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Curious Arts Festival 2016

A photograph of the Curious Arts Festival

This is a long post: I’ve included both an overview and brief notes on some of the talks. And please excuse the blur on the photos, I’ve a bit of fluff on the lens that I’ve tried to edit out as best I can.

I spent last weekend at the Curious Arts Festival, hosted at Pylewell Park in the New Forest. The festival is a boutique celebration of literature, music, comedy, and, on the first evening, opera. Set in the acres of the Park, just beyond the house and its garden, the festival is a casual affair; what is lovely about it and what sets it apart is the relative laissez-faire running of it – once you’ve purchased your weekend or day ticket and set up camp (you can bring your own tent or choose to ‘glamp’) the festival is your oyster. Want to pop on over to one talk but only for a few minutes because actually you really fancy a box of halloumi fries at this time? You can do so because the talk is one of many and you can attend whichever you like, whenever you like.

A photograph of one of the smaller event tents

This runs over into the talks themselves. ‘Shall we begin now or wait a moment?’ Rowan Pelling asked Deborah Moggach as they waited in the audience seats for their session. They were set for five minutes later but no one really minds if things run a bit ahead or behind schedule. There were on occasion problems, such as everyone sitting down for a talk to be told the author would be half an hour late, and the best way to find out where a rescheduled change-of-tent talk is taking place is to walk round the site – but that’s no bother when the site is small. It takes less time to walk about the festival site than it does to walk back to the box office tent. Phone signal is of course patchy, as to be expected.

A photograph of the Nyetimber bus

Twelve event tents and more eateries than you could plausibly sample fill out the area contained by the estate’s small stone walls. A vintage bus, styled or truly old I’m not sure, is at the front, ready to take your breath away as you first enter, and food and drink is helpfully divided by type – coffee and breakfast provided by Tea Sympathy in a lovely bohemian tent, champagne is the bus’s domain, burgers another van, amazing quiche-based pies by Higgidy (you can find them in supermarkets), and the afore-mentioned halloumi fries in another. (There were 10 more food options at the very least.)

A photograph of Polly Samson

Every day there would be a sonnet-a-thon session where various people on the line up would read 30 or so sonnets at a time so that by the end of the festival the entirety of Shakespeare’s output in this regard had been spoken aloud. There was the morning news hosted by Paul Blezard and people from The Week, bedtime stories for the children, and the music and comedy finished up the evenings. Children of all ages are welcome as are dogs and whilst there are no events for dogs – the yoga is for the adults – there is plenty for the children. As Lucy Rose, who performed on the Friday evening recounted, “this is the poshest festival I’ve been to.” There was even a cricket match going on.

A photograph of the Curious Arts Festival

I would recommend this festival to those who love the idea of a festival but not the reality of the famous ones. The Curious Arts Festival is a good option for those who prefer the thought of something more laid back, quieter but still fun, and truly for all the family. Everything is so close together that the first afternoon I was there I was confused by how silent and unpopulated it was – turns out everyone was still in their tents and caravans (you can bring those, too) because it was only a minute walk from accommodation to events.

Here are my notes:

A photograph of Rowan Pelling and Deborah Moggach

Deborah Moggach, writer of the book that was turned into The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and Rowan Pelling, did indeed decide to start their talk right away. Speaking of her newest work, Moggach cited three global inspirations of which I caught two: Africa – some have phones, others have no electricity and have to charge items at stores; China – couples are increasingly infertile due to the pollution; and Pimlico – where the heroine lives. She said that the job of a novelist is to get behind the story we show the world and that you’re always trying to earn the freedom to write what you want to write. She’s always an extra in her films; she thought the The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was terrible.

A photograph of Paul Blezard and Celia Imrie

Celia Imrie arrived to talk to Paul Blezard. I’m not the target audience for her work but I was introduced to Dinnerladies during childhood and so greatly looked forward to seeing her. Imrie has set her novels in Nice; she has a flat there and considers it the most beautiful city in the world. Her fiction work arose from an event she attended in the city at which she met the Editor-in-Chief of Bloomsbury who suggested she try fiction since she had a memoir under her belt. She prefers having finished it to being deep in the process. She loves the feel of a real book and doesn’t have an ereader. There weren’t many books in the house, growing up: “I feel I’m still catching up,” she said. Of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which Blezard couldn’t not ask about, she said, “Can you imagine being sent a script set in India with that cast?… I couldn’t not go to India.” Due to the presence of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, they were all spoiled when filming on location, which was lovely, but then they’d leave the gates and there would be a girl with cabbage leaves sat on the floor. The experience was sobering.

A photograph of S J Watson and Renee Knight

Following this were S J Watson and Renee Knight. Knight’s Disclaimer has been published in 30 languages. The premise came fully-formed to her but she didn’t know what the secret would be. The book took 18 months to complete, from first draft to final edit. Knight doesn’t like the term ‘chick-noir’, citing it as rude, though she acknowledges that it was a good way to market books at the time. Neither author believes in genre, Watson feels it’s restrictive and Knight says it’s easy to defy it.

Before Watson’s book, Before I Go To Sleep, was acquired by the publisher, his agent had asked him where he ‘was’ in it. He came to realise there was a bit of him on every page. He hadn’t realised it was a psychological thriller; once that was said to him he figured the idea was to improve the manuscript with the genre in mind. We feel the story more if it’s closer to home – realising the person one trusted isn’t worthy of that trust – said Watson. It’s the chill factor, said Knight, it’s something you can imagine happening to you.

A photograph of the Curious Arts Festival

I didn’t get a good photograph of the next author, so here’s another festival shot. Joanna Cannon, author of The Trouble With Goats And Sheep, and agent Carrie Plitt, spent some time discussing mental health. Cannon wrote her book in part to give a voice to people who live on the periphery of life. She’s always been interested in people who aren’t accepted for their difference, and interested in psychiatry (her day job). She spoke of the ‘strange criteria we use to judge people’ and how it is to be at the end of that judgement. For her her character has to come first: “I’d rather we look at them as people, not diagnoses”.

Her first day involving certifying a death, working as a doctor she found she had to process things that happened and so started a blog; that’s where the book came from, the positive reaction to the blog encouraging her to write a novel. She would write at odd hours, at lunch, because she didn’t have the head space after work. She set her book during the 70s heatwave because there needed to be something that caused difficulties that led to communities pulling together. The title of the book wasn’t supposed to sound religious but she did say, “religion to me is something that brings people together”.

A photograph of Andrew Miller and Paul Blezard

Andrew Miller: “When I’m writing I feel engaged in the world in a way I don’t when I’m just mooching about.” He wanted to write a book wherein you wouldn’t know what it was – this is his current novel, The Crossing. He spoke of writing courses, how he worries that people will write defensively rather than vulnerably as a result of them. Echoing many thoughts thus far, he said it’s a pity books are divided by genre and by awards. That said, of awards he noted that even if you just win one, you can cite that on your book covers forever. As for writing advice he said not to rush stuff out – “writing doesn’t have to happen quickly and it’s better when it isn’t.”

A photograph of Kirsty Lang and Louisa Young

Here’s something interesting about Louisa Young: she grew up in J M Barrie’s house; her family owned it for around 100 years. The information in her book about war veterans came from her grandmother who wrote about reconstruction surgery, information Young saved up for 25 years before she sat down to write. She said that her character, Riley, is the boy she’d have liked to have been if she’d been male. A tomboy, a biker (though she was indeed a biker and rode a Harley Davidson).

A photograph of Georgina Godwin and Pettina Gappah

Pettina Gappah’s book, The Book Of Memory, was inspired by her own experience as one of the first black kids in Zimbabwe to integrate into an all-white school. Zimbabwe was the last colony to be freed – Georgina Godwin noted they never had apartheid and Gappah added it was a half-hearted one because there weren’t enough white people there to run everything so black people had to be included for some things.

We had a false sense of luxury growing up, said Gappah, when Godwin spoke of two rooms in houses, the second called the spare. Initially the wealthy people were white but as time has moved on more black people are living well; Gappah spoke of the replacement of the white middle class with a black middle class that was modelled on it. I wanted to write about race without writing about race, Gappah said (which reminded me a little of Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird and ‘passing’), so I wrote about a black albino, a person who looks white without the privilege that comes with it.

Until 1982, black women in Zimbabwe were considered minors. They couldn’t open bank accounts, they needed a guardian. Even though women can now marry without permission, this hasn’t happened on a cultural level. I’m high on that scale, said Gappah, because I have a PhD, but then I have a child out of wedlock and that’s not good… though that shows I’m productive!

A photograph of Georgina Godwin and S J Parris

Someone once advised S J Parris to have a day job whilst writing otherwise by her third book she’d be writing about writing a book as that would be her only experience.

Parris – AKA Stephanie Merritt – spoke about character Bruno. In true life, in medieval times, he was asking questions of the Catholic church that they didn’t like. He’s celebrated now as a pioneer of free thought; he was the first person to suggest the universe is infinite. He questioned the divinity of Christ. That he is a spy in her books is down to artistic license – historians think it unlikely in reality. She spoke of word disparity – no one knew about ‘paranoid’ or ‘hysterical’ until the 19th century, so if you need to use the idea you have to find another way to say it.

A photograph of Carrie Plitt and Dan Richards

Lastly, here are a few notes from Dan Richards’ discussion with Carrie Plitt. Richards’ talk about his book, Climbing Days, was compelling and very funny, and I wanted to stay ‘present’ and not distract with scribbling – we were a small group. (The book is a biography/climbing/history mash-up – it’s about the writer’s great-great-aunt Dorothy’s life as a mountaineer in the early 20th century and his journey to find out about her and follow in her footsteps. It’s my current read and I highly recommend it.)

  • As an Edwardian lady, Dorothy had to get her brothers to learn to climb, so she would be able to go climbing herself. She left them far behind on trails because they weren’t really suited to it.
  • When climbing together, Richards’ dad decided to jettison the heaviest items in their pack, which the writer later realised was the food; so they ate soup with snow, a small bit of chocolate, and a bag of prunes that had survived the jettisoning.
  • Richards and his dad were not prepared for the realities of the climb. The writer said that there’s nothing more shameful than almost killing someone because you do something you shouldn’t be doing… like climbing, for example. You need the right insurance for a helicopter or you won’t get one when you need it.

A photograph of Jake Issac

For music, amongst others there was Lucy Rose, as said, and Jake Issac, who was amazing. On the comedy front, amongst others, there was Chris Martin – yes, someone asked if he was from Coldplay – and Zoe Lyons. A lot of laughter was had.

My thanks to Kate for inviting me, also the team at the box office, the wonderful people working at the Waterstones tent, the Tea Sympathy tent, the Higgidy pie van, and the people who very kindly offered me a lift up the road on a swelteringly hot day.

The rest of my photos:

A photograph of the Curious Arts Festival

A photograph of the Curious Arts Festival

A photograph of the Curious Arts Festival

A photograph of the Curious Arts Festival

A photograph of Ted Reilly

A photograph of Lucy Rose

A photograph of Zoe Lyons

A photograph of Carol Ann Duffy

A photograph of Meg Rosoff


Mary Mayfield

July 29, 2016, 10:09 am

I was there too – and at many of the same events. Wish I’d known.

Tracy Terry

July 29, 2016, 2:21 pm

Sounds like an amazing event. Thank you for sharing it with us.


July 29, 2016, 5:13 pm

what a wonderful event this sounds – far less ‘organised’ than the Hay but still attracting such big names. am rather envious


July 29, 2016, 6:36 pm

This looks wonderful :-)

April Munday

July 29, 2016, 7:39 pm

That looks tremendously civilised and so close. Do you have to camp, or could you do it by car or train each day?

Mary Mayfield

August 1, 2016, 7:42 pm

We’ve about reached the end of our postings about the event, so I put up one extra with links to all the others

Having now read the whole of your article we must have been walking past each other constantly! I’m rather jealous of your photos -they’re MUCH better than mine as I was relying on my phone


August 25, 2016, 11:56 am

Mary: Ah! Next time!

Tracy Terry: It was lovely. I recommend it.

BookerTalk: It’s true, it isn’t, but then the more casual nature almost sets it in a different category.

Jessica: It is. One for you next year, perhaps?

April: Yes. You don’t have to camp though most seemed to. They said there was plenty of parking and they weren’t joking. Train wouldn’t be easy unless you were okay with a fair walk there and back.



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