and Doughty were in conversation at the Playhouse, both presenting new novels and discussing the writing process as well as the mechanics of adaptation. In the evening, Salley Vickers discussed Cousins, her exploration of the effects of a catastrophic accident on the members of the Tye family – another apt name? She uses three voices from different generations of women, reflecting her experience as a psychotherapist of the way trauma filters down and manifests itself in those not directly affected. What was clear from all these fascinating sessions is that there is no algorithm for writing. Inspiration can come from a chance encounter or suddenly in the middle of the night. Some know exactly how the novel will end (Joyce), others (Vickers, Doughty) are led by the characters they create. Adaptations must show, not tell, but there is an awful lot of writing in establishing what to show. All four agreed that their works were very different one from another, in spite of pressure by publishers to repeat a successful formula.

A great start to a festival that promises much over the next ten days.

Judith Dunn

Coming up at the Literature Festival are:

• Armando Iannucci - Known as the “hard man of satire”, writer and director Armando Iannucci, has a not-so-secret passion for classical music. Join the creator of Alan Partridge, The Thick of It and Veep as he conveys the joy of his musical explorations and how each discovery suggests a fresh direction of travel, another piece, another composer, another time. Sat 7th Oct, 7.30pm, King’s Hall

• June Sarpong - Borders, Boundaries and Partition - June is one of Britain’s most recognisable television presenters. In this empowering call to arms, she argues that a lack of inclusivity limits our economy, our society, and us as individuals. Drawing on new case studies from Oxford, she explores how changing our approach to how we work, learn and live can solve some of the most stubborn challenges we face as a society. Weds 11th Oct, All Saints Church, 7.30pm

• Arundhathi Subramaniam - Described as ‘one of the finest poets writing in India today’ (The Hindu, 2010), Arundhathi Subramaniam is the multi-award-winning author of eleven books of poetry and prose. Her recent collection, When God is a Traveller, was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. Thurs 12th Oct, 7.30pm, St Margaret’s Hall

• Unbroken: Martine Wright in Conversation with Sue Mott - In 2005, Martine Wright was a marketing manager. In 2015, she was voted one of the ‘50 Most Powerful Women in British Sport’. In the course of ten years, her life changed forever when she lost both her legs in the London underground bombings of 7/7. In conversation with leading sports journalist Sue Mott, she gives an inspiring account of how she turned trauma and tragedy into hope, taking up sitting volleyball as part of her rehabilitation and eventually representing Great Britain at the Paralympics in London 2012. Weds 11th Oct, 7.30pm, Grammar School at Leeds