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Curious Arts Festival: Sunday

A photograph of Simon Nixon, Misha Glenny, Paul Blezard, Caz Moore, and Simon Evans hosting The Breakfast Club

Disclaimer: I was invited to cover this festival on a press pass.

The Breakfast Club at Curious is a regular feature, held each morning of the festival. It is presented by Paul Blezard and a member of the team of magazine The Week, who are joined by other festival guests. On the Sunday the panel was Simon Nixon of The Times, Misha Glenny, Paul Blezard, Caz Moore (The Week), and Simon Evans. The Breakfast Club is a discussion of that day’s headlines, so there is a lot of politics involved but also lighter stories. This morning, Brexit was front and centre, with the talks about deals taking up many first pages (each panel member discusses stories from a certain newspaper). The news is a couple of weeks old now, so I’ll refrain from repeating it.

A photograph of Imogen Hermes Gowar at the signing table

At the age of eight, Imogen Hermes Gowar, author of The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock, wrote a book about a mermaid that she sent to a publisher, gaining her her first rejection letter. This she told Rowan Pelling and the assembled audience, her head dressed in a fun, colourful headband, the likes of which had started to permeate the festival late the previous day.

The author, who always tries to get an idea about someone from their objects rather than written sources, had worked in the British Museum where there is a ‘mermaid’ tail. She described it as a grotesque thing (it appears to be this one) and it inspired her; she looked at the idea of a gentleman from the past ordering a ‘mermaid’ and not getting what he’d expected. Even though, she said, the reality of the mermaid is horrible, we still have this idea of beauty.

Speaking of symbolism, Imogen said that the mermaid echoes the idea of a woman having personal agency, which was compelling in the context of the 18th century (in which she sets her story). 50,000 women – 1 in 5 – in London at that time, were involved in sex work. If one’s husband died, sex work was one of the only ways to survive. And it provided agency. It was part of both a luxurious and a wasteful world. A woman who started young might not make as much money as she grew older, but she’d have a lot of secrets in her arsenal she could use as blackmail.

Imogen referenced the life of Emma Hamilton: married to a Lord, later the mistress of Lord Nelson, and the muse of artist George Romney – she’d started out as a sex worker. The author also referenced Kitty Fisher, a prominent courtesan who was one of the first people to be famous for being famous. (She is mentioned in the letters of Frances Burney and Horace Walpole.) She researched sex workers through Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, an annual directory of prostitutes in London. A 1791 report of the List estimated a circulation of 8,000 copies a year.

A photograph of Dolly Alderton and Matt Haig on stage

I left Imogen’s talk to pop into the biggest tent where Matt Haig was talking to Dolly Alderton.

Matt is worried about the idea that he’s at a computer and there’s a wall between him and other people. He spoke of the way the internet can be a short-term distraction that has a long-term effect – ‘everything now is out to distract us’. Today’s young people, he said, are the most knowledgeable about the addiction, and are the best at taking breaks from electronic devices.

The author called the daily news “the drip-feed of doom,” a problem; the need to be completely up to date. He feels more knowledgeable when away from it all.

A photograph of Guy Gunaratne

Next up was Guy Gunaratne talking to Georgina Godwin. A couple of days after this talk Gunaratne’s book was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker.

Guy talked about his familial background. His father was originally from Sri Lanka, coming to England in 1981 and visiting bookstores, Foyles in particular, to learn English. Guy recently tweeted about his book being in Foyles and it went viral because people erroneously thought there was a connection to Windrush1. Guy was then asked by various outlets to talk about Windrush rather than his book, which he couldn’t do because his ancestry was not that of the generation in question.

What his book, In Our Mad And Furious City, is actually about is terrorism. The thoughts began for him when he thought that a person who was then thought a terrorist looked like someone he knew – the person was not someone he knew but this sparked the idea of an acquaintance with connections to terrorism. He thought of how the person could be him, could be anyone, saying we all have things that could turn us.

Guy felt it was more important to describe the feeling he had than to tell stories. He chose to write about this via 5 characters. He said it was an organic process: 3 characters came to him at first, and he followed them to see where they went. He went where he was led, talking about the method of writing wherein the character leads the author. Language is very important to him.

The estate in the book is inspired by Neasden, a suburb of north London, residence to many Muslims and Hindus. For his writing he embraced the fact that in places, nothing around you says you’re going to be anything special in life, and considered the idea that a person can think they can be the exception and work towards that. If a book is authentic, he said, you talk about readers’ experiences. If it comes from a marginalised community, it can become a way to re-marginalise. We have to be careful.

Originally a film maker, Guy used to pitch human rights stories to news outlets, films that he said would meander rather than have a definite point (he likes that kind of exploration in novels). What he likes about writing books is that it’s private and you’re in your own head space; he said that when you confront things it’s private, no one knows your thoughts. Writing was one of the furthest things away from what he thought he could do in life as a career, though he has been writing since childhood.

A photograph of Lemn Sissay

Lemn Sissay’s poetry reading started in a big way. Paul Blezard introduced him and it became comedic, with Lemn jumping on his back and later pretending to be Usain Bolt, the signature pose.

Lemn’s performance reminded me a lot of spoken word. In between readings he would tell funny anecdotes: “It’s easy to exaggerate when you’re a poet – ‘Lemn Sissay has performed all over the world!’… Wigan [note: where he used to live].” It was Lemn who was heckled by a Curious dog. He told an anecdote about meeting a woman in a restaurant for a date and, when she asked him what he did for a living, jumping up on the table to perform a big poem, which resulted in her having left by the time he had finished it, the yelling scaring her off.

His poems were great – moving, clever, various – but it was the note he ended on that will stay with me. He talked about his time as a fostered child and the ‘care’ he received from social workers – he recently won his court case against the man who took his parents away from him.

(Lemn’s mother arrived in Britain from Ethiopia, gave birth to him, and then foster parents were found to look after him while she went to finish her studies. However instead of Lemn being fostered, the social worker who took him told the people who came to look after him to treat it as an adoption. Once the couple had their own children, and felt that Lemn had become difficult – he was “eating cake without permission and staying out late at night” (Hattenstone, 2017) – they left him in a children’s home and told him there would be no contact. He subsequently suffered poor treatment in the care homes. It was only after he left the care system that he was able to find out about what happened. In his case file was a letter written by his mother to the original social worker, begging him to return her son. Lemn finally met her at 21 years of age.)

The poet has written plays and given talks about his childhood. Now he is making a documentary on the care system.

A photograph of Kate Mosse

“For me,” said Kate Mosse, responding to Rowan Pelling’s very first question, “it’s never the topic, it’s the place”.

Kate found out about the Huguenot diaspora that travelled to South Africa, then found a family that went by the same name as those in her first book, Labyrinth. Wine-making Huguenots were invited to South Africa; the French and South African wine industries come from each other. The research inspired a new quartet of novels – the session at Curious was for her newest novel, The Burning Chambers.

Kate loves the idea of her character going to work as normal, with history playing its part later in the day – in her version a war begins. “History is a view,” she said, “we will never know exactly what happened… We don’t need to know every statistic to know what people felt… those emotions don’t change.” She is interested in the people who don’t appear in the history books.

The author starts her stories with the research so it’s “just there” once she starts writing. She doesn’t plot, instead she just writes with the history behind her. Somewhat echoing what Guy Gunaratne had said a couple of hours previously, she said, “There’s always a moment when a lead character presents themselves.” She dislikes writing graphic violence but believes novelists have a responsibility to make it real – “You owe it to history not to make it pretty”.

Two interesting facts she told us:

  • By throwing the Huguenots from their country, France lost its craftsmen, because most craftsmen were from that group of people.
  • During the dissolution of the British monasteries, lots of French bookshops opened because they had access to all the books the English no longer wanted.

A photograph of Al Murray

Comedy headliner, Al Murray, walked onto the stage holding his customary pint of beer. The household name, who calls this persona The Pub Landlord, always ensures there will be biting views that can be laughed at. At Curious he brought the front rows into the proceedings, getting a man to go and get his wife a drink so that she could be asked about their relationship in his absence.

A photograph of Gareth Malone and team

As the sun started to dip and the sky clouded over, the final act of the festival, Gareth Malone, rehearsed with his team in the Gorse tent and then took a ten minute break whilst everyone swarmed in. Gareth is well known for his TV choir documentaries/series – in one he grouped together disadvantaged youths and in another, which spawned a hit single, he gathered a group of military wives – some in the military themselves – to sing at the Royal Albert Hall. But on this occasion, he shared the stage with a much smaller group of people – several members of a choir and a team of four beside him. They sung less musically-layered versions of famous songs – Sting’s Fields Of Gold, Avicii’s Wake Me Up, Toto’s Africa (the last was particularly excellent) – and a few of Malone’s own compositions.

I left as everything was winding down; the last parties and celebrations in force in the main area, the music booming and beautiful, and the food vans starting to pack away; as I prepared to walk through the box office for the final time, I was approached by a member of staff from the Purbeck van, who gave me a serving of my favourite ice-cream, left over from the day. It was a lovely gesture and a lovely way to end a fantastic weekend.

Footnotes

1 The Windrush generation are people from the Caribbean who emigrated to Britain in the mid 20th century. It is currently a huge story over here due to the political scandal of government departments telling those who have legally been here for decades that they are here illegally and must go home. More information can be found at Wikipedia.

Online References

Hattenstone, Simon (2017) ‘I was dehumanised’: Lemn Sissay on hearing his harrowing abuse report live on stage, The Guardian, accessed 10th August 2018.

 
Curious Arts Festival 2018: Saturday

A photograph of Georgina and Peter Godwin

Disclaimer: I was invited to cover this festival on a press pass.

Saturday began bright and early, the first of the two full days of the festival. In the Drift tent, nearest the house, festival mainstay Georgina Godwin introduced her brother, Peter Godwin, for a discussion about their childhoods in Zimbabwe in the context of Peter’s memoirs.

The world of Peter’s memoirs is one that people from those times would recognise; Peter noted that the Rhodesia of before looked different to other places on the African continent, that some said it looked like Scotland. That world has now disappeared; since the wars, everything has changed. Peter and Georgina were both exiled by the Zimbabwean government, Georgina for being part of a radio station that supported an opposing view, and Peter due to his writings about the regime. Georgina left thinking she’d be in the UK for 6 months; it’s been 17 years.

The siblings’ older sister and her husband were killed in a Rhodesian ambush; their next door neighbour also. Peter was accepted at Cambridge but was conscripted for the army in Rhodesia. He postponed his offer, finally going to Cambridge with 6 days in between the start of his classes and his time at war. Many white Zimbabweans came and went in 1980. By the end of the war, 1 in 4 white men were dead; the relative number of those killed exceeded the numbers for WWI.

A photograph of Dolly Alderton and Paul Blezard

When the siblings’ father died, only Peter could attend the funeral, and getting a funeral proved very difficult. After failing to get something relative to their father’s background (they had found out quite late in their time with him that their father was a Polish Jew), Peter asked a group of local Hindus if they would cremate him; there was no gas at the crematorium. The Hindus said that the father would have to convert, which of course stumped Peter as his father was dead. (Humour was found in death.) But due to Hindu beliefs on the cycle of life, this was possible and Peter was able to give his father a good send off.

Next up in the Drift tent was another literary talk, this time between broadcaster and now writer Dolly Alderton, and Paul Blezard. The subject was Dolly’s book, Everything I Know About Love, which Paul summarised as being about ‘the honesty of growing up and learning from it’. This particular memoir is about a time in Dolly’s life that was, at the time of writing, coming to a close. She believed it was important to talk about it.

A photograph of the Little Grape Jelly poetry collective

As a teenager, Dolly had wanted to spend time with adults rather than her peers; she’d prefer to be 80 than 14 again any day. During her teens she was a goth, wearing black as a protest against… well, she didn’t know exactly, but she did know she wanted meaning in her life, which she felt she didn’t get as she lived in a privileged London suburb.

Dolly worried about writing about alcohol, sex, and drugs, due to the ways people view women differently to men in this respect, but she isn’t ashamed of having glamourised that lifestyle, saying that moderation is the majority’s experience.

A photograph of Simon Evans

Of social lives she said that the problem with prioritising romantic relationships is that we know how to keep that spark going whereas we don’t know so much about how to keep friendships going; friendships can be harder work. She wishes she hadn’t spent her youth trying to make people happy; she was desperate for people to like her and views this action now as a way to try and control the world around you when you’re young.

Of therapy and depression, she said that examining ‘your stuff’ is becoming more and more a part of being human, and that 90 percent of people who are being difficult are in pain. Her advice to young women is to hold friendships close; being able to talk about your own past is very important.

Popping outside the main festival area, I joined for a time the poetry performance by Little Grape Jelly, three friends whose written collection is composed of emails in verse they wrote to one another, each person taking the theme of their email a piece of the one they were sent. It is an interesting concept that yielded a lot of variety. They called their collection Hell-p me. Their emails are posted as screenshots on their website.

A photograph of John Newman

The comedy on Saturday was headlined by Simon Evans who said he hadn’t had much time to prepare but made us laugh for a good while as he recounted the effects on ordinary life when you’ve injured yourself – he was in a leg brace. Bringing spilled teas, cats, and the forgetfulness that comes from too much to think about into the mix, he brought his jokes round in a circle, in turn bringing a nice uniqueness to the comedy evening.

In the music tent, after opening acts Outlya and Flyte, John Newman took to the stage, having very recently arrived back from his stag party in Ibiza, as he told us with pride. Dressed up for the occasion he performed an excellent set, wowing the festival goers who had decided to join him – most of them!

As I trundled my way back to the entrance late into the evening, a few music sets could be heard; Curious always providing more than one option, keeping the party going and the spirits flowing long into the night.

 
Book Launch: Rosie Travers’ The Theatre Of Dreams

A photograph of the book launch

Wednesday evening saw the launch of Rosie Travers’ debut, The Theatre Of Dreams. Held at the Boat House Cafe in Swanick, just a few miles from Southampton, it was a lovely setting – casual, with the marina surrounding us, and the weather was blissful. It was also packed – this photograph was taken very early on and does the evening no justice.

I met Rosie a couple of months ago at a local author meet up. She has had an interesting journey to publication; her first manuscript was accepted by a small publisher, but only on the condition that she changed the book to suit their house style and any future books followed a pattern. The book would have required a lot of rewriting. Before making her decision as to whether or not accept the offer, Rosie sent a pitch and then the first three chapters to a big publishing house. Whilst they didn’t take her on they said they liked her writing and so she rejected the offer she had had, choosing to carry on looking.

That book is not published but Rosie found a publisher, Crooked Cat, and The Theatre Of Dreams was taken on.

A photograph of the book launch

Rosie was inspired by the history of Lee Tower, a structure that no longer stands. Situated in Lee-On-Solent, a place the author rightly states isn’t well known beyond those who live nearby (it really should be more of a tourist spot, it’s lovely), her fictional version in the equally fictional Hookes Bay earned her an article in a local paper where Lee Tower was accounted for. The book as a whole is about a down-on-her-luck actress who is invited to take over the running of a former dance academy from a terminally ill 80 year old, whose invitation is not as nice as it seemed – the Lee Tower complex boasted a ballroom and cinema among other venues.

I’m yet to read the book in full; I bought a copy and have browsed through it; I’m looking forward to it. Rosie has a very good writing style and a knack for opening sentences. The very first is:

I met the man who orchestrated my downfall in a Soho nightclub.

She carries on in this strong manner for the next few chapters, making the most of the concept of good openings. I can feel a first analyses post coming on…

 
Curious Arts Festival 2018: Friday

A photograph of Emma Healey talking to readers at the signing table in the Waterstones tent

Disclaimer: I was invited to cover this festival on a press pass.

For the first literary event, Emma Healey spoke to Georgina Godwin, mostly on the subject of her recently released second novel, Whistle In The Dark.

Speaking of her relevant history, Healey started with the time she was a student of book binding. At that point she had decided she was never going to be a writer and didn’t want to do something academic as a career. This feeling came as a result of the depression she suffered in her teenage years1. She went on to do an MA in Creative Writing.

In the year between the publication of Elizabeth Is Missing and her journey writing her next book, Healey’s life changed substantially. She got married and had a baby – she wrote whilst her daughter was new born. On this subject, she said it was stressful, but her experiences hadn’t changed her perspective as a writer, instead they had given her nuggets of ideas she could use in her book.

The author had wanted to include teenage depression in this book without referring to her own experiences; she didn’t want to write about the illness from a teenage perspective. She thought it would be interesting to write from the mother’s point of view, and inform that point of view with the teenager’s thoughts and feelings.

Looking at social media, which plays a part in the book, Healey pointed out that the exploration she wanted to do was easier when written from the perspective of someone to whom it was alien, and so she chose the mother, Jen. She was interested in the idea of Jen looking at daughter Lana’s online accounts and thinking there would be information there that would help her understand her.

Between readings – Whistle In The Dark is written in short chapters/vignettes – we also heard about the inspiration for Elizabeth Is Missing: one of Healey’s grandmothers suffers from dementia; sparking the idea for the book, she had asked if her friend was missing. The rest of the content was inspired by Healey’s other grandmother, who doesn’t have dementia.

Healey doesn’t write chronologically; she stated that this works for her but it is inefficient. Finishing books is difficult. She prefers as characters ‘ordinary people’ who have great things happen to them than characters who start the book in a great position.

After a very welcomed ice cream from the Purbeck van (they warrant a shout-out because they were lovely in general, and on the last evening gave me a serving of my favourite for free), I popped into Jamie Reid’s discussion about Patrice des Moutis, an insurance businessman who was a compulsive gambler in the 1950s to 1970s. With a backlist including a couple of books about horse racing, Reid is well-read on the subject of gambling as a whole. (His book on des Moutis is Monsieur X.)

Reid spoke of a man hounded by the French government and the media, who would have found it easier to do what he did (he was also a gangster) because of his looks and charm. His wife came from a respectable background and was uneasy at first by the idea of gambling but then starting putting bets on for him. Of gambling in general, the writer said that online gambling poses huge problems for society, that it’s too easy to spend more money when you’re doing so on a phone. The change from deciding yourself to letting a machine choose for you is sad.

A photograph of bülow performing at Curious

Whilst the children got bedtime stories, the evening’s entertainment for adults began with comedy and continued with some fantastic music in the Gorse tent. I stayed for the first set performed by bülow, lowercase intentional, who I’d describe as somewhere between Katy B and Dua Lipa vocally and, at least live, not too far from Ellie Goulding. (Studio recordings sound more like Lipa and Anne-Marie.)

For the first afternoon at the festival it was spot on. Enough things happening to ease you into the weekend and get you excited about the rest of your time at Pylewell.

Footnotes

1 Healey was almost sectioned for depression. She had made a number of suicide attempts and her doctor had recommended a hospital; she was turned away because it was for adults (Walsh, 2018).

Online References

Walsh, Rowena (2018), Author Emma Healey draws on history with depression in new book, Irish Examiner, accessed 1st August 2018.

 
Curious Arts Festival 2018: An Overview

A photograph of the large photo frame at Curious Arts Festival

Disclaimer: I was invited to cover this festival on a press pass.

This year’s Curious Arts Festival took place over the weekend at Pylewell Park in the New Forest, an estate that opens its gardens to attendees, and its house to the speakers, each summer. Organised for the first weekend of the summer holidays, Curious is an intimate luxury boutique festival that offers interesting talks, workshops, and lifestyle-related classes for the whole family, and positively welcomes well-behaved dogs (who are in turn welcome to heckle the comedians if they so wish, and did so on Sunday). From Friday afternoon to Monday morning (technically Sunday night as that’s when the last event takes place; on Monday morning everyone packs up and leaves) there were a great variety of things happening, enough that I was still discovering new things to do late on the Sunday. Numbers are in the hundreds, everything is within a couple minutes walk – generally under a minute – and the festival is such that if you wanted to come without going to any of the programmed events, you would have just as good a time.

I last attended the festival in 2016. It has grown since then in a lovely, organic way. The intimacy of the festival has not changed; the same relaxed nature remains, and the space is the same.

A photograph of the bar area

And these are perhaps the best features of the festival when looking at it from a general viewpoint – at Curious you buy a day or weekend ticket that entitles you to access all events that day or every event in the programme respectively. You bring your tent, caravan, or choose to glamp, and then everything else is there for the taking. Want to attend part of one talk and then saunter over to another? Absolutely fine. Want to bring an ice cream or burger with you? Go ahead. Events have a listed start time but these are not strict by any means and the set-up means you can be very early or a bit late. The speakers wait a few minutes for people to arrive.

A photograph of the Waterstones tent

In that regard, something I noticed this year, that was confirmed when a fellow attendee brought it up in conversation, was the attention to detail of the scheduling. Ninety percent of the events I – and she – wanted to attend, did not conflict in their timings with others. Evidently a lot of time was spent on thinking about what people would like to see and it had an excellent result. (This is not to say previous years did not have a good schedule because they did – it’s just that this one stood out.)

A photograph of an audience waiting for a concert to start

Just like the other subtle changes, the genre of the festival has broadened. Literature, comedy, and music are the biggest elements – are the ones with scheduled events – and have been before, but the previous leaning towards literature has moved to a more equal balance between the three. There were fewer literary talks than in 2016, but it wasn’t by much, and the extra variety of events created by the balance rounded the festival off nicely.

A photograph of the French crepe van

Outside food is not permitted but there is a good range of food vans and kiosks to purchase from. The festival supports all sorts of diets and food choices. This year the burger vans jostled for space with the Thai cuisine, neighbouring a fish and chips vendor, a Vegan burger option, and gluten-free choices. This year the crepes were sweet, but also savory. There were all-natural ice lollies, the Purbeck ice-cream that powered my afternoons, a number of bars, and very, very, good coffee. The festival as a whole is eco-minded, with more recycling bins than ones labelled ‘landfill’ and a good few food vendors using recyclable products.

A photograph of the colourful Kanga Spa signpost

Away from the main events, bohemian clothes stores, craft workshops, and giant versions of dominoes and Jenga, sat the Kanga Spa which offered morning Yoga, meditation, massages and other therapies. They also held tea ceremonies which I was very tempted by. They arrived with their very own teepees – you had to bend down to get into the reception – and proved very popular, their set-up its own little sanctuary, near enough the main stages for you to feel part of the festival, but far enough for a bit of quiet and privacy. Unlike 2016, where the options were more integrated, Kanga is its own outfit with training courses in India and events at the London School of Tea.

A photograph of a choir in robes singing amongst the crowd in the bar area

By mid Saturday almost everyone was in floaty clothing and shorts, and flower garlands adorned heads. Paul Blezard, a regular speaker at Curious and otherwise, said that at the festival it was either pouring with rain or burning hot. This year, in keeping with the UK heatwave that’s well into its second month now, it was scorching.

A photograph of a group of men in historic costume holding vintage bicycles

On Saturday and Sunday mornings, Blezard presents a round up of the days newspapers along with guests, and this year there was a similar round up for children. Children get their own tent – during the festival this morphed into two tents (extra tents and event spaces slowly increase over the weekend), bedtime stories every night, craft activities, mini adventures (for example I came across a man dressed as a stereotypical cook leading a bustling crowd of children around the site), and a couple of talks.

And speaking of mini adventures, this year the dogs had a moment to play with each other and perform tricks. (Owners are asked to keep their dogs on leads throughout the festival.)

A photograph of an acoustic guitar duo

For book lovers, the genre tends to be literary and poetry, whether contemporary, historical, thriller and so on. Comedy is a mixture of well-known names and up-and-coming artists. The music is very broad – folk, acoustic, and then there are quirky choices and well-known stars.

There is a uniqueness to Curious that makes it one to seriously consider attending. The size, the setting, and the nearness of everything (even your tent is only between a minute and 3 minutes walk away) make it stand out from the rest. I highly recommend it. Next year’s date is 19-21 July. Tickets and more information will be available from the website.

A photograph of a wooden structure showcasing a poem that says 'Here comes the wild sky, the pounding horses of love defeat the timid Gods of death'

A note about access – it isn’t great due to the setting (some of the fields have lots of potholes), but people do visit with scooters and sticks and travel around the site at a fair speed. Chairs in the tents can be moved to make space for a wheelchair. In the largest tent, where the sound equipment required its own stage at the back, attendees in wheelchairs were able to park up next to the engineers with an unobstructed view of the stage.

 

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