Agenda: All eyes on a radical new book festival for Paisley

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THE first Paisley Book Festival runs from February 20 to 29, with a theme of Radical Voices and Rebel Stories. An initiative of Renfrewshire Leisure, it’s hoped the festival will become a regular annual event. Funding has been secured for the next three years. Led by co-producers Keira Brown and Jess Orr, a dedicated team has been beavering away since last September putting together a colourful and diverse programme.

The theme is inspired by the Scottish Radical Rising of 1820. Two hundred years ago this year, 60,000 people in Paisley, Glasgow, Ayrshire and across the Central Belt went on strike to call for radical political reform and universal suffrage, hoping an improvement to often brutal living and working conditions would follow. Hundreds armed themselves with home-made pikes, ready to do battle against regular troops and government volunteer militias in support of their aims. With weavers and cotton mill workers to the fore, many in Paisley were involved. When constables and soldiers went looking to arrest known radicals during this period of unrest, one defiant Paisley buddy called out: “You’d better take all of us. We’re all radicals here!”

None of the Paisley radicals endured the same fate as Andrew Hardie of Glasgow, John Baird of Condorrat and James Wilson of Strathaven, all of whom were publicly hanged and then beheaded. Many Paisley and Renfrewshire men were however imprisoned for months, some tried for treason. Others had to flee the country. In a successful attempt to free radical prisoners being taken to Greenock Gaol, the Port Glasgow government militia fired on the crowd, killing eight and wounding more.

Taking the boldness, energy and enthusiasm for new ideas of the Paisley radicals of 1820 as a jumping-off point, the Paisley Book Festival brings together 80 authors, poets, storytellers, artists and performers in a wide range of events, with treats for all ages and a special schools programme. There is a mix of well-known and lesser-known names, the former including Val McDermid, Kirsty Wark, crime novelists Caro Ramsay and Alex Gray and Paisley’s own John Byrne. There are writing masterclasses for BAME writers, graphic novelists and budding poets. If it’s Paisley, there has to be poetry. Many of Paisley’s radical weavers were also poets, the most famous being Robert Tannahill, whose statue stands in the Abbey Close.

There are discussion panels on what it means to be a radical and a rebel in the modern world, how the disabled and people on low incomes can get involved in writing and publishing and family-friendly workshops on how to produce your own zine and screen-print your own slogans. One strand of the theme which has strongly emerged is that of writing about women who rebel.

Keira Brown says the aim has been also to radicalise the format of the book festival, ensuring that it’s accessible and welcoming in all ways, including financially. Ticket prices are low and many events are free.

The festival hub is the Paisley Arts Centre in New Street, with pop-up events happening in the Piazza shopping centre, Renfrewshire libraries, local cafés, pubs and other venues. You can pick up a programme and book tickets at Paisley Arts Centre or via any of Renfrewshire’s Libraries or online at

Maggie Craig will be talking about Paisley and Scotland’s 1820 Radicals at the opening event of the Paisley Book Festival, Radical Renfrewshire, at the Paisley Arts Centre from 7-9pm on Thursday.


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