My review of this festival was originally broadcast on 9th December 2010 and the content has never been released other than a summary with website links (on my website http://www.morgenbailey.com) so I hope you enjoy it.
I attended the recent Chorleywood Literature Festival as a volunteer and thought I’d write a review about my experiences. Although this episode had the approval of the festival’s Committee, please note that this review contains purely my opinions and observations of the weekend and in no way reflect those of the participants, organisers or Committee.
The outsider’s insider review…
Based in Hertfordshire, England, the Chorleywood Lit Fest, now in its 5th year, was opened on Tuesday 16th November by latest Man Booker winner Howard Jacobson at, I understand, a much larger venue than originally planned. Unfortunately I was working up until late Friday afternoon so only attended for the weekend. I soon learned, though, that the events leading up to the weekend had been incredibly popular as many people turning up on the two days that I was there, had been to almost every other event. Novelist Simon Scarrow was the second talk (on the Wednesday evening), followed on the Thursday by the ‘New & Local Author Showcase’ (which I’m disappointed I missed and will definitely catch next year). The week ended with The Greatest Monarch Debate – I’m told that James 1st won with 40 votes and Queen Victoria came last with just 4 votes; with Elizabeth 1st and Richard 1st somewhere in between) on the Friday evening.
It was the first time I had been to a festival as an insider was even more of a treat to be surrounded by everything literary. I live in Northamptonshire but was born in Amersham, Buckinghamshire which is divided from Chorleywood by Little Chalfont, where I went to secondary school, so it was lovely driving ‘home’. I hadn’t been to Chorleywood for years and if you didn’t know about, and could ignore the signs for, the village centre, you could imagine that Chorleywood consists of just the one single-sided postcard-picture row of houses with the common and golf course to one side and the two rustic halls at the end.
The first event Pirates Ahoy! started at 9.30 on the Saturday morning so families arrived soon after the doors opened. Most of the children were in fancy dress, from princesses to Batman, and of course pirates and were soon captivated by Danya Miller, a storyteller based in nearby Kings Langley. This was her first year at Chorleywood and the success of the event was shown by how well the children behaved throughout the reading (I liked her immediately because she wore purple head-to-toe). A very intimate affair, the reading was held in the smaller section of the hall, which was later turned into a bookshop, and was very relaxed with Danya crouched on the floor with a variety of props, in front of a colourful blanket-covered room packed with children and their parents doing likewise.
Since finding out about the festival in the summer (thanks to an online search for events in my family’s area), I had been in regular email contact with Committee Member Gill who was one of the first people to welcome me on the Saturday morning. I had promised beforehand that I was at her disposal for the weekend and that I was more than happy to do anything that was asked of me.
From the events that followed though, it was quickly obvious what needed doing, and we all just cracked on with ‘mucking’ in. Apart from stopping for a delicious ploughman’s lunch (for listeners outside the UK who may not know what that is, it consisted of crispy French bread (I know, not very English!), for me some tasty Vintage Cheddar (others also had Brie), apple, salad, ham, and rounded off with tangy pickle sauce.
It was then time to put the 200+ chairs out for Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy – another sell-out event, and whilst most events have ‘no-shows’, the packed hall certainly implied that no-one had wanted to miss out. In fact, more chairs had to be obtained from next door’s British Legion Hall with standing room only at the very back.
Apart from occasional minor sound issues, Carol Ann’s readings were a mix of amusing and thought-provoking. I had heard little of her poetry before and from what and how she read, can see why she was appointed the poetry for the people role, as it is the sort of writing that most people can relate to, my favourite being ‘Cold’ which I have since found on the PoetrySociety.org’s website.
The third event of the day featured 72-year-old former newscaster and TV presenter Peter Snow who was incredibly impressive recounting the history of The Duke of Wellington right up to the battle of Waterloo. Speaking continuously for over an hour, accompanied only by a digital slide show, he was so comprehensive that you almost felt you didn’t need to buy the book but the extensive question and answer session and book-signing queue proved me wrong. One of my claims to fame would be handing him a glass of water. :)
British author, historian and Times columnist Ben Macintyre was equally entertaining as he read extracts from his intriguingly titled book ‘Operation Mincemeat’ (of which Wikipedia has a great explanation – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Mincemeat).
I had to leave straight after Ben’s question and answer session but again, judging by the amount of people attending to the event and asking questions, I am sure that the book signing went well.
After an overnight stay in nearby Tring, I started the day as an attendee of the Toby Litt writing workshop. I already had his anthology ‘Exhibitionism’ which, unfortunately, I’d only read up to, and including, the sixth story but it did give me a feel for his style of writing (quirky, which I love!) although I had bought his latest novel ‘I play drums in a band called okay’ from the Chorleywood Bookshop stand at the festival the day before but hadn’t had a chance to start reading.
The workshop itself was another sell-out and was held in the intimate, though unglamorous-sounding, setting of the Royal British Legion Hall. Situated at the back of the main War Memorial Hall, it again had a very friendly feel to it, added further by the tea and coffee, homemade cake, croissants and mini mince pies.
The three hours flew by with barely time for a 5-minute comfort and refreshment break in the middle. The standard of writing overall was impressively high and although one young lady was rather nervous about reading her work out, when she did she didn’t disappoint.
Meanwhile a Joke Workshop for 5-9 year olds (though younger and older children were in attendance), lead by children’s author (of the wonderfully named ‘Dinopants’ and others) Ciaran Murtagh, was taking place in the Memorial Hall and by all accounts, it too was a roaring success.
Still on a high from the workshop, I joined the other volunteers for another ploughman’s (this time with brie, which wasn’t actually as bad as I remember, as the cheddar had gone AWOL) in the side room formerly used for the Pirates Ahoy-turned-bookshop, during which I had a bit of a chat with Bloomsbury novelist and Sunday Telegraph dance critic Louise Levene about a PC vs Mac (before I got my Mac in June, I would have said the former from personal experience but as they say ‘once you go Mac you never go back’ and it’s so true for me). Around us, others were finalising the preparations of the final event of the day; ‘The Bloomsbury Reading Group’.
Author Marika Cobbold joined us as we were on desserts and enjoyed a piece of homemade lemon cake while we chatted about trains, Andre Rieu (my aunt’s a huge fan) and cushions! With half an hour to go, Jane Rusbridge joined us and the conversation was again far from literary until Jane produced a book by Clifford M Ashley called ‘The Ashley Book of Knots’ and two example rope knots! Then it was time for the off and we headed into the main hall.
Scheduled to run from 2pm to 5pm, the Bloomsbury Reading Group started with an author-to-audience session facilitated by David Ward, Bloomsbury’s Sales Director who initially invited the three authors to introduce their books and read extracts from them.
Marika started and told us about Rebecca Finch, the protagonist from her sixth novel ‘Aphrodite’s Workshop for Reluctant Lovers’ followed by Jane who discussed her thought-provoking debut novel entitled ‘The Devil’s Music’ and finally Louise with ‘A Vision of Loveliness’ which she read brilliantly – I’d vote for her as the voice for the audiobook!
The audience then split to the three tables (one for each novel) for a discussion session, initially without the authors present, allowing the readers to discuss the book amongst themselves accompanied only by some warm mulled wine (which was lovely – I had a tiny glass as I was driving). While this was going on I retired to the smaller room to start typing this review, leaving the Marika, Jane, Louise and David to chat amongst themselves on the stage for a few minutes before coming to the side room.
After about half an hour, the authors joined their relevant sessions and I caught a few minutes of each group. Starting with Marika’s, I heard her say that she doesn’t write about her life as she doesn’t feel that it is particularly interesting but rather uses her experience in her writing, and was a translator before becoming a novelist.
I then moved on to listen in on Jane’s group where the discussion was mid-flow regarding knots (a key feature in ‘The Devil’s Music). One of her readers brought up the subject of second-person point of view (‘you’) and whilst some people felt uncomfortable with the narrator talking to them so directly (it can feel intrusive) others didn’t mind it at all, which was good to hear. Jane explained that whilst her editor was happy for her to use the second-person, she had anticipated that it wouldn’t get past the Sales and Marketing team which thankfully it clearly did as it’s so rarely used. I covered viewpoints in episode and gave Jay McInerney’s ‘Bright Lights Big City’ as an example of a second-person novel. Although I only started writing this point of view quite recently, I love writing it, so asked Jane if it changed the style of her writing (mine, I explained, can be quite dark in that viewpoint). She said that she tries not to write the actual word ‘you’ very often so that’s something I’m definitely going to have a go at, probably at next Monday night’s writing workshop.
Finally, I caught the tail end of Fiona’s group discussion where she was saying that she’d been put off writing novels by being bullied into writing one (a chapter a week) at school when she was 12. I got the impression from her that she is a planner – she mentioned that she writes a lot on index cards (very popular with authors when giving speeches – I’ve got as far as buying a load but they’re all still blank!). She did say that you should write only what you can imagine happening on stage (a tip I think she was given) which is great advice.
The groups then disbanded for refreshments; tea, coffee and traditional English village-style cream teas (fresh homemade plain and sultana scones – I’m told made by Committee Member and Chorleywood Bookshop owner Morag) strawberry jam and of course fresh cream – of which my brother is allergic but that is another story!
The afternoon then reconvened with a final panel question & answer session – mine was ‘Is there a question that you’ve never been asked that you would like to have had’. I figured that they wouldn’t have an immediate answer, and said as much, so wasn’t surprised when no-one could think of a reply and moved on to the next question, although Marika said a little later that she’d loved to be asked why she’s never received a Nobel prize which had the room in stitches.
After the Q&A, the authors signed their books; most of the audience had brought their own copies although many people bought the other two books they hadn’t read from the bookshop’s stand which they then had signed and some, including me, bought all three. My other purchase of the weekend was a canvas ‘I heart Chorleywood’ bag to send to a long-time friend in Germany (probably containing a few hefty thrillers – she’s a big Ken Follett fan, although as a fan of the TV series ‘Bones’, she’s currently working through some Kathy Reichs I sent her earlier in the year).
Marika, Jane and Louise were all very approachable and clearly delighted that people were so interested in their writing, which is how you would want an author to be. I had a wonderful chat with Marika and Louise about NaNoWriMo amongst other things and once they and the public had departed, it was then left to return the hall to its original state which, with all hands on deck, was done very quickly. I returned to have a meal at my mum’s in Tring, a 20-minute drive from Chorleywood, drive home (my dog strapped safely on the backseat – the only part about being in the car that he doesn’t enjoy) to Northamptonshire, still reeling from such wonderful two days.
The future of the Chorleywood Literature Festival
I chatted with Nikki over the weekend who has been one of the organisers of the Festival since inception and is responsible for the writing of the promotional literature and website content. The website itself is run by another of the Committee Members, Adrian who, with his lovely wife Ellie (who also took part in Toby Litt’s writing workshop), were also there for the weekend. The website (www.cwlitfest.org) has all the information and photos.
Gill, Penny and I did also discuss developing the Short Story Competition. I provided them with information of two that I am involved in, one short story and one poetry, and gave them a stack of back issue magazines (women-only Mslexia, The New Writer – both quarterly, and monthlies Writing Magazine and its sister publication Writer’s News) so the festival itself, with such dedicated volunteers, can, I hope, only go from strength to strength.
Throughout the weekend (and no doubt during the evenings leading up to it), feedback cards were handed out and reading some of them, they were full of praise. I get the impression that most of the Committee and many of the attendees are residents of Chorleywood which could only have added to the warming and welcoming ‘village’ feel which must make the Chorleywood Literature Festival a favourite amongst lit fest attendees. I’ve been to a few but this was the first time as a volunteer and within a few hours of arriving home, I’d volunteered for two other festivals next year nearer to my home. One of these was Oundle which was March 2011 and formed a 5-part podcast review which will be posted in the not too distant future.
The events were captured on film by Rob Avery, a photographer based in nearby Stevenage. It was his first year covering the event, as the previous years’ photographer was unable to attend, she recommended Rob (www.robaveryphotography.com) who was a constant, though unobtrusive, presence before and during events.
And the downside? Apart from parking being an issue for some, naturally expected when catering for over 200 people in a village setting, and the occasional sound blips, the weekend went without a hitch and it’s difficult to believe that it is only its 5th year. And probably the best thing about it for me is that it was where I met Rachel, my now editor!
I hope you enjoyed my review. Everything mentioned here was purely my opinion and observations of the weekend and in no way reflect those of the participants, organisers or Committee of the Festival. In the meantime, if you have any feedback, do email me or via the Contact page of my website www.morgenbailey.com.