Port Eliot Festival 2017

I’ve been at the Port Eliot Festival this weekend - a sort of very mini Glastonbury but with authors talking during the day, along with various other arty goings on. It’s been a brilliant weekend (highly recommended if you happen to be in Cornwall one July), only slightly hampered (dampened?) by the rain (our yurt flooded - yes, I “glamped”).

Anyway, I wanted to make a few notes about some of the talks I attended before I forget them. This is a bit long-winded and self-indulgent, but I figured I can either leave it on my computer for future reference or post it here in case any writers here are interested in what some of these authors had to say.

Michele Roberts
I have to admit I have never read anything by Michele Roberts, and attended the interview with her mainly because she was one of the few authors I’d heard of being interviewed on the Friday. Afterwards I bought her Walworth Beauty based on her reading from it, though. She talked about how she got the idea for it from the feeling she got from living in her London basement flat, thinking about how in times past it would have been the serving staff living down there and the vaguely haunting feeling that gave her. She combined that with research into Henry Mayhew, the Victorian sociologist who sent out researchers to talk to the London poor and learn about their lives, which resulted in a twin narrative about a woman living in a similar flat in modern times and one of the researchers working for Mayhew in Victorian lives.

She’s certainly lived an interesting life. She talked about the feminist communes in which she lived in the 1970s (making men do the dishes and clean the toilets, she joked), and how she ran away from her last commune when she returned after a weekend away to discover they had made the beds communal: when you wanted to sleep, you had to find a mattress somewhere, and someone else might just climb in next to you at four in the morning. Living in communes helped her see with new eyes the structures we impose on our lives, she said - orthodox family and community structures but also the way communes in the 60s and 70s both tried to both eschew and emulate them.

She also briefly touched on being an ex-Catholic and how the knowledge of the Bible provided to her by her upbringing allowed her to write retellings of the story of Noah’s wife and Mary Magdalene. Somewhat depressingly, she was asked whether she feared being guilty of cultural appropriation by writing about a black character in her new book. In response, she quoted Toni Morrison, who apparently said that the experience of race should be a conversation between writers both black and white. She said that she thought problems arose when white writers simply assumed they had the “right” to write about whatever they wanted, which is a peculiarly Western view. But at the same time, as long as you have some connection and feel you can have an understanding or empathy with a character, you shouldn’t feel restricted to writing only about people from your own race, of course. That said, Mrs Dulcimer in her novel was deliberately seen from the perspective of a white, initially racist, character. (Obviously I’m paraphrasing from memory here so hope I am not doing Ms Roberts a disservice.)

The most interesting aspect of this part of the conversation for me was what she said about dialogue. She spoke about how even the great George Eliot was conditioned to think of her own way of speaking as “normal” (i.e. Queen’s English - although I suspect George Eliot didn’t speak it with RP since she was from Nuneaton in the West Midlands, where I was born). So Eliot, like many writers, wrote the dialogue of poorer people using certain ticks and dialect. (“No, I woon’t: I’ll be dee’d if I’ll leather my boy to please you or anybody else, not if you was twenty landlords istid o’ one, and that a bad un.”) This sort of thing is what Lionel Shriver into trouble recently (which is what prompted the cultural appropriation question). Michele Roberts said that she chose to avoid such problems by using regular English for all her characters, regardless of background, especially since you were almost certain to get it wrong otherwise anyway.

I think Michele Roberts also said that she doesn’t plan, but writes to find out where the story is going to end up, but I might be mixing this up with something another author said.

Matt Haig
I was looking forward to seeing Matt Haig talk, as his The Humans was a highlight among the books I read last year. (It’s the story of an alien who takes the place of a maths professor and is supposed to kill everyone associated with him who might know about his discovery. But this setup is really a way of having a narrator who is viewing humanity and family from the outside.) I have his How to Stop Time, about a man with a slow ageing condition that means he lives for centuries, put aside to read on holiday this year. Anyway, he didn’t disappoint (and Sam Leith was a warm and funny interviewer).

In talking about his writing process, Matt Haig said that he doesn’t plan anything out but finds the voice, which is one of the main things for him, and writes. When he gets to about twenty-thousand words, he knows how the book is going to end, and from then on he writes as quickly as possible because he is scared that he is going to forget something.

Perhaps as a result of this process, there are long passages that don’t make it into the book. In his new book, How to Stop Time, the section set aboard Captain Cook’s ship was apparently much longer in an earlier draft, because he had done so much research that he felt he had to cram it all in, but ended up editing much of it out so that it contained only what was needed for the story. Interestingly - as this relates back to the interview with Michele Roberts - he also wrote lots about a black character (Chester, if I recall correctly) who also had the slow ageing condition and who had therefore lived through the slave trade, liberation and the equal rights movements. However, he removed these sections because he didn’t feel qualified to write about this character - or, at least, he didn’t feel he knew enough and couldn’t do such a character justice in this book.

Matt Haig’s initial success was from writing a book about his depression, Reasons to Stay Alive, and he touched on this, too. He said that part of the idea for How to Stop Time, of having a character who lived for centuries, came from how his three years of depression seemed to slow time and seems to him subjectively to have taken up half of his life. He also said that he likes having slightly morose or depressed characters because then they have somewhere to go - they can change.

On change, he said that this was the key element in any story, in all stories that we tell each other: that something has to change, whether that’s a character or a situation or something else.

All the same, there are plenty of passages he writes for himself and not necessarily to progress the plot. He has both Shakespeare and the Fitzgeralds turn up in his latest novel just for his own entertainment, making no contribution to plot. But he said he had to be careful not to take this too far and get self-indulgent.

Asked if writing was hard, he was hesitant. He said that some days it was, but writers wouldn’t keep writing if they didn’t love something about the process. Someone else asked if he found writing cathartic. He answered that he did to some extent - the ability to create and control worlds was certainly freeing for someone who had suffered from depression. This was part of the reason he didn’t like scriptwriting so much, because it was much more collaborative and involved giving up control, which was why he is happy for someone else to write the script for the film of How to Stop Time (Benedict Cumberbatch’s production company bought the rights before it was complete, but Mr Haig reassured everyone that this did not tempt him to throw in descriptions of the main character looking like Sherlock Holmes).

Louis de Bernieres
I was a huge fan of Louis de Bernieres’ South American trilogy and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, but for some unfathomable reason I haven’t read anything else by him in the past ten or so years. I’m hoping to remedy that and have just bought his latest novel. He read a selection of his poetry and talked about writing and research. He was very funny.

When asked whether he ever gets frustrated if he cannot write, he said that he never has this problem because if he doesn’t feel like writing, he simply doesn’t write. He only sits down at a screen when he is keen to write (he admitted that this was a luxury and wouldn’t work if he had 500 pages left and a looming deadline, but had so far been fortunate enough that this had never happened). The necessity of waiting for inspiration is particularly true of poetry, he said; Adam O’Riordan, the interviewer and a poet himself, agreed.

He does masses of research for all of his books, not only reading but also interviewing people, especially older people, and visiting places. (Perhaps unsurprising given that he sets so many books abroad and features so many historical events.) He keeps notebooks and curses himself when he has been too vague in his notes, so that when he returns to them he doesn’t know what he had been thinking. He found this particularly hard with one book (Birds Without Wings?) where he had done all of the research in advance of the writing, and found himself trying to decipher several notebooks - obviously, he needs Scrivener!.

Talking of technology, his first three books were written out on an old word processor with a tiny screen. His first (by which I assume he meant The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts) came out all in one go and needed little editing. Now that he has moved to a computer, he says that he does a lot of editing as he goes and is always tinkering with what he’s written. So whereas before he would write the traditional three drafts, now the tinkering and revisions get much more mixed in with the writing process, so that the final draft is more of a polish. He did say that he often has to go back and rewrite earlier sections to fit in with his ending, because he, too, works out the story as he goes.

On putting together a story, he said that he loves how a story can be constructed from fragments, and that’s something he enjoys doing. There’s nothing wrong with having a chapter in the form of a shopping list as long as it advances the story, he said. So, he will have a short chapter narrated by a young girl, then another chapter in the form of a letter. He likes employing multiple points of view, mixing up first person narration from different characters with third-person omniscient and other devices. (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was masterful in this regard.)

He was particularly interesting in violence in fiction. His Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord contains one of the most disturbingly violent scenes I’ve read, concerning a main character and torture. I’m not particularly squeamish, but I always felt that scene was unnecessarily vile, so it was fascinating to hear him discussing it. He lived in Columbia during the period he wrote those books, and apparently - shockingly - the sort of things done in this torture scene really were being done to women by people involved in the cocaine trade, and he wanted people to know this. He said that his model for writing about violence is Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea, because of the way it shows the brutality of horror of violence without glorifying it or titillating. (He made particular mention of a scene in The Cruel Sea where sailors get burned in oil and the ship’s “doctor”, who is only the doctor because his father was a doctor, only has ointment to treat them with. As he touches their skin, their flesh falls away and he just wishes they would hurry up and die. It’s this sort of horror that Louis de Bernieres tries to produce in his own violent passages.)

Hs also talked a little about the process of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin being turned into a film. There were some scenes in it, such as the main battle, that he thought were worth the whole process in themselves, and was delighted by the score. It doesn’t sound as though he was delighted by much else, though. He commended Nicolas Cage for his commitment in learning to play the mandolin especially for the role, but ultimately Cage was the wrong actor - too tall, too American. (Although he said he wouldn’t have objected to Tom Cruise, given that Corelli is supposed to be small and charming, but Tom Cruise refused because someone had told him, wrongly, that de Bernieres was set against him.) Mr de Bernieres had hoped that in selling the rights to Working Title, a respected British production company, they would produce a European-style film, but instead they opted for a Hollywood move. The screenwriter, Shawn Slovo, apparently hated de Bernieres and loathed his portrayal of the partisans, which was not a good start. He lamented that some of the dialogue, such as “I knew I could never live with out you”, he would never have written for those characters even with a weight held over his head. On the plus side, he said, he got to meet Penelope Cruz.

Peter Fluck and Alex Wade
Peter Fleck was one half of Fluck and Law, who created the puppets for Spitting Image in the 1980s (this won’t mean much to anyone outside of the UK, I’m guessing, but Spitting Image was the foremost satirical show of the time - it also ruined my childhood by featuring a song with the lyrics “Pretend your name is Keith”, which got sung to me repeatedly for a time).

For those of you who do remember Spitting Image, you’ll almost certainly recall the two Davids, David Owen and David Steel, joint leaders of the Liberal Democrats. There were two leaders because the newly-formed Liberal Democrats had merged two parties, the Liberal Party and the SDP. In the show, David Steel was portrayed as tiny, and the two Davids referred to one another (if I recall correctly) as “Big David” and “Little David”. David Steel has blamed Spitting Image for the failing of his political career, because it showed him as the inferior one. The joke always worked well, because David Owen did seem like the de facto leader. Anyway, what was fascinating was that this portrayal all came about by pure chance. When they first started the show, they were on a small budget, so to save money they made some much smaller puppets, which were intended to be used on their own. But then the SDP and Liberal Party merged, and they suddenly needed to have the small David Steel and big David Owen puppets in the same sketches.

Peter Fluck was also funny on which politician he would like to make into a puppet now. I won’t say any more than that it involved a prominent Brexiter with a suspicion of “experts” and researching images of maggots.

Alex Wade is a lawyer who works checking the legality of stories written by newspapers. He was funny, too, and after hearing him talk, Julia bought his novel, Flack’s Last Shift, which is apparently about a legal advisor on a paper going rogue and setting up an editor to take the fall after deliberately giving some very bad legal advice. I particularly liked his story of how, in his first job, he was sent to serve a writ on Private Eye (a British satirical magazine whose editor was involved in Spitting Image). When he handed it to the staff at Private Eye, they all just burst out laughing. (Private Eye is forever being sued, but usually wins.)

Rob Newman and Matthew De Abaitua
As part of The Mary Whitehouse Experience, Rob Newman was one of the most famous comedians in Britain in the 1990s. When I was a student, we never missed an episode. Along with David Baddiel, his comedy partner at the time and one of the other of the four who made up TMWE, he was the first comedian to sell out Wembley Stadium - they were as popular as rock stars. He was there to talk about his new book, Neuropolis, poking fun at “scientism”, the tendency of some scientists to make pronouncements that are not based on science but rather on materialist dogma. It was a thoughtful conversation and touched on many things I’m deeply interested in and covered a range of research. I didn’t agree with all of it, but it was a genuine attempt to separate the science from some unscientific assumptions, such as they idea that we could one day be uploaded to a computer or how we are like robots or computers and consciousness is an illusion. Gratifyingly, Newman didn’t turn out to be a dualist looking to sneak back into the hard discoveries of science any form of magic or soul, but was instead interested in how some popular scientists speak about humans as though we are nothing but machines, and how this world view may be damaging, both to our sense of our selves and our relationship with the world around us. I’m looking forward to reading his book.

He was in conversation with the science fiction Matthew De Abaitua, whose The Red Men I ordered after seeing them. In their conversation about consciousness, Matthew De Abaitua revealed that he has become suspicious of trees, thanks to the way they can turn their leaves towards the light and secrete chemicals that make caterpillars eat one another (apparently). He was as funny as Rob Newman, so I have high hopes for his book.

I caught a few bits of other interviews, but not much. I admit I’ve never been drawn to the two books by Eimear McBride, for instance, but having caught the last part of her interview I am now more tempted to give them a go, a she was funny and straightforward. She is clearly popular, as the Bowling Green was packed for her (as it was for Louis de Bernieres). Asked whether she read poetry, she said that one of things she loved about poetry was that the reader knew he or she was expected to do some work to get something out of a poem, to get to the meaning of it. She said she wanted to reclaim some of that for fiction, and lamented that it is no longer fashionable to ask the reader to work to get at the core of a fiction work.

Middle-aged dad that I am, I tapped my foot to a few bands over the weekend. The Orielles and Rose Elinor Dougall were particular highlights, the former for their 90s indie sound and the guitarist’s energy, and the latter for her 80s-esque sound and a stage presence that mixed a bit of Debbie Harry and a bit of Susannah Hoffs. And St Etienne! Does anyone remember St Etienne? I must have seen them last twenty-four years ago. They were fab.

Thanks for this, Keith. Very interesting.

Now it all makes sense. :wink:

And thanks likewise for the nice post.