Michael Dawson obituary

Other lives: Arts administrator who founded the Ilkley Literature festival in 1973

In the dedication of the copy of Cave Birds belonging to my father, Michael Dawson, its author, Ted Hughes, wrote: “For Michael, who provided the incubator.” It was a fitting tribute to Michael, who has died aged 90. He was founder of the Ilkley Literature festival – and in 1975, he built his second programme around Hughes and his work.

Of four Hughes events, Cave Birds was the most dramatic. Michael had commissioned Hughes and the artist Leonard Baskin to create words and images to develop the narrative started in their 1970 collaboration, Crow. The result was Cave Birds, a work that is dramatic and visceral in both performed and published forms.

Read by actors, to a capacity crowd, the performance reduced one audience member to involuntary screaming. Scholars described that year as the most productive of Hughes’ poetic life.

Michael Dawson at his typewriter.
Michael Dawson at his typewriter. Photograph: Barry Shingleton

The festival was shaped by Michael during the 1971 postal strike – six letterless weeks rendered normal work impossible. By day he ran the Yorkshire Arts Association, undertaking the work of the Arts Council in that county.

His plan inspired townsfolk to support the inaugural event the following year – blessed by JB Priestley, and presided over by WH Auden.

For a decade he directed festivals during his holidays, returning for two further outings in the 1980s. He insisted on writers of international calibre and staged performances by Phyllis Bentley, Philip Larkin, Malcolm Bradbury, Ian McEwan, Alan Bennett, Lisa St Aubin de Terán, Rumer Godden and many more.

Michael was born in Bradford, West Yorkshire, to Maurice, who worked for Barclays bank, and Ada (nee Lightowlers). After attending King Edward VII school in Sheffield, my father studied fine art at Newcastle University and worked briefly in graphic design. More formative was his instinct to organise: he established two film societies before he left Newcastle, and a youth club.

Stints as a youth leader, teacher and adult education manager followed, as well as service in the Royal Marines. In 1967 he established Greater London Arts, funded by a precept on the London boroughs to promote culture. Its Yorkshire equivalent beckoned in 1969 as London authorities swung rightward, leaving him out of step.

While at Newcastle, he met Megan Jones. They married in 1959, and enjoyed a strong and supportive life together.

He left Yorkshire in 1991, living happily in Bath, Ludlow and finally Stamford, running a successful pop-up books business and writing a book about gardens in Ludlow. After Megan’s death, he found new happiness with Patricia Cathcart.

She survives him, as do two sons, Ben and me, and seven grandchildren. Another son, Adam, died in 2004.

Tim Dawson

The GuardianTramp

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