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
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