The Curious Arts festival moved this year to a new venue and combined with the Byline Festival for a three-day extravaganza of ideas in the woods. Stunning setting. I was with the New River Press poets, taking part in an epic reading of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell on Saturday night.
The Curious events were held in the Speakeasy tent at the top of the site and on arrival on Friday afternoon (great cab ride from East Grinstead with the musician Ebson, of whom more later) I headed there to hear the wonderful John Niven (‘Kill Your Friends’) in conversation. He was about 20 minutes late (he had a good excuse) and chair Cosmo Landesman had the brilliant idea of interviewing members of the audience while we waited, including a man in the front row who actually owned and erected the tent we were sitting in. Niven, when he arrived, was as filthily funny and interestingly introspective as we could have hoped.
Extinction Rebellion were a heavy presence at the festival and in the evening they led a funeral procession (for the planet) from the bottom to the top of the site. I happened upon the Forest Forum in time for an insane set by Seething Akira – at least that’s who I think they were judging from the programme, but the billing ‘5-piece Electronic Rock Band’ barely does them justice. For a start there seemed to be about a dozen of them, the lead singer looked like a Hairy Biker and the intensity was off the scale. Made even funnier by the fact that a sedate audience sat around on haybales politely applauding their antics. Meanwhile behind me, the rest of the New River crew threw themselves repeatedly into a haybale construction until they’d reduced it to stubble.
We had promised to go and check out Ebson down in the Future Dome and he didn’t disappoint. In the cab he explained that it was going to be a stripped-down set, just him and piano, though he has worked with more elaborate orchestration in the past. Plaintive, mellow, heartfelt songs, melancholic with a touch of uplift, bearded soul rather along the lines of Rag’n’Bone Man. He was terrific. Other musical treats included The Feeling, Blow Monkeys and Pussy Riot who got everyone leaping around.
On Saturday Murray Lachlan Young’s show ‘Modern Cautionary Tales For Children’ was utterly hilarious as he lined up nine (I think) kids and poetically killed them one by one. They really enjoyed dying one after another, from dramatic sideways slump to full-on faceplant, all the while being sardonically rated by the host. There was just the right amount of mild sadism directed at the tinies to keep the adults amused.
The New River Poets took to the Speakeasy at 5pm, comprising Heathcote Ruthven, Niall McDevitt, Anna Seferovic and me, bookended by a performance by singer-songwriter Sophie Naufal, whose songs have a wonderful kind of dreamy malevolence, and Toby, an actor, reading an astonishingly in your face piece by poet Jamie Lee (preferring to remain in the audience). It concerned unmentionable things happening in the Gents toilet of a pub after hours. Just when you didn’t think it would get any more graphic… it did.
I read a poem inspired by a character well known to anybody who has arrived at the Port Eliot festival by train – the young chap who greets all arrivals and speeds all departures, reads out the destinations and advises where best to stand on the platform for the journey back to London. I’m afraid I turned him into a mythological character in (slightly bastardised) terza rima. ‘Station Freddie’ as he’s known didn’t seem to mind; the piece was later Tweeted to him.
Some of the best times at festivals involve simply sitting around and talking to people: in my case twilight drinks with Kirsty Lang and Mischa Glenny and friends, including a former colleague from the Independent; chats with Geoff Dyer and Duncan Minshull in the clubhouse; and a long time spent lounging on a haybale with Stephanie Theobald, also reminiscing about beloved colleagues (Tim Clarke of Time Out and Paris Passion).
Later that night we lit candles in the Human Library tent, handed round cups of absinthe and roared our way through (most of) A Season in Hell, with help from audience members and crew (thanks Meredith, Darren and Kat!). It ended in absolute chaos, but I think Rimbaud would have approved of that.