Punam Ramchurn meets Steve Cooke
“What is unique about Rochdale,” says our new Literature and Ideas Festival Director, “is a fluidity of co-operation.”
Giving all across the arts her first interview since starting her new job Punam Ramchurn is buzzing with enthusiasm about Rochdale and her new role with the Library Services.
“Last year’s Festival was a fabulous platform for the arts and literature,” says Punam, adding that she sees her immediate task being to build on that success. With much of this year’s Festival having been already programmed before she came to post, Punam will focus on introducing lead-in events as Festival “trail-blazers” to generate a ‘buzz factor’. She wants to announce new and emerging writers as well as established writers, in interesting and varied venues across Rochdale, and is enthusiastically setting about the task of “bolting everything down before promoting how wonderful the Festival will be.”
Punam was previously Senior Literature Officer at Oldham Library Services. She is a firm believer that libraries are no longer what my colleague Norman Warwick teases her about as being “dusty places of silence” and argues that libraries are vibrant community hubs.
“Just walk into No 1 Riverside. It has a buzz about it,” she says. “People come in to participate in writing groups, reading groups and conversation classes or to seek I.T. support.”
Punam emphasises that Rochdale’s Festival isn’t just about big name authors.
“It is about the value we put on the community through engaging community artists in local spaces,” she contends. “If somebody goes to the Pop-up shop – Wheatsheaf Centre, engages in a workshop then goes to the Festival to see a major writer such as Jackie Kay, then we have done our job. For me it isn’t about the big names, it is about participation and process, ensuring the Rochdale people know they have something to engage with that is accessible and quite exciting as well.
Rochdale has amazing venues, art shops, the pop-up shop or big spaces like Riverside. Rochdale feels very co-operative. In Oldham there are lots of theatre and arts organisations. Rochdale, though, has no snobbery but a co-operative fluidity about it. Rochdale feels unique.”
Punam has natural empathy with writers as we discover when pressing her about her own writing career. Her first successful foray into the world of literature culminated in being runner up in Oldham Colosseum’s ‘BANG’ – British Asian Next Generation competition.
“I wrote a play, called Chocolate Pudding And Jesus Christ, about growing up in Liverpool as a British Asian. It was eventually put on in London.”
This opened doors for Punam. She was invited to workshops by a BBC writers group and became part of a team that wrote a screen play about an Asian family who run a restaurant and win a horse they enter for the Grand National. She was invited to submit ideas for CBBC and wrote an episode for a show about the first day at school of a young refugee boy.
“I write about that tension and humour that comes with growing up with a working class background,” she reflects. “I am currently working on another idea for CBBC, a modern day Romeo and Juliet. I have also written a comedy about my experiences of working in Libraries in Oldham!”
Who knows? In a few years there might be a young writer emerging from Rochdale Literature and Ideas Festival to have a play shown on television.
“If a little girl writes in a workshop about wishing her grandma gets better,” Punam suggests, “there is a synergy between that and Jackie Kay, one of the special guests at this year’s festival, writing about her own adoption. We want to create a platform for both writers.”
We ask Punam what she would like the legacy of the Literacy and Ideas Festival to be:
“It’s the Ideas that will be the legacy, especially the idea of incubating local artists.”