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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.


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.


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