10th Sep 2012
Highlights from Voewood Festival
Voewood is not like other festivals. There are similarities; live events in tents, the wearing of wellies …that’s about it. A weekend at the Voewood Festival feels quite like crashing a posh person’s garden party.
I soon discover the ample perks to this feature: we are repeatedly served tiny gin cocktails, the food is incredible and the whole event is nestled in the Grade 1 listed garden of a beautiful house.
The bar tent, or, ‘Libation Library’ is filled with clusters of brightly coloured rugs and cushions thrown around vintage travel crates.
Plus, the thrower of this garden party (and owner of the house) is a bookseller and collector, so in addition to the selection of speakers’ books on offer, there is a treasure trove of second hand titles for sale, tucked away in the basement of the house.
My predilection for eavesdropping is perpetually fulfilled here. I overhear one of my favourite exchanges as I am buying my morning coffee:
Woman: Were you at that dinner thing last night?
Woman: Did we end up talking for hours?
Woman: Was it a good conversation?
Woman: Actually, maybe we didn’t talk at all and you’re just really famous.
Man: (polite, ambiguous smile)
I think the festival is a little more Secret History-esque if you are an artist or a friend staying in the main house and indulging in the large meals and drinking sessions.
As a normal attendee there’s all kinds of things you can get up to besides the author talks; exploring the grounds with a garden historian, learning how to keep bees or participating in the ‘conversation picnic.’
There were also some very cool-sounding things which were cancelled at the last minute like bat watching in the garden and bibliotherapy (where you reveal what troubles you and the therapist offers you a prescription of a reading list).
This is what I think it is. If it’s wrong I blame the bibliotherapist who went off back to London leaving all the folks with appointments to see her, including myself, to struggle with our own problems and grope around for possibly very inappropriate literature to deal with it.
As a consolation I spend the afternoon twenty minutes down the road on the North Norfolk coast, where there are, hands down, the best beaches in the whole country.
I arrive in time to hear Rachel Hore and Isabel Wolff discussing shared strategies for writing historical fiction, wondering why the genre is so deeply nostalgiac, and conversely, writing about the future so often dystopian.
This is a perfect conversation to have here –north Norfolk appears to be made up entirely of vintage shops and tearooms. Hore’s latest novel, A Gathering Storm, uncovers the secret history of women fighters in WWII and it’s the book I leave the session wanting to read.
Isabel Wolff’s protagonists all have cute alliterative names which puts me off ever reading something by her (let me know if you think otherwise.)
I also manage to catch Meg Rosoff being interviewed alongside Matt Haig. The chair, Rowan Pelling (Daily Telegraph columnist and former editor of The Erotic Review) opens the session by emptying a carrier bag of books on to the stage and then slowly rearranging the pile, explaining that she is incredibly hungover and will open to the floor for questions once she is no longer able to communicate.
I’m not sure this would happen at any other literary event, but here it doesn’t seem entirely unusual. She is however, perfectly poised as she probes the pair about the sinister nature of suburbia recurring in their books; landscapes in which twisted fantasies flourish. Meg explains that ‘this is because everyone in suburbia is pretending to be normal’.
Asked if she started writing as an escape from a suburban childhood, Meg reveals that she was 47 when she wrote her first book. Before that she had worked in advertising and having never written an ad that would sell anything, she assumed no one would read her first novel either.
The book, How I Live Now won several major awards, was universally loved and continues to sell widely. The film version is in production, with Saoirse Ronan playing protagonist Daisy.
Meanwhile Brad Pitt’s company, Plan B have bought the rights to Haig’s The Last Family in England, a retelling of ‘Henry IV Part 1’ with all the protagonists as dogs.
Both writers are committed to remaining cautiously pessimistic that these developments herald much impending success (beyond what they have already achieved).
Rosoff puts this down to being Jewish, Haig to general neurosis. They are deadpan, dry and hilarious. It’s easy to see why they’re so beloved, especially by teens.
The conversation moves to damaged people and Rosoff advises that ‘We’re probably all damaged. Writers are just better at pushing it to the front’.
She also reveals the quantity of emails she receives from teens seeking advice. “Often they have no one else to speak to. Too old for Childline and the Samaritans don’t appeal.”
So they seek refuge in literature and in an age when writers are directly accessible they will use those channels to ask them their questions. Although these writers would argue otherwise, I get the sense that the teens are in safe hands with these two.
My last evening is spent marvelling at how Billy Bragg has managed to transcend class barriers (or my assumptions of them) and dazzle this crowd with Woody Guthrie’s socialist anthems and proto-feminist love songs.
Voewood is unashamedly eccentric and charming with it. The festival is only in its second year and the secret is bound to get out before too long. Before it does and turns into something more recognizable, grab a retired hunting dog and head on over to the next one.
Photos courtesy of Rosie Lodge