LEAP­ING OFF THE PAGE Why lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals are no longer dusty gath­er­ings for the book­ish

In the heart of the most in­spir­ing lo­ca­tions, with imag­i­na­tive talks, the­atre work­shops, food, mu­sic and fash­ion events, this year’s lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals do more than sim­ply cel­e­brate the joy of the writ­ten word

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Contents - By SUSIE BOYT

Lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals used to be a lit­tle strained and painful. A small amount of ex­cru­ci­a­tion came with the ter­ri­tory. You would sit in a draughty tent with a scone while an anx­ious nov­el­ist, too sen­si­tive for this world, read from her book with a look in her eye that hinted she would rather be eaten by sharks. I have heard that talk. I have even given it! How times have changed.

Vis­i­tors to this sum­mer’s lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals can ex­pect set­tings of breath­tak­ing nat­u­ral beauty, lo­ca­tions steeped in the his­tory of the artists and writ­ers who have gone be­fore them, as well as acute in­sights into the nuts and bolts of the cre­ative process.

You may come away with new ideas for a project of your own, or be re­minded of how splen­did a row of hol­ly­hocks can look. The re­ally grand fes­ti­vals might make you feel a touch of the ‘Why don’t I have a Vic­to­rian glazed peach house in which to com­pose my son­nets?’, but this is not a bad griev­ance to nurse in these times.

Cru­cially, the na­ture of the talks them­selves has changed. It is un­usual now to see a writer alone on a stage. Events have be­come more in­volv­ing and imag­i­na­tive. At the Hamp­stead The­atre Fes­ti­val this spring, I joined a small­ish au­di­ence in a re­hearsal­room com­plete with props, as we de­vised some scenes for a his­tory play about Brexit with Howard Bren­ton him­self.

With­out doubt, fes­ti­vals have em­braced the the­atri­cal. This makes sense, as many writ­ers feel that mak­ing up char­ac­ters and sit­u­a­tions and bring­ing them to life is not so very dif­fer­ent to the work that ac­tors do. At the Port Eliot Fes­ti­val a few sum­mers ago, I sat on stage in a beau­ti­ful walled gar­den half filled with golden light and ‘acted’ a mar­riage-coun­selling scene from one of my own nov­els with two real ac­tors rep­re­sent­ing an aw­ful cou­ple called the Brain­trees who were al­ways at each other’s throats.

The Port Eliot Fes­ti­val has a tremen­dous sense of style, a re­laxed, old-world glam­our com­bined with some­thing sharper and more for­ward-think­ing, the louche and the rig­or­ous, the best of all worlds. Mostly set in the idyl­lic grounds of a Cor­nish stately home dat­ing back to the 12th cen­tury, the fes­ti­val’s events re­mind us that life is some­thing, first and fore­most, to be cel­e­brated. This year’s pro­gramme prom­ises a col­lec­tion of ‘artists, mu­si­cians, writ­ers, co­me­di­ans, per­form­ers, thinkers, mak­ers, pro­tag­o­nists and ag­i­ta­tors’, in­clud­ing Michèle Roberts, Thomasina Miers and Eimear McBride. There are ac­tiv­i­ties ded­i­cated to food, fash­ion and sci­ence, and there will be more than a nod to the 50th an­niver­sary of the orig­i­nal ‘Sum­mer of Love’.

The Charleston Fes­ti­val in Sus­sex is an­other sum­mer oc­ca­sion brim­ming with de­lights. As an au­thor, the ex­cite­ment of turn­ing up at Charleston and be­ing served tea in the largely un­changed kitchen, where Dun­can Grant and Vanessa Bell would have drunk theirs, is hard to over­es­ti­mate. It is a highly stim­u­lat­ing en­vi­ron­ment, the at­mos­phere charged with a pow­er­ful cre­ative zeal. On a tour of the house, you are im­me­di­ately aware that its for­mer sto­ried res­i­dents ate, drank and slept paint. You start to won­der why any­one would have white­gloss kitchen units when you could plump for cup­board doors adorned with still-lifes of flow­ers and fruit. What could be bet­ter than a nude por­trait in tones of vi­o­let and crim­son, in­spired by Delacroix, painted on the bath panel to keep you com­pany as you soak? I al­ways leave Charleston de­ter­mined to recre­ate Vanessa Bell’s din­ing-room in my own home, in par­tic­u­lar the large round oak table dec­o­rated with the most per­fect plas­ter pink and egg-shaped yel­low discs and white cir­cles set against a scal­loped grey-blue back­ground.

Of course, sit­ting in the kitchen with a se­lec­tion of today’s writ­ers and artists can be a lit­tle brac­ing. This is a house that has al­ways been in­hab­ited by the tal­ented highly strung. Mild com­ments can seem scan­dalous and some­times you hear your­self gasp as some­one says: ‘AS By­att did not come to my talk so I am not go­ing to hers.’ Oh!

I read out a short story there a cou­ple of years ago about two oc­to­ge­nar­ian ac­tresses in a home for re­tired show folk rem­i­nisc­ing about their jour­ney from Hal­i­fax to Broad­way to Hol­ly­wood. I had not re­alised the story was funny un­til I heard the room heav­ing with laugh­ter. That was very cheer­ing…

This year’s highlights at the Charleston Fes­ti­val will be Vanessa Red­grave read­ing Vanessa Bell’s let­ters, a talk on em­pa­thy, the fash­ion de­signer Er­dem Mo­rali­oglu, Stephen Hawk­ing and Harriet Har­man.

See you there…

Er­dem Mo­rali­oglu will be in con­ver­sa­tion with Bazaar’s ed­i­tor-in-chief Jus­tine Picardie at the Charleston Fes­ti­val on 28 May at 2.30pm.

Left and above: Charleston. Top,

bot­tom and op­po­site: the Port

Eliot Fes­ti­val

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