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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.


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.

Claire Fuller – Bitter Orange

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When friendships sour.

Publisher: Fig Tree (Penguin)
Pages: 274
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-34182-7
First Published: 2nd August 2018
Date Reviewed: 30th July 2018
Rating: 4/5

When a historic estate is purchased in 1969, the new owner asks Frances to stay at the house for a time and create a report on a bridge in the grounds. Upon arrival, she meets Cara and Peter, a couple who are there so that Peter can report on the house itself. Cara’s moods change quickly, her stories fantastical, and Peter sometimes seems overwhelmed by her actions. Staying in the attic above the dilapidated rooms Cara and Peter have been assigned, Frances finds a Judas Hole that gives her further information about their strange relationship. The couple captivate her, Peter in particular, but as she starts to find her rooms amiss, she wonders what is going on.

Bitter Orange is Fuller’s very fine third novel. It’s a tale that balances the aspects of a great summer read with a fantastically subtle suspense thread that may well surprise you at the end but in a good, literary, manner.

The book revolves around Frances’ acquaintance and interactions with Cara and Peter but particularly the former. Told in the past tense, we see an older, very ill, Frances looking back on her life to the time when she was impressionable, feeling grown up but with mistakes and misunderstandings she was yet to mature out of, and easy to win over. Coming across at times as somewhat of an unreliable narrator, Frances’ younger thoughts of the couple can be at odds – though not too much, which is where the ‘somewhat’ of the ‘unreliable narrator’ comes in – with what the reader sees under the surface.

Suffice it to say the characterisation is very good. There is a lot of depth in Frances as a character – you see a lot of her personality, insecurities, and Fuller spends a good amount of time showing the effects of Frances’ childhood on her adulthood. Cara and Peter are well drawn, too, and only held back from being easier to read due to us knowing them through Frances’ understanding of them; Cara the self-described Italian who creates melodrama in church, tells stories of death, and makes awful threats, and Peter who, seen though Frances’ rose-tinted eyes which may or may not tell the truth, is constantly trying to keep the peace, stop Cara going off the rails, and saving himself.

Woven in carefully, the effects of Frances’ childhood are excellently explained. The older Frances speaks to the reader (or to herself – she is talking because an old acquaintance is asking about her life but whether she’s actually voicing the thoughts are not always known) of the emotional and psychological abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother – the major reason for her lack of understanding when it comes to reading the personalities and interactions of others and making the correct choices. It’s a sobering story that highlights how abuse that is often not recognised can impact someone’s sense of self so fundamentally and for years and years after the abuse has finished, defining the novel in a quiet way.

Set in August and published in August, late summer is a great time to read this sun-drenched book. It has all the breezy laziness of a heat-glazed day and all the fantastic history and surprises of a good historical fiction, the setting of the 1960s interlaced with stories and ideas of a house from an earlier period, with spooky goings on that would be right at home in a ghost story.

The fruits may not taste very good but the packaging is brilliant; Bitter Orange is a great novel that rewards its reader handsomely with luscious writing and literary pleasures… which is just as well because by the time you come to the end you’re going to want something sweet you help you mull over the final revelations.

I received this book for review.

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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.

A Day At Beaulieu, New Forest

A photograph of Beaulieu Palace House

Please note: the lens I took with me this visit turned out to be entirely the wrong one for the weather and light in the house so I have supplemented them with photos from a previous trip in June 2013. The arrangement of furniture in the house has changed since that day but the gardens are much the same.

Last Sunday morning and early afternoon I spent at Beaulieu (‘byu-lee’) in the New Forest. It was to my knowledge the hottest day of the year so far here, the temperature reaching 29 degrees Celsius at some points.

A photograph of the Abbey's arch

Beaulieu is an estate that offers a lot to do and it’s always packed with visitors. It’s best known for its National Motor Museum which was created by the 3rd baron Montagu of Beaulieu in 1952, whose statue stands outside the entrance to the museum building. The Montagu family still own the estate, living at Palace House, the historic home on the edge of the estate, by the river. It was originally built in the 1200s as the gatehouse of the abbey, and following Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries the estate was purchased by Thomas Wriothesley – whose portrait is in the house – then passed down through the Montagu family.The house is partly open to visitors; not surprisingly, it’s my favourite element of the place. (And currently, there is a garden set piece dedicated to Alice Liddell, the supposed inspiration for Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, who visited Beaulieu as an adult. Image at the bottom of this post.)

A photograph of the Abbey

Beaulieu Abbey is medieval, founded in the early 1200s by King John. It was the residence of a fair few Cistercian monks and nowadays it’s rather haunted. You can view part of the inside but the upper floor is solely for event hire. (In recent years I attended a reception there; the hall is dark as expected but worth seeing if you get the chance – all beams and rafters.) You can also walk along the foundations of the abbey church, outside.) The surviving rectory serves as the parish church.

A photograph of the monorail

Apart from the attractions I’ve already noted, Beaulieu has an elevated monorail that takes you from near the entrance of the estate, through the eves of the Motor Museum and up to the Abbey. A kitchen garden is accessible. And the restaurant features a lot of choices – on this day I favoured the slushies, which were invariably crowned best item on the menu.

A photograph of some of the Jaguars

And on this day about a hundred Jaguars were parked up by the main thoroughfare, an added attraction. (The Motor Museum contains many old vehicles – early and record breaking cars, cars from films and television. The Weasley’s Ford Anglia from The Chamber of Secrets resides there as does Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. There’s also a tent dedicated to Top Gear experiments.)

A photograph of the dining room

But back to the house; it’s lovely to walk around and this visit I noticed more rooms were open to the public than in years gone by; not that there were ever few rooms – for a house still lived in the access is very generous. You are welcome to take photographs, invited to in fact. The welcome in general is super; Beaulieu staff are on hand to tell you about the rooms or give you a tour, and there are lots of information boards sporting text from the Montagu family themselves. You never have to wonder who features in a painting and whilst areas are naturally cordoned off it doesn’t feel at all restrictive.

A photograph of the staircase

As I walked up the grand stairs, a member of staff asked if I had a similar staircase at home – I kind of understood where he was coming from because I did nip up there quickly – I told him I’d been to many historic houses. After a number of different staircase designs you’re prepared for anything.

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Patrick Gale – A Place Called Winter

Book Cover

But a book as lovely as summer.

Publisher: Tinder Press (Headline)
Pages: 338
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-20529-2
First Published: 1st January 2015
Date Reviewed: 6th July 2018
Rating: 5/5

In the early 1900s, Harry is in an asylum and given forced bathing treatments until he is brought to a more holistic treatment centre for people whose lives and personalities do not fit the social norm. Now in hypnotherapy he has a chance to find out why he was in the asylum in the first place; the mental journey back will take him from Britain to Canada, from family man to outcast, inherited wealth to pioneering homesteader.

A Place Called Winter is an epic historical with a similar atmosphere (due to both time period and writing) as Anna Hope’s Wake, though the stories are very different. A book with a definite main plot but lots of supporting elements, Gale’s novel offers a sumptuous escape into history alongside a hard story of discrimination.

It would be impossible to talk about this book without revealing the main plot point, as it’s too important; Harry is gay – not always conscious of the fact, or at least not to the reader – living in a time when it was illegal to act on it. When his affair with another man is discovered, Harry’s given two options – leave his family and country or be turned in – and so the book moves on in its location but not its look at Harry’s sexuality. Gale has populated his novel with good characters, both people who are simply likeable – most who would welcome the changes we are making today – as well as those who make hassle; these ‘villains’ at good at presenting the problems and reasoning in the historical context. As much as this is a plot and situational-driven book, the characteration is superb.

Amongst the plot points related to Harry’s sexuality is Gale’s study of other aspects of life that were deemed inappropriate. Time is spent on Harry’s friendship with Ursula, a cross-dresser who in their Native Canadian tribe was living a life revered by their kin. As Canada was taken over by the British, Ursula’s ‘wrong’ way of living meant she was moved to an asylum.

Gale’s writing is wonderful; it adds to the historical atmosphere and is just a joy to read. The information he provides on homesteading and the beginnings of the changed Canada is fascinating, giving more time to a part of the American continent that’s often overlooked in this way.

The novel, told in two narratives, comes to a head as Harry remembers why he was sent to the asylum. It’s not as strong an answer as you might expect, but the threads tied by its revelation are lovely and Gale gives his character a good end, despite everything that has happened previously. And whilst the reason for Harry’s treatment isn’t as strong as the rest of the book, the previous chapters, which constitute an ending themselves, are. Harry finds his people, Gale demonstrating what we know from historical evidence, that social rules didn’t fit everyone. It’s a story that has hints of Kate Chopin, and the better concepts of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and it’s great.

A Place Called Winter is brilliant. Go and pick it up; it’s engaging from the first few pages. Any more words included in this review would be superfluous.

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