Re-discovering the joy of reading

I’ve always been an avid reader. From a young age I discovered Roald Dahl’s books, the magical worlds he created, the 3 dimensional characters, the funny but poignant tales, took me somewhere far away and inspired me to write my own tales too. As I grew up, I continued to read. From the teenage Goosebumps and point horror stories of the 90’s, to the as undiscovered classics revealed during A level classes and then my English and Creative writing degree which paired reading alongside writing in all genres. Nowadays I try not to stick to favourite authors (Dorothy Koomson, Mark Haddon, Anita Shreve, Jon Mcgregor, Jojo Moyes…) and to find new and exciting authors, to explore literature set in different countries, time zones, eras and genres. Friends and family help with suggesting books too.

Yet as I’ve got older and life has become busier, reading has taken a very small back seat in my priorities. Working full time as well as writing (freelance and working on a second and now third novel) and socialising with friends and loved ones, has made the window for that past love, become much smaller. What literature lover does not daydream about sitting in the window, a worn paperback in hand, letting the hours slip away as they immerse themselves in a world far away from theirs. It’s the idyll. Like reading while the ocean provides the background noise, your bare toes tucked into the warm sand. This idyllic image and the need to provide the perfect space for ‘reading’ seems to have become even more necessary now that I’m older. When the reality is usually fifteen minutes of reading at bedtime, before my tiredness admits defeat and I switch out the bedroom light.  It’s almost as if reading has become such a rare luxury that a special moment must be created to enjoy it – to allow it, to not feel guilty about it. How ridiculous!

This past month, I’ve vowed to get to bed early; to make room in my day and evening, wherever I can for reading. To fully commit and dissolve into my latest book. Just like I used to.  Aswell as the pleasure of reading, the stillness of just being on my own, in the quiet, sometimes accompanied with a cup of tea, a breakfast pastry or just a bar of chocolate and a few cookies, I would revel in the fulfilment of finishing something. And, once the dust has settled, that spark of joy that comes afterwards, when picking a new adventure, from one of my many populated bookshelves. Whether it be an adventure that I’ve chosen, an old friend like Thomas Hardy or Daphne Du Maurier, or the face of someone new, like my current read, loaned by a friend. Barbara Erskine’s ‘Sleepers Castle’ is set around the book town of Hay on Wye and one of my favourite places in the world. Eskine combines a modern day protagonist with a medieval tale in a location haunted by the ghosts of past and present. The book delves into the real Welsh History of Owain Glyndwr and his revolt against English rule and has taught me a lot about local history while colourfully bringing to life very real characters who are re-imagined in that era. My friends vivid description of the ending bringing her to tears, immediately made me want to read it. For it’s every Author’s dream to write work with such a profound effect and every reader’s to become immersed with such passion.

I’ve found that my desire to finish my day and return to my current literary world has returned. I’ve found myself going to bed early and staying up late, although this time there is no need for my childhood torch, I get to decide when my light goes off. When the last chapter is read, before it gets pushed onto its place on my bedside table, on top of the pile of awaiting friends. I’ve become fully invested again. I’ve made proper time for reading. I’ve fought against the many distractions and won. For now, anyway.

And it’s exciting. It reminds me why I picked up that first book, why I bought my first copy of Tess of the D’urbervilles, why I spend as much spare time as I can writing my own books. To read is to live, to experience, to explore. To learn, to grow, to value, to evolve. It is important, it’s not selfish or unnecessary, to me it’s inspiring and empowering. Everyone has a story to tell, and there are so many stories out there to experience. We’re lucky we’ve got a wide access to them, we shouldn’t waste it. So I’m off to finish a few more chapters. See you on the next page…


Dirty Protest’s ‘How to be Brave’ at the Torch Theatre.

Last night I went to see Theatre Company Dirty Protest’s latest offering, How to be Brave, at the Torch Theatre. Working at the Theatre gives me all kinds of access to local and touring productions and this was a company which I’d heard lots about, but not seen before. What I’d heard was that they were very much community based, with hard-hitting performances of work by Welsh writers that aimed to leave audiences thinking. This is certainly what I got.

I took my seat in the round. An unusual stage setting that I had not seen before. The audience were sat in a circle, surrounding a very small stage on the level. This had me wondering how professional it would be, how effective, the limitations on movement, props, lighting and so on. Yet what it could also bring, I soon realised, was a very intimate experience, an involvement in the story, a closeness to the lead character, every expression on her face, every movement, every moment of being trapped, caged in by her own memories and her fear for the future and her daughter, fully realised by the audience.

Dirty Protest are an award-winning Theatre Company who lead the development  promotion and production of new writing for Performance. They have worked with more than 200 new Welsh writers, staging new sell-out plays in Theatres and alternative venues from clubs and pubs, to a Kebab shop and even a forest! They were also Winner of 2013 Best Production Wales Critics Choice at the Theatre Critics of Wales awards for the premiere of Katherine Chandler’s Parallel Lines.

How to be Brave was written by Sian Owen, and is based around her own experiences of growing up and Living in Newport, the city that ‘made her’. Owen is a Graduate of the MA Writing for Performance programme at Goldsmiths College. She has gained recognition for her work including BBC Radio 4 drama Pieces and her play Restoration which won the Oxford Playhouse Writing competition. She is currently under commission with Box of Tricks Theatre Company.

In 60 minutes, Laura Dalgleish (as Katie) manages to convey Owens story with passion, humour, fear, sadness and great humility, making us believe it is not only her story but our story too. There was no need for props, only basic lighting, to denote a movement from the past to present, or outbursts of anger and emotion, and sound clips of voices from the past to add authenticity to the production. The mention of Newport, the buildings, the streets, the people, the changes it’s gone through from the War torn past of her Nan’s age and the steel building which she sites are in her very essence, bring the production to life, make it more real and accessible. It is remarkable how beautifully Owen can write about the ordinary and make it quite beautiful.

One of the funniest moments comes when Katie running and cycling (on a child’s BMX bike) scared through the streets of Newport, finds the clock that cursed her as a teenager in her failure to perform a dance act alongside her peers, leaving her humiliated and with the nickname Iceland, ‘because I froze.’ Exhausted and fearful for the future and her sick little girl, she performs the rap by herself, as a 35-year-old adult, much to the dismay of those around her.

The heart of the story, is of course Katie’s love for her little girl. ‘Little one’ as she calls her, is struggling to find her place in the world, knocked down by a little boy’s comment that girls ‘can’t be superheros because they’re not brave’. This and an illness that leads to an operation, throws Katie into a panic and sends her on her journey through the streets of the city she grew up in, searching for the answers she didn’t have then and answers she longs for now. Do we get less brave as we get older?

Dalgleish is commendable, with smooth direction from Catherine Paskell, keeping the audience engrossed throughout the 60 minute show. She is funny, passionate, emotional, angry, interacting with everything and everyone around her. It was hard to remember it was a show, and not an intimate conversation with a close friend or a sudden revelation by a stranger on the street. We could easily have been one of the passers by.

Owen, Dalgleish and the team behind Dirty Protest should be proud of this production. They bring to life humanity on stage, what it is to be human, to be an adult, a mother, a woman in today’s society, to struggle, to doubt, to question. How to be Brave is an immersive drama, with humour passion and emotion, which everyone should see. It is, as it was meant to be, a manual for growing up, for choosing the life you want and for facing your fears in an ever-changing world.

Screenwriter Andrew Davies brings authentic version of Les Mis to the BBC

I think, by now, it’s fairly well known that there’s no one that does period drama quite like the BBC.  While ITV have had a fair stab at it, particularly with their recent success of a modernised, sexed up Vanity Fayre, and Channel 4 have brought a raw edge to their  period dramas such as The Mill (2013), based on real life stories of mill workers during the industrial revolution, the BBC seem to get it right every time.

Maybe that’s because they have Andrew Davies, Welsh Screenwriter of many popular period drama adaptations, most notably the 1995 version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, featuring Colin Firth as popular cultures most memorable Mr Darcy. This Winters adaptation of Victor Hugo’s tale of love and loss in a war-torn 19th century France is BBC period drama at its very best. With a talented cast including Dominic West as criminal on the run Jean valjean, Lilly Collins as tragic fated Fantine and Olivia Coleman as wicked innkeeper Thenardia’s wife. Davies’ adaptation, shown as a mini series over 6 weeks, strips out any musical distractions and focuses on the bare bones of Hugo’s story, offering us complex characters that grip us from the very beginning. Tom Shankland directs with great flair and colour, providing a truly vivid and harrowing experience which is on a par with the 2012 film and West End production, while standing strong as a  commendable project in its own right.

At the crux of the story are Dominic West as Jean Valjean and David Oyelowo as Javert. A prisoner, persecuted for stealing a loaf of bread and the police chief who will stop at nothing to see his prisoner suffer and to find him and bring him back to justice when he escapes. Both actors are impressive in their roles, commanding the screen and drawing the viewer in to their intense relationship. For one cannot seem to survive without the other, and their lives are forever interconnected, ruling each others tragic fate. They blame their misfortunes and bad judgement on each other, unable to cut the tie that binds them until a tragic decision finally frees them from each other and their own demons. Never have two characters been so gripping to watch, and Davies seems to bring each man into the light, to explore and lay bare their flaws and vulnerabilities. While Jean Val Jean is a thief, who lies and steals, even from a child, we see that he feels remorse and seeks redemption, by the fact that he carries the candle sticks he took from the vicar who saved him, everywhere he goes. He also makes his way in the world and becomes the head of a factory, where he meets the lost and fragile Fantine. He is later haunted by his decision to cast her out when he hears she has a daughter and is unmarried, and tries to save her. When it’s too late he later saves her daughter from the same tragic fate. Jean Val Jean is forever haunted by his past, and too by Javert, who seeks as a constant reminder of the man he was and the man he could still be.

Javert, first appears as a stern, law protecting policeman, who thinks little of the prisoners he overrules. We see him shouting and beating them, ordering them around and in one powerful scene, standing at the top of a cliff looking down on them as they work in a pit below. As the story moves forward, Javert rises through the ranks to become chief of Police in Paris, but he is obsessed with one thing. Finding the escaped criminal Jean Valjean. For he is his one weakness, his one mistake, his one vulnerability. Something about Valjean gets under Javert’s skin. He becomes rich and dizzy with power and he sees nothing but the one man he has devoted his life to, even connecting the French revolutionary movements with Valjean as its leader. As time moves on and Valjean seems to forever slip through his grasp, a chance encounter, and an unexpected act by Valjean, throws Javert’s existence into jeopardy. In the final scenes of the series,   Oyelowo shows Javert at his most vulnerable and conflicted. Like Valjean, he too is a changed man, but he cannot accept his fate as easily and his path to redemption is brief and tragic.

Olivia Coleman is brilliantly funny as Madama Thenardier, alongside  Adeel Akhtar as Thenardier, innkeeper to whom she is married. Together they provide the humour of the story, which would be extremely dark and depressing without them. They hatch plans to make money in any way they can, taking in wayward children to do their dirty work at the inn, including poor Fantine’s daughter, Cosette, when she must leave the area to find work. Coleman has received praise worldwide lately for her work in several media outlets, including the award-winning film, The favourite. She is fabulous in Les Mis, as is Adeel Akhtar who spurs her on to join in his wicked ways while mistreating her if she steps out of line and using their children as bait for unsuspecting passers by. Thenardier goes around telling people he saved a colonel in the war, when really he inadvertently saved him while stealing his wallet. A giant painting accompanies him later on, which supposedly tells of his valiant efforts, much to the amusement of the viewer.

When Thenardier pops up in the sewer under the streets of Paris, with a key, to let Valjean free when he’s escaping the French soldiers during the unrest, for a price of course, it’s one of the most bizarre scenes in television. But it’s not an illusion by the failing Valjean or the man he rescues (Marius Pontmercy, Cosette’s suitor) which adds to the humour of this dark story and the absurd nature of Thenardier’s characters and his desperate efforts to get whatever he can from the streets that he believes have short-changed him.

Lilly Collins takes a fabulous turn as troubled Fantine, whose story is perhaps the most tragic and enduring. Young and naive, earning a modest living, the orphan girl soon catches the attention of a rich student. We see her being seduced and falling in love with this man, before being left abandoned, with a crying baby in her arms. This is only the beginning of Fantine’s tragic story. From here she fights desperately to protect her child and find a job, falling prey to Thenardier’s money-making schemes when she leaves her daughter at his inn to be looked after while she earns a living. Jean Valjean’s actions when discovering her lies, set her on the downward spiral to her ultimate death. After watching Anne Hathaway’s performance in the 2012 film of Les Mis, I did not think a more powerful rendition of Fantine’s suffering could be realised. Yet Collins’ portrayal of the young girl who in desperation to protect her child, turns to a street vendor who cuts off her beautiful long hair and pulls her teeth out with pliers, is harrowing and surreal. Expecting this scene at some point during the programme, I still had to turn my head away for the sheer brutality of the moment. In these scenes Hugo’s heart breaking story and desperately tragic are brought to life.

We then suffer the pain of watching Cosette grow up with the Thenardier’s, beaten, scolded and treated as a slave. They travel from place to place scheming and lying to get whatever they can. Until Jean Valjean comes to gain redemption and save the child, whose Mother he failed. As the world moves on, and the revolution gains power, we see Cosette grow and change, curious for a world outside of her shelter, a world were temptation and danger exists. Jean Valjean fights to protect her, whatever the cost, at the same time trying to escape the clutches of the man who claimed his past and desperately wants to take his future.

In just six episodes, Andrew Davies and Tom Shankland manage to portray Hugo’s story with passion, drama and some much-needed humour, taking the viewer on a powerful journey through the lives of some very real characters at a poignant point in French history. The cast and crew should be proud of such an adaptation, which stands alone as a modern TV series focusing on the pure heart of Hugo’s story, with no need for music, big special effects or embellishments. The big stars add something special, but the writing and filming make it a winner.

The haunting of Hill House – A new era of horror?

I came across The Haunting of Hill house like many others. A friend recommended it, everyone was talking about it, social media was going crazy with stories of watchers suffering from lack of sleep, anxiety attacks and even hallucination. As a teenager I loved horror films. Growing up with Wes Craven’s Scream franchise, then other teen horror stories such as I know what you did last summer, The Blair Witch project, The Grudge and of course The Silence of the Lambs. It was a case of the scarier the better. I’ve always been a big fan of Stephen King too. Although one of his films I still can’t watch after a childhood experience with it which left me quite terrified.

As I’ve got older, I’ve stopped seeking the same terrifying thrills such as roller coaster riding, high adrenaline sports and horror films. Something about being an adult takes away that sense of fun when being scared. The reality of life seems much more apparent. But, I pushed all that aside, to experience the new horror craze on netflix. I was told it was very well written, beautifully shot and that Horror master Stephen King himself had called it ‘a work of genius’.

So one evening I settled down to watch the first episode. It took me around a month to finish watching it. Everyone I’d spoke to was right. It is very well written, cleverly moving back and forward between the past and present to tell the story of a family who grew up in a house which was haunted, and the effects that their experiences there have on them in their adult lives.  The filming is extremely beautiful, with a feature film like quality, the setting adding something to the atmosphere and the eerie beauty of the story. It is also absolutely terrifying, plugging into every fear that is humanly possible. From haunting by unsightly, silent and hovering figures, to sleep paralysis, locked rooms, one way trips to abandoned basements…. and most of this happening to young children, whose imaginations are rife. This is cleverly interlaced with clips of their modern-day lives, in which each of them seem plagued by troubles and memories of the past. Constantly being drawn back to their experiences and the house that they abandoned in the middle of the night, their Mother having disappeared, later discovering she is dead, before becoming estranged from their father and each other. In the present, a family death forces them to come back together and face the past and their uncertain future.

What we know about horror, is that suspense is crucial. As the narrative moves on, over a series of episodes, we slowly discover the real story behind the characters memories, and it’s perhaps more terrifying than what we can ever imagine. The series is created and directed by Mike Flanagan and based on a book by Shirley Jackson. It has recently been commended by Stephen King, who it has been rumoured, has commissioned Flanagan to make the sequel to The Shining, based on his 2013 novel ‘Doctor Sleep’. It seems we have a new horror director in our midst.

Perhaps what makes Hill House so suspenseful and effective is the fact that it’s a horror series. The format allows the creator to develop the story slowly which is far more effective in the long run. Whether it’s consumed over days, weeks or months, the development of the story and characters is the same and the experience is just as gradual, hitting with maximum impact when it reaches it’s conclusion. The format is perfect for the genre.

The characters in the Haunting of Hill House are just the right level of interesting.  Carla Gugino and Timothy Hutton play the mother and father of the children, who they have brought to Hill House until they can fix the house up to sell and finally build their own dream house. Their children are Shirley, Steven, twins Nell and Luke, and Theo. From early on in the series, we get to see them in the house, and their experiences of the strange goings on than plague their surroundings. Nell is seen waking in the night and staring into the darkness at an open doorway, or screaming out for her Mother. She talks of the ‘bent neck lady’, an incredibly powerful image and reference to something that will become poignant in tragic later episodes. While her twin brother Luke, who shares her room, has visions of a disturbing floating man, with a cane and bowler hat. He also gets trapped, screaming in a basement when a dumb-waiter jams. On his return, his shirt is ripped and his glasses askew. He later draws pictures in the tree house of strange figures and a girl with short blonde hair that he sees in the grounds, often referring to her ‘old fashioned’ clothing.

We also slowly see the unravelling of their Mother, who is particularly susceptible to the varying presences in the house. Her migraines are planted as a signpost for this early on, as is a link to touch which she learns that her daughter Theo has too.

As adults, we get to know how their upbringing at Hill house, which is to become one of the most famous haunted houses in the world, effects their daily lives. Shirley, (Elizabeth Reaser) owns a funeral home and spends her days embalming dead people, until the choice to embalm her own dead sister becomes too much and forces her to face her past and the realities of her present situation. Steven (Michiel Huisman), a sceptic about what really happened at their family home, has written a book on hill house, to the distress of his family, based on the stories his brothers and sisters told him growing up. Believing it will bring him closure in his past, he finds it only opens more doors and brings up more questions. Nell (Victoria Pedretti) and her twin brother Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) seem most effected by Hill House, and despite being separated, still feel deeply each other’s pain and suffering. Nell continues to be haunted by her experiences and struggles to cope, leading to shocking consequences. Luke uses his drug addiction as a way to avoid dealing with the past and his problems in the present day. Theo (Kate Siegal) is the most interesting character for me. We see from a young age that she shares her mothers trait for feeling. This trait continues to haunt her into adulthood, where she is rarely seen without gloves, and avoids touching people for fear of what she will uncover. A particularly disturbing scene with her dead sister, leaves the viewer quite cold and disturbed. Only later, is what she has seen revealed to us. Theo, like many of her family, struggles to connect with people and to form sustainable relationships. She works as a child psychologist, with children who talk of having visions of dead people.

Despite being incredibly scary (I even tried watching it in broad daylight) The Haunting of Hill House was incredibly addictive. I wanted to keep watching. I wanted to find out what happened there and how it had effected the family in their present lives. The piecing together of the story was certainly worthy of its praise. The pace never altered and only increased in adrenaline as it approached the finale. The rave reviews and positive audience feedback, despite the siting of insomnia, anxiety attacks e.t.c, makes me wonder if they’ll produce another series. It would certainly pull in the ratings. Hill House is a refreshing take on the Horror genre, that stays with you, long after watching. If it takes you 3 days or 3 weeks to watch, it’s certainly worth it. It’s worthy of its comparison to Stephen King’s work. And it seems it’s gained the approval of the Author himself. The only thing better would perhaps be a collaboration between Flanagan and King himself. That would definitely be worth a watch.


A star is born

Autumn is always a good time for films. As soon as the last of the summer sun is soaked up, the holiday makers return home, and the blockbuster credits roll, the media are tipping the ‘big movies of the year’ which lead us into awards season.

Working in a Theatre and cinema, I like to think I always have my finger on the pulse of what’s new and upcoming in the arts. A Star is Born, was one that completely surprised me. Having only heard a little of the story, it being widely advertised as the new ‘lady gaga’ film, I was not in a hurry to see it. Yet due to a friend’s recommendation and a chance evening free, I found myself watching the film within its first week of release. During that 140 minutes, I was completely blown away by both Gaga and Bradley Cooper, who portray beautifully and unforgettably, the story of the rise and fall of fame, and the effect of the limelight on love and relationships. I can already imagine the emotional acceptance speeches at this year’s Oscars ceremony. It really was that good.

This is the fourth version of the film, which originated in 1937, based on a story by William A Wellman and Robert Carson, the screenplay was written by Dorothy Parker and Alan Campell. The 1937 film starred Janet Gaynor as an aspiring starlet and Rochard Marsh as an actor whose career is in jeopardy due to his alcoholism. It was then re-made in 1954, starring Judy Garland (of Wizard of Oz fame) and again in 1976, now set in the world of music, with Barbara Streisand and kris kristofferson, in perhaps the most recognised edition.

It is a fairly simple premise, famous rock star meets a talented young singer, they fall in love, but become threatened by the changing fates of fame, and their own personal demons. The two leads are perfectly cast to portray the story with great emotion and depth, they have fantastic chemistry and musical talent, their voices blending effortlessly. Cooper is also director, producer and a screenwriter of the film and in an impressive director debut, manages to portray the feel of celebrity life, the reaction of the crowds and atmosphere of the music gigs with great effect. Walking away from the cinema, it was hard to believe the story isn’t real. Although perhaps, in a way, it is. It’s a realistic representation of life in the public eye, of the fleeting world of music and celebrity, of the humanity behind the personas and the struggle to maintain an ordinary life and relationship. It’s very suitable for a modern audience.

We are immediately thrown into the spotlight at the beginning of the film, where we see Cooper as Jackson Maine at the height of his fame. He sings and plays guitar live on stage to an audience of thousands, before wiping the sweat from his face and running a hand through his shoulder length wavy hair (Cooper looks rough and rugged throughout) then jumping in a cab and finishing off a bottle of alcohol. Not content with this being the end of his night, he finds himself at a drag bar where Gaga’s character Ally is performing. This begins their meeting and a very bumpy journey through fame and out the other side. Early scenes did seem quite strange at times. Perhaps reflecting the awkward meeting of two people from very different lives, who barely know each other but feel drawn together. Jack talks about Ally’s nose, asking can he touch it and saying it should have its own spotlight. Ally punches a man in a bar for wanting to take Jack’s picture just to prove his girlfriend’s new man doesn’t look like the star, then Jack tapes a bag of frozen peas to her hand. These scenes, seem to show Jack’s vulnerability and a softer side to the rock star, while opening Ally’s world of music and songwriting. Later they sit in an empty car park and talk about music. Jack immediately seems taken with Ally and from then on he doesn’t quit until she follows him on his tour.

I like that we see Ally (Gaga too) looking natural and girl-next-door like at the beginning of the film. Her gradual transformation to a full-blown pop star is fascinating and very convincing. Even the music that she sings and how it changes when she becomes signed by an Agent, adding dance moves and dancers to her routines. In early scenes she talks about her nose, how she’s been told she doesn’t look the part. There are huge echoes of Gaga’s own experience and anxieties here, as well as the true workings of the film and music industry. Gaga manages to take us on a journey so that as Ally changes and grows with confidence, so do we. This is set alongside Jack’s fall in fame, his struggle with drug and alcohol addiction and his crippling jealousy of the star he discovered.

At the heart of the story is the love the two characters share with each other. They are inseparable and this shows us the dangers of being in such an all-consuming relationship, the pressures of fame and addictive quality of life on the road. While Ally adapts and grows under the spotlight, Jack has become consumed by it and the only way he can cope is by drinking and drug taking, as his career continues to fall.

The final quarter of the film is extremely thought-provoking and hard-hitting. For those  who don’t know the story, like myself, it comes as a shock. I challenge anyone not to cry in the final scenes. It is here that Gaga’s voice is truly showcased. The music is incredible throughout, all original tracks written by many talented musicians including Mark Ronson and Diane Warren, accompanied by Gaga and Cooper’s stunning voices. The chemistry they provide is the heart of the film and it’s their story, as Jack and Ally, that stays with you, long after you’ve left the cinema.



Cheltenham Literature Festival

I’ve been going to Hay literature Festival in Hay on Wye, for the past 15 years. Ever since I first discovered it during my MA Creative Writing course, when we gained a slot to promote our group anthology due to a course member’s mutual acquaintance with one of the founders. Since then, I’ve only ever missed one year of the Festival. I build my year around it, and May is always a month that is carefully planned, being mindful of the dates that I must keep free for my yearly pilgrimage. Almost nothing gets in the way.

I have been planning, for many years since my original adventure into literature festivals, to branch out and attend others across the UK, to see what differs, hoping to extend my love of literature and the arts into more than a ‘once a year’ celebration with like minded people. So this year, thanks to a new and equally as literature obsessed colleague, I took the opportunity to attend Cheltenham Literature Festival.

Having no knowledge or preconceptions of Cheltenham, other than a reference to the Cheltenham and Gloucester building society and a family members exclamation that the ‘shopping is great,’ I was completely unaware of what to expect. I booked my accommodation, event tickets and picked up all the local information I could before setting off in the company of someone who granted, was not ‘a book person.’ What I expected was a literature festival in the middle of a busy town, perhaps similar to hay and maybe a little bigger, with some bigger names. What I got was a wonderfully different experience which came up close to my beloved Hay Festival.

Set in the grounds of Montpelier Park, the festival site is a welcoming warmth of coloured flags, fairy lights and quirky monuments to literature, which included giant book covers, typewriter keys which doubled up as seats and an owl sculpture. All of this is built around a collection of various sized marquees and surrounded by full Autumnal bloom. It is literature for a new season, foreshadowing the dark nights curled up by the fire with a good book, or wintry days at a coffee shop with the newspaper and a recent podcast. A bandstand had been transformed into a little nook for people to sit and relax with friends, or drink coffee and read books. Large armchairs and settees were surrounded by quirky furniture scattered with reading material, while Chinese lanterns hung from the ceiling. Immediately I loved this place. Immediately it seemed to invite me in.

The festival was buzzing with anticipation. People of all ages were dashing about despite the rain, on their way to events, to grab hot drinks or to meet friends and family. I booked for two events over the weekend. The humorously titled Heathcliff Vs Darcy: Who’s the bigger s**t? and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca at 80. 

The first, Heatcliff vs Darcy: Who’s the bigger s**t? was a lively debate between a panel of well known writers, including Festival Curator Sebastian Faulks, Novelist and Sunday Times Columnist Dolly Alderton and Novelists Sarah Moss and Phillip Hensher. Faulks and Alderton were to argue for Darcy as the bigger s**t, while Moss and Hensher chose Heathcliff. My mind was already made up. Although it can be argued that Heathcliff’s mistreatment and violent upbringing as a child, contributed to his treatment, torture and responsibility of the death of several characters in Wuthering Heights, his character is far worse in his actions than the snobby and prejudiced Mr Darcy, who is little more than an upper class twit who is put in his place by the witty and smart Lizzie Bennett. In both situations however, class is a key theme to the characters lives and causes their misery as well as their actions.

The debate was an interesting one though. Alderton brought a nice touch of the modern day dating world to the argument, siting Darcy as a bad man, who in the modern world would be asked by her fellow millenials to ‘check his privilege’. She explained his behaviour towards Elizabeth as ‘negging,’ in which he appears to be complimentary but only seeks to lower Lizzie’s self confidence whilst also causing her to seek his approval. Alderton noted she has come across many Mr Darcy’s in her time and that we have gained a kind of Stockholm syndrome to them. She waved away any excuses of shyness or social awkwardness, refusing to accept an audience members suggestion that Darcy was ‘on the spectrum’. Inevitably, the Colin Firth reference came up, (He starred as Darcy in the hugely popular 1995 TV Adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) and Alderton claimed Mr Darcy had been ‘misrepresented’ by Firth. If he didn’t wish to dance at the ball, the key source of social interaction of the time, he would have had no sense to put on a see- through white shirt.  This was met with laughter from the audience, but a fair point.

Sarah Moss’ response to Alderton’s ramble about the bad influence of Mr Darcy on women readers throughout history, was met with laughs too. Brief and to the point, she replied that if Alderton has met lots of Darcy’s, she should be thankful she hasn’t met lots of Heathcliff’s, as ‘Kathy ends up dead’. With reference to the way Lizzie must live as Darcy’s wife, having married into money and status, she summed up her argument with the words’ I’d much rather have a big house at Pemberley than a nice grave on the moors’.

Sebastian Faulks approached the argument that Darcy is more of a sh**t than Heathcliff by using direct quotes, displaying the rudeness of his character. He noted how Darcy states it would be ‘mortifying’ to be drawn to Elizabeth and his resistance to her ‘objectionable family’. He also uses Darcy’s refusal to intervene with Wickham’s dastardly plans, allowing him to attempt to run off with his own sister, and then Lizzie’s too, as a reason to site him as the worse of the two. Darcy, Faulks says, explains his refusal to react to such a situation as ‘beneath him’ despite it threatening to ruin his family honour and the Bennett’s too. Faulks didn’t hold back, calling Darcy a ‘manipulative, hypocritical, self centred depressive.’ Much of which I agreed with. His final comments that Darcy needs Bingley as an interface between himself and other people was interesting. As in each instance, Bingley seems to be there to encourage Darcy and also to make him a slightly better person.

Phillp Hensher had the most amusing and believable argument. To begin, he noted that we must recognise the difference between ‘an a***hole and a s**t’. The first, he states, doesn’t know his behaviour is bad, the second, knows he is being a s**t and will go out of his way to be that. Hensher’s hilarious reference to Darcy and Heathcliff taking a disabled parking space is comedy gold, and it makes the point. Darcy, Henser states would take the disabled space not realising he’s depriving anyone, while Heatchliff would see someone trying to drive into the space and he would deliberately overtake them to take the space. Met by laughter from the audience, Hensher had set his argument well. Hensher went on to talk in detail about this difference, and to apply it to Heathcliff and Darcy in turn. He notes Heathcliff’s ability to cause the death of several characters in the novel and to destroy the lives of everyone he comes into contact with. The most valid point in the argument. He also talked about the idea of redemption in Wuthering Heights and in much 19th century literature, Heathcliff’s attempt to wipe the slate clean so he could go and do it all over again. He concluded that ‘we all need a bit of shit in our lives. The sex appeal, the excitement.’ This may have been going too far, but then, Hensher is right in the sense that there are many s**ts in the world, and we can’t escape that. Whether it makes life more interesting is a matter of opinion. It certainly makes for a more interesting read.

The audience questions were interesting, from suggestions that Darcy is ‘on the spectrum’ to wondering what would happen should Heathcliff and Darcy meet? The panel replied with comments such as, ‘Darcy wouldn’t have time for him…’ ‘Heathcliff would set the dogs on Darcy.’

The final conclusions led to an audience vote which resulted in the winner being crowned Heathcliff. A worthy winner in my opinion. What did make me laugh, was a final comment by Hensher to a lady in the audience who began with ‘Wuthering Heights is my favourite book,’ on answering her question, he seemed more perplexed by her first comment, ‘really? It’s your favourite book?’ Such an entertaining event! It made me wonder if in future they could do a series of similar events, pitching other literary characters against each other.

Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca at 80 was an interesting discussion by a group of Du Maurier enthusiasts and writers within the thriller and Gothic literature genre. Author, broadcaster and critic Sarah Dunant, Author of The Essex Serpents, Thriller writer Sarah Perry, Sabine Durrant and chaired by The Pool’s Sam Baker.

These 4 women were clearly huge fans of the novel and of Du Maurier herself. Sam Baker noted at the beginning how Rebecca has never been out of print since it was first published in 1938. Also, it’s lack of real recognition for critics, and the common reference to Du Maurier as a Gothic romance novel writer. I remember reading Rebecca when I was in my twenties, after recommendation from a friend. The opening line pulled me in straight away and I can not remember a novel that left me so cold and with such a strong memory of the characters. They still haunt me even now. I could relate to everything the women were saying, and I could see the audience, (which spanned several decades) were connecting in the same way. There was much talk of that opening line, of the two Mrs De winters, of Maxim and even Mrs Danvers. I would have liked to have heard more of Du Maurier herself, and should I have had the confidence to ask a question, I might have asked how the reading of Rebecca had affected the panel’s individual responses to the rest of Du Maurier’s work. Believing I was not the only one to read her most famous work and then rush out to buy anything else I could get my hands on.

The audience members were most interested in the many film versions of the film. To which the panel seemed to agree, as I did, that they seemed to take away the essence of the book within the last few minutes. Also much discussion fell onto what the second Mrs De Winters first name might be. All we know is that it’s ‘unusual and it suits her’. There was also an interest on the different gender reader perspectives and the span of age ranges approaching it too. It is a book that spans time and can change on different readings as the panel noted, many of them having first read it when they were teenagers. It certainly inspired me to take another reading of it.  It’s a book that I have never been quite able to erase from my memory.

Should I have had more time at the festival, I certainly would have attended more events. There were several that I had highlighted in the programme as of interest. Mary Shelley: A life of Men and Monsters looked fascinating. I was also intrigued by Oscar Wilde: The First Celebrity. Particularly in light of the film release of ‘The Happy Prince’, based on Wilde’s life following his release from Prison for Homosexuality. Also, an event discussing the life and work of writer Katherine Mansfield, who I remember studying at University.

I realised as we wandered around the festival, as I soaked in the atmosphere, watched the wonderful events and talked to like minded people, that I had been mistaken in thinking there could be just one literary home for me. In believing that Hay Festival was where it ended. That was where it had only just begun. Because Cheltenham, for me, was just an extension of my first love, a celebration of all things literary in a different setting. Sure Hay would always be my first, I would always have fond memories of the times I had spent there, they could never be replaced. But there are so many other wonderful places to discover and celebrate the written word, the varied art forms and those who have created them. I left Cheltenham with a new found love for literary festivals. With a hunger for finding the next adventure, and a burning question of ‘what’s next?’

© Amanda Griffiths

Cheltenham Literature Festival runs every year in early October, set in the grounds of Montpelier Park, in the town Centre.


A new direction?

Last Saturday, an unbelievably rainy Welsh Saturday, I travelled down to the small Pembrokeshire village of Llangwm, to take part in a Travel Writing Workshop with Phoebe Smith. It was part of the Llangwm Literary festival, which takes place every year, bringing together writers, artists and creative people from all backgrounds to celebrate literature, both local and further afield, and to take part in some wonderfully creative talks, workshops and events. Each takes place at a location around the village, including venues such as the village church, the local pub and the rugby club.

I have often thought about branching out my creative output, from novel writer, freelance writer and reviewer, sometime poet and short story writer (more rarely these days) and blogger, to something a bit more exotic. I have always loved to travel. From the age of 10, my mum and dad would take me in my sister off to France for caravan holidays. I have fond memories of sun soaked days on the beach, ferry crossings in which I’d watch the white cliffs of Dover disappear into the distant, the endless stretch of blue sea ahead. The confusing babble of another language being spoken around me, the sickly sweet smell of cigar smoke, the funny french music, and rows of pastries, dotted with colourful fruits and flakes of chocolate in the patisserie window. The loud, erratic noise of a motorbike engine, the feel of the cool cobble streets which led out into a town square, marked by little shops and restaurants, their tables and chairs set out on the uneven streets. Night times would be occupied with eating outside, sitting beneath the awning and gazing up at the night sky, slapping the odd mosquitos from our limbs. Playing cards or telling stories about our days discoveries. These memories were often punctuated with others that stalled our progress. A stomach bug that kept me bed bound for a week, the fresh taste of the boiled egg Ihad on recovering, the time my dad locked the car keys in the boot of the car, the note on our awning, kept still by a stone, to tell us my gran had passed away. But nothing stopped us travelling. Each year we visited a new place, we travelled further, we went for longer. As a child, the 6 week summer holidays stretched out with endless possibility, where would we go next?

As I got older, I began to explore on my own. I took trips to other places with friends. I visited  Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Majorca, Rome.. my insatiable love for travel never wavering. One week was never enough. While my companions often admitted they’d be glad to get home, I was always left with a sinking feeling in my stomach on that final day. Lapping up the culture and atmosphere of a place until the final hours. Often being on the beach just a few hours before my plane was due to take off!

This interest in travel had occasionally coincided with my writing. I would write down memories or observations of my travelling, sometimes making them into poems or short fiction. My experiences proved useful during my degree course when I took a module in travel writing. Past trips would make it into my assignments, although it was often hard to recall exact emotions and sensations without my having noted it down at the time. Something which Phoebe cited as really important to recreate an experience – ‘if you don’t have paper, record your thoughts on your phone.’

Phoebe talked about finding a way to make your story interesting for the reader, and finding your niche. It’s about writing about something or somewhere you’re passionate about, finding an angle that’s different and appealing. Looking back at the travel writing I’ve done, I can see that, although the places I’ve been to have inspired me greatly, in order to write about them, I need more of a connection. This got me thinking. What makes me feel connected to a place, what inspires me about it? What makes me passionate about it?

I love writing about writing. I love writing about writers, and books and films. I feel inspired when I learn about my passion, when I am surrounded by it and anything linked to it. I figure this would be a good place to start. When I worked as a freelance writer for my local paper, on the entertainment section, I would often research my local area for links to film and literature, making many interesting discoveries about events in my own back yard. This is what I loved to write about. This is what I found interesting to read about. Maybe others would too?

Phoebe’s words were extremely inspiring. Her credentials read well too. She has been published widely in travel magazines such as Wanderlust and Trail Magazine, national newspaper travel writing sections, as well as becoming an editor herself, so knows what publishers and editors are looking for. She also has 8 books published and more on the way. Her enthusiasm for her work was infectious. Her words were honest, frank and at times very humorous. She was also very supportive and encouraging to the group, getting us to introduce our neighbours rather than ourselves, to take part in an exercise studying travel segments of newspapers and to have a go at an observational writing exercise too.

In that cosy little corner of The Cottage Inn in Llangwm, in the company of strangers from all walks of life, I began to feel inspired again. The three-hour workshop was a welcome break from a busy schedule, a stressful few weeks, and got me thinking in a new light. A concept that had appealed to me as something that may be of interest, now seemed like something, not just that I could do one day, but something that I was already doing, in my own way.  I write about what inspires me, which often involves travel, now I just have to make that more of a conscious thing. To think about my readers, and the direction of my work. To make it interesting.

I have a few trips in mind, based around my love of literature. And I’m really excited for the stories and discoveries these trips might bring. Some of Phoebe’s final words still stick in my mind, a compass point for my thoughts, ‘if you have an idea for a travel piece, just take a trip and see what happens’. I think I might just do that.