Article published on August 6, 2015.
The Port Eliot Festival is held every year on the Earl of St Germans’ estate in Cornwall. Not just a literary festival, it is very family friendly and also encompasses music (until the early hours!), a food and produce show, craft workshops and outdoor pursuits such as kayaking and wild swimming, across 18 venues and stages, some outdoors, others under cover. The Grade 1 listed house has been lived in for over 1,000 years and is believed to be the oldest continually inhabited dwelling in the UK. It is in a beautiful setting; the garden is also Grade 1 listed.
The first time we attended, we did a screen printing workshop and produced teeshirts with
the slogan Happy Campers, which we wear with pride each year. This year we treated
ourselves to the luxury of tickets to Loowatt, an eco-toilet system which was
better than the portaloos which are lined up around the site. More than a
comfort stop, there was a “chill-out room” for subscribers to rest between events,
and you could even have a massage!
The line-up was available online a couple of weeks beforehand, so we carefully
planned what we wanted to see, remembering to factor in eating time!
On arrival, ticket holders are given a wristband with which they can go
to any event or happening at no extra cost.We arrived on the Thursday
to get a good space on the campsite and wander round to find out where
everything was located. We had a busy weekend ahead of us – I’ll just
give you the highlights.
Brian Selznick was a must-see. He is a fascinating speaker and was the designer of this year’s festival programme cover. He spoke about his new book, The Marvels, which is due out on 15 September. Although not following the same characters, or even set in the same era, he sees it as the final part of his trilogy which started with The Invention of Hugo Cabret and continued with Wonderstruck. Those familiar with his work will know that illustrations are as important as text: words never describe what the pictures are, and the pictures never illustrate the words. In the new book, he pulled out all the words that were action sequences and replaced them with pictures, so the first 400 pages are all illustrations, followed by a further 200 pages of text. He thinks cinematically when making his books – The Invention of Hugo Cabret has already been turned into the film Hugo, and Wonderstruck is currently being filmed. He has also spent the last two months redesigning all three books for e-readers, and has managed to do this in such a way that nothing is “lost in translation” – all the illustrations work as well electronically as they do on the page.
Simon Garfield is an author who attends the festival every year, whether he has a book to promote or not! This year he was interviewed by Andy Miller (author of The Year of Living Dangerously) about his reading influences. Like most boys, he preferred comics and football magazines to books, but was a fan of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, before, in his teenage years, discovering Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons through their work for the New Musical Express. I liked his description of the mid-teenage years as being the “wet cement” age.
Sarah Waters was next, reading a passage from The Paying Guests and talking about how she has realised that in her books, houses are a continuing theme, as are mother/daughter relationships. She thinks her next book will be set in the 1950s and is currently researching this era.
I had recently finished Simon Armitage’s book Walking Away, which described a walk he did round the South West Coast Path from Minehead to Lands End and on to the Scilly Isles, so I wanted to hear him speak. His poetry is now studied at GCSE level – in fact his own daughter is currently studying his work – but his book concentrated on writing about the walk and the people he met, rather than poetry. On the way, he relied on the kindness of strangers, to walk with him for a mile or two, to offer him food and a bed for the night, and to transport the Galapagos Tortoise, his massive suitcase, to the next overnight stop, where he would repay his hosts by giving readings. He had wondered whether poetry could hold its own for an evening’s entertainment, and was pleased that it could! Everyone he met was generous and interested in what he was doing, and he came away from this walk, and his previous one on the Pennine Way, feeling optimistic about human nature.
We also paid a visit to Ways With Weirds, a venue where slightly more eclectic events were staged. Here we heard Tom Cox, an ex-Guardian columnist who writes a blog and various books about his cats, with titles such as The Good, The Bad and The Furry; and Close Encounters of the Furred Kind, although he was quick to point out that he limits the puns to the book titles! He has fought long and hard to illustrate his book covers with photos of his own cats, rather than cats from a model agency. His next book, due to be published in October on the day his oldest cat turns 20, is less about his cats and more about his recent move from Norfolk to Devon, and stories of his parents, particularly his father. He is a good storyteller and we left with jaws aching from laughter.
At every Port Eliot festival, there is a surprise – something that you come across by chance which turns out to be a highlight. This year mine was the Game of Thrones experience. I have never seen the TV series, but my friend is an avid fan, and our book group has recently read the first book in the series. On stage were Gemma Jackson, set designer for the first three years, Michele Clapton, costume designer for five years, and Gwendoline Christie, 6ft 3in and statuesque, who plays Brienne of Tarth. They were jointly interviewed by Sarah Mower, a US Vogue contributor, and it was a revelation. Clips from the TV series were shown while those on stage talked us through the influences for the sets (which were built on the old Harland & Woolf site in Belfast), the ideas behind the costumes, and how Gwendoline Christie’s armour was designed so that she could fight in it – yes, she did her own fight sequences!
There is usually a film show one evening, and it is always worth going to this because it will be held in the Round Room – a part of the house which is, indeed, round, and in which the walls are completely covered with a mural by Robert Lenkiewicz which tells the history of the family. This year’s offering was Kevin Allen’s interpretation of Under Milk Wood, narrated by Rhys Ifans with the characters acted by him, Charlotte Church, and a large Welsh cast. (The film is also available in Welsh.) The review in the Guardian stated “Allen’s film comes across as a kind of fast-moving fever-dream…..everyone, and everything, is operating through a sweaty film of lust or delusion” and I think that pretty much sums it up!
This year we stayed on for Sunday night as well, so that we could be relaxed about packing up on Monday morning. The tent was dry to take down, which is always good. We never get much sleep and our tactic this year was to rest in the early evening, then go out to a late night gig, hoping that the tiredness, combined with a really good pair of earplugs, would do the trick. It more or less worked, but I was very jaded at work on Tuesday morning! We have said that this will probably be the last time we will attend this festival, but I am sure that once the emails start coming round from the organisers with tantalising tales of who has been booked for next year, we will be saving up for a weekend ticket again!
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