Tuesday, 9 August 2016

The Curious Arts Festival 2016 - Part One

A quick detour this week from the A to Z of Writing series while I look back to what I got up to a fortnight ago. I know, I know, but that's how long it's taken me to find time to review and edit the photos and get around to writing this.

How very Curious...
For the third year in a row, my wife and I went to the Curious Arts Festival. Whether it's best described as a boutique festival or a slightly overgrown garden party is a matter for debate, but what's undeniable is that there's nothing quite like it anywhere else (or at least, not that I've heard of, and I tend to keep a look out for such things).

At heart, it's a literary festival, in part organised by the literary agency Conville & Walsh. Unlike other literary festivals, which tend to consist of different events spread around a town or village and paid for individually, the Curious Arts festival takes place in the grounds of a stately home and once you have your entry ticket/wristband you can go to pretty much everything that takes your fancy. In that respect it works more like a proper mud-and-wellies festival. Only instead of wellies there are books, and instead of mud there is gin and tonic. Or, you know, rum and ginger beer.

Thinking about books is thirsty work

The first event we went to was on the Friday afternoon, and was a fascinating talk and reading by Rupert Thomson. He's an author who's been on my radar for a while, having written an intriguing novel called Divided Kingdom, but this time he was talking about his new book, Katherine Carlyle. This is the story of a woman "created" via IVF who feels dislocated from her own life and believes part of this is due to the eight years she spent in suspended animation as a frozen embryo. The extract he read was compelling and I will definitely be catching up with some of his work before too long.

Rupert Thomson talking about his latest novel
In keeping with its festival vibe, Curious Arts features music in the evenings and Friday night was rounded off with a cracking performance by Lucy Rose. We'd seen her play in Wolverhampton a couple of years ago, supporting Bombay Bicycle Club. She was good then and even better now, mainly playing songs from her latest album and rocking out to a surprising (and very welcome) degree.


SATURDAY



Normally we camp in the festival grounds but this year we opted to stay with my mum and stepdad, who now live about 25 minutes away from Pylewell Park. Although at times this meant we felt more like visitors than true festival diehards, it did mean we got to spend some time with the family and arrived on Saturday morning feeling somewhat fresher than might have been the case after a night under canvas. We made our way to the main tent to hear Meg Rosoff, an acclaimed children's / Young Adult author, talk about her first novel for adults, Jonathan Unleashed.


Rowan Pelling talking to Meg Rosoff
Meg has a sense of humour that somehow manages to be acerbic and warm at the same time. The extract she read was very funny, and the central theme of her book was appealing. Essentially it's the story of a guy who's totally unsuitable for both his job and his girlfriend, trying to work out where it all went wrong with the help of two of his brother's dogs. Meg said she drew on fifteen years working in advertising - a job she loathed but felt she couldn't risk walking away from - and has channelled all the frustrations of being in that industry into an offbeat, semi-romantic dark comedy. It sounds pretty good, so that's another book added to the list.

After a spot of lunch, we swam against the tide of the crowd flocking to see Celia Imrie and headed across to hear Andrea Wulf talk about her book The Invention of Nature. This was a bit of a wildcard selection as neither of us had heard of the book and only had a vague idea that we might have heard of Andrea before. But she'd won the non-fiction category of the Costa Prize so we figured it might be worth finding out about.

Rowan Pelling again, this time in conversation with Costa-winning biographer Andrea Wulf
It turned out to be a great decision. The Invention of Nature is the life story of Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian polymath-scientist-adventurer in the 18th century who travelled throughout Europe, the Americas, and Russia, and brought new understanding about how nature works to the scientific community. It was revolutionary at the time and much of it holds true today, particularly Humboldt's prediction of humanity's damaging impact on the environment.

He seems a remarkable character; to him, everything was there to be studied and understood. Nothing was too remote or too dangerous. Electricity fascinated him, so much so that he travelled across the country to examine the bodies of a unfortunate couple killed by a lightning bolt, and roped in his mates for some decided risky experiments with electric eels! Many of his achievements are well known around the world, but he's almost unheard of in Britain, having been virtually edited out of history due to anti-German feeling here in the first half of the last century.

After that we went back to the main tent to hear SJ Watson and Renee Knight discuss their "domestic noir" thrillers - Before I Go to Sleep and Disclaimer, respectively.
Renee Knight talks about her domestic noir thriller, Disclaimer
(For some reason, both the pictures I took with SJ Watson in them turned out to be incredibly blurred. If you ever read this, Steve, you've not been edited out, just let down by technology!)
It was an interesting conversation from a writer's point of view, as both authors had a similar route to publication. They both took part in one of the Faber Academy's novel-writing courses, through which they met their respective agents, thus dodging the dreaded slush pile, and went on to have terrific success with their first published novel (they both confessed to having an unpublished / unpublishable one lurking in a bottom drawer).

Although I'm always interested to hear about how a writer has got into print, I couldn't help thinking their particular routes weren't typical examples, or at least, they're not the kind of route that's open to all that many aspiring writers. For instance, the Faber Academy course would set you back a not-insubstantial £4,000 and it's only really an option if you live in London. So, while it was interesting to hear about how life had changed for them both and the kinds of challenges a runaway success with your first book brings when it comes to writing the next one, the talk mostly just reinforced the impression I have that anything you can do to avoid the anonymous void of the slush pile is well worth the effort.

A bit later on, we caught most of Joanna Cannon's talk about The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. It was very popular and having missed the very start we couldn't quite squeeze into the tent, but what we heard was enticing enough for my wife to buy a copy of the book. She's reading and enjoying it now. Joanna had some thought-provoking things to say about the way people who are a bit different can quickly become scapegoats, and how a more accepting, open society actually works better for everybody.

Another highlight of the Curious Arts Festival is the comedy line-up. This section of the festival is apparently curated (a horribly overused phrase but probably the most apt in this case) by the comedian Simon Evans. He did a routine at the very first festival, and it proved so popular he has basically been saddled with the job of rounding up a mixture of new and established acts to entertain the literary crowd. A task he performs particularly well, it has to be said.

Simon Evans


Chris "Not from Coldplay" Martin

Zoe Lyons
On both Saturday and Sunday afternoon, some of the newer, younger comedians had a touch of the rabbit-in-the-headlights look about them as they came on stage and realised much of their material would have to be hastily reworked due to the number of young children clustered around the edge of the stage. I felt sorry for Chris Martin (emphatically not the one from Coldplay!), who got off to a very funny start but whose act was derailed somewhat by some older kids trying to throw their shoes over the roof of the tent. He opted for an "if you can't beat them, join them" approach that meant the rest of his routine was still funny, just not in the way he'd originally planned. I'm hopeful he did, eventually, get his shoes back. The highlight for me was probably Zoe Lyons, whose routine had me in stitches at times and who's made sure I'll never again be able to look at a Dyson hand-drier the same way.

While the main tent was being set up for the musicians, a very talented and athletic lady kept us entertained with some ribbon and hoop acrobatics, all while suspended from what looked like a partially assembled crane.

Aerial acrobatics outside the music tent
Amazing stuff. The strength she must have had in her arms and neck...

The evening drew to a close with a set by Billy Bragg. I've seen him a couple of times now and his music is always very enjoyable. With people able to buy tickets just for the evening, his performance was the busiest point in the entire festival. We didn't fancy joining the crush in the tent so we sat just outside, where we could at least hear him and occasionally catch a glimpse of the man himself by standing on tiptoe and peering into the marquee. But mostly we just sat and listened and watched the stars come out. A pretty good way to end the day, to be honest.


Well, when I started this I didn't realise I had this much to say. Rather than prattle on further, I'll end this here and write about Sunday in a follow-up post.


The photos for this post were kindly supplied by my alter-ego, Foxlight Digital.



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