Featherston Booktown Festival

What is a booktown, you may well ask? Alex Johnson in his book Book Towns: Forty-five Paradises of the Printed Word defines it as “simply a small town, usually rural and scenic, full of bookshops and book-related industries.” The most well-known booktowns are Hay-on-Wye in Wales and Wigtown in Scotland (the location of Shaun Bythell’s Diary of a Bookseller).

Featherston, (population 2,500) a one hour drive from Wellington over the Rimutaka Hill Road, is the newest member of the International Organisation of Booktowns. It has six bookshops, two museums (The Fell Locomotive Museum is a must for train enthusiasts) and the glorious steampunk-themed Royal Hotel.

The Royal Hotel, Featherston

Featherston is also known for its chequered military history. Featherston Military Training Camp was New Zealand’s largest training camp during the First World War, where around 60,000 young men trained for military service between 1916 and 1918. Almost three hundred soldiers didn’t survive their Featherston sojourn – epidemics of measles, meningitis, and the 1918 influenza pandemic swept through the close quarters. The camp was used as a German prisoner of war camp and military hospital in 1918-19 before being demolished in 1926. The site was re-used in the Second World War as a camp for Japanese prisoners-of-war, where cultural differences led to forty-eight prisoners and one guard being killed when the guards opened fire during a riot in 1943.

Featherston Memorial Garden

Now all that remains of the camp is a peaceful memorial garden of cherry trees and this plaque.

One building that does survive from those times is Anzac Hall. It was opened in 1916 as a recreation facility for servicemen of the Featherston Military Camp and paid for by public fundraising. It included reading and writing rooms, billiard tables, a large refreshment bar, and hot and cold baths – all designed to draw recruits (out on leave) away from the daughters of Featherston residents. The billiard room, now the Kiwi Memorial Hall, is lined with photographs of early European settlers who still cast a watchful gaze over proceedings.

Kiwi Hall, Featherston

So it seemed appropriate that Anzac Hall was the hub of the Featherston Booktown Festival, now in its fifth year held on 10-12 May.

Book Sellers at Anzac Hall

Sixteen booksellers from around the Wairarapa set out their wares in the main hall for the weekend. There was a strong emphasis on local history books and I scored these two gems:

Included in the festival’s sixty sessions, were workshops on book-related themes: bookbinding, letterpress printing, and papermaking. There were also sessions for children and young adults, separate from the general programme.

The three sessions I attended were:

So You Want to Get Published? The aroma of freshly baked cheese scones wafted in from the kitchen as the panelists gave a somewhat dispiriting session on how difficult it is to get traditionally published these days. One question from the audience resonated: “It all sounds so daunting, should I give up?”

Book Collecting in the Internet Age: John Arnold, an Australian book dealer, gave an informative session on what makes a book valuable and how to find them. Best quote: “The book trade survives on books you never read.”

Writing History: Neil Frances outlined the Wairarapa Archive’s active publishing programme of local history and stories and his interest in military history. Jock Phillips talked about the emotional reasons behind writing six of his many publications. He has a memoir, Making History, coming out soon. I was a little disappointed that the female panelist was unable to attend.

What is unique about the Featherston Booktown Festival is that the whole town gets involved in promoting books and local history – my two favourite things.

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