A Week at Words by the Water

It’s been a busy week at the Lit Fest as well as trying to keep up with my university job and daily life.

I love the Words by the Water event, not just because of the beautiful location, but also because there’s always a friendly atmosphere and you never know who you might bump into over lunch in the Green Room. This year one was likely to trip over Lesley Garrett, Melvyn Bragg, Maureen Lipman, Claire Tomalin, and a host of television journalists and philosophers - including A.C. Grayling. Several of the promised journalists were missing, due to the situation in Libya, but replacements were being ordered.

I was booked to give a couple of creative writing sessions in the Sky Arts Den, which was fun, though there isn’t much you can do in 45 minutes. I hoped just to give people a taste of writing and perhaps get them started on something they might want to finish later.

One of the nice things about the festival is getting a pass to other authors’ events. I went to listen to Cate Haste talk about her new book on Sheila Fell - a painter from Cumbria who was one of the youngest artists (and one of the few women) to be admitted to the Royal Academy. She was incredibly beautiful, a protege of L.S. Lowry, and  died tragically at a very young age. It was a fantastic talk with good images.  Of course I'm slightly biased  -  Sheila Fell was an Old Girl from  my school and she spent her short life painting the landscape I love. 

You can’t go to everything though - there just isn’t time. Apparently Rachel Hewitt was fascinating on the history of the Ordnance Survey map, and I would have loved to hear poet Jackie Kay talk about her Memoirs of an Adopted Daughter.

I did manage to go to a forum on the short story. A new small press called Nightjar is bringing out Chapbooks of limited edition short stories and there seems to be a general revival of interest in the short story form - it was all very encouraging. The editor prints a maximum run of 2-300 and sells them via the internet and a few sympathetic independent bookshops. He aims to break even after printing and editing costs. There’s no money in the short story, which is presumably why so few of the big publishers are producing collections. Literary presses such as Salt are very short of money, but they need to exist if published writing isn’t to be restricted to a choice of predictable commercial fiction and the work of a few celebrity authors.

I’m always nervous appearing at big festivals like this - I much prefer small intimate venues where you can engage with the audience. But my own events seemed to go well - I had a good audience for the Katherine Mansfield talk - part of which was filmed - and they all seemed to enjoy themselves. Some of them even bought books!

And the following day we all had a lovely afternoon, with a sumptuous tea, at Greta Hall - the historic home of Coleridge and Southey - imagining what it must have been like to live there - though not with Coleridge who was, according to Southey, ‘murderous to all domestic comfort’ after the copious consumption of opiates and brandy.
Greta Hall, Keswick

Those who took part in the writers’ workshop early in the afternoon even had the opportunity to sit and write in some of the historic rooms - Coleridge’s study, Sarah’s bedroom, Southey’s parlour, Hartley’s parlour - and soak up the atmosphere. My favourite part of the house is the hallway, remembering the description of the line of clogs (there were 11 children not to mention all the adults) arranged in order of size all the way from the front door to the kitchen - which still has the original dresser and wood fired range. The current owners have kept all the original features and with 7 children running around, and fires burning in the grates, it feels very much as I imagine it must have done 200 years ago.

And now home to start work on the talks for the next two events I’m booked to do this month, but utterly distracted by the tragic events on the other side of the world. I can hardly bear to switch on the TV to confront the suffering in Libya and now in Japan.


  1. I loved hearing your thoughts on your structure.
    I really enjoyed your Mansfield biography. I am planning to read it again soon, so I should have a bash at writing a review when I do.
    I know you usually feel nervous about public speaking. If you were nervous in the video it certainly didn't show!

  2. Kathleen - this is a wonderful explanation of your structure - and what you say is definitely what I felt about the book. As a reader, I felt I went with Katherine through her life - the decisions good and bad. They became more understandable, as you say, without terrible hindsight. And aren't you a dream of an interviewee - speaking for over three minutes in answer to a question! Wonderful.

  3. Thanks both! On the nerves Al, didn't you notice all the windmill hand gestures? and, yes, Mary, the verbal flow is nerves too!

  4. how absolutely terrifying! I thought you explained it very well. Interesting.

  5. When I attended your talk at St Andrews on the Terrace in Wellington, you did not seem nervous - I don't know whether you would count that as one of the intimate, or one of the larger venues, but the setup wasn't really one in which you could mingle with the audience. And I agree 100% with what Mary says about the KM biography. I enjoyed it very much.


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