Thursday, 9 October 2014

A Tale of Three Festivals by Julia Jones

What festival organisers do -
1. Claudia Myatt, coracle addict,
Strong Winds series illustrator
and part of the M Woodbridge team
pretending that all she does is pose
This is a what-I-did-on-my-holidays blogpost. It won't raise your consciousness, touch your heart or even help to improve your ebook sales. In September I was invited to three different festivals and I went. I didn't get paid but none of the people organising the festivals was earning anything out of them either. These were not high-profile, prestigious events. They were intended to be fun.

First in the diary came Maritime Woodbridge. This is a biennial happening centered mainly around a derelict boatyard but extending some way further along the Woodbridge waterfront and into the town as well. It's intended to connect with the Heritage Open Days scheme, the weekend every year when interesting places that are not normally open invite the public in or free. In Woodbridge the main pieces of heritage are boats and one of the reasons that it can only be biennial is that it must coincide with mid-day high tides. The river is otherwise absent from the occasion.

The tide is low. My friend Fliss
faces The Plank
When I say that I was invited to this festival, of course I wasn't really. It was Peter Duck and the ghost of Ransome they required, not me. I know my place. I am Peter Duck's current curator. It's my job to ensure that I've scrubbed her deck free of seagull dirt and cleared the cabin of most of the clutter that has accumulated over the summer. Then I have to manoeuvre her into an awkward and extremely muddy dock, run up a few flags and try to hide my shame at the state of her varnish compared with the other classic yachts we are moored alongside. Access is via a narrow wooden plank that angles more or less steeply with the tide. I'm regularly surprised now many people do take their courage their hands and come on board (the terror may be part of the attraction) but for everyone else I put a stack of please-take-one leaflets in plastic folders on the quayside and park mum in a chair nearby. Heaven knows what she tells them from the wreckage of her memories but she likes it and there are almost always people who will size up the situation and sit and talk to her while their partners or offspring dare to negotiate the plank. People are extraordinarily kind. Then mum wants to come on board. Strong men materialise and much hilarity ensues.

Matchless at Maritime Woodbridge
There's a wealth of boats, entertainment and people - I was especially glad to meet Fred Dorrington and Matchless from the Pioneer Sailing Trust for whom I have just begun to write a blog, Scantlings from Harker's Yard. This year the entertainment included short maritime-related films at the Riverside cinema, shanty singers at the cruising club and brass bands along the river wall. Then in the evening we could all sink happily into our cabins and cockpits and discuss events with a tumbler of wine or bottle of beer in hand.

Bottles of beer were much in evidence the following weekend when Francis and I were enjoying the delights of Flensburg in the north German state of Schleswig Holstein. It's at the tip of a Baltic fiord and is where Carruthers joins Davies and the Dulcibella in chapter 2 of The Riddle of the Sands.  Childers's characters knocked back a grog or two (the town is famous for its rum) but were too busy Saving The Empire to try as much as a single Flensburger Pilsener. We didn't make their mistake. We were in Flensburg for the second Literaturboot festival -- and once again it was Peter Duck who had initially wangled our invitation. Martin Schulz, project manager at the town's historic harbour, had happened to come sailing on board PD when I'd loaned her to a mutual friend. They were prevented by fog from reaching Ransome's Secret Water so in desperation Martin picked The Salt-Stained Book from her shelves. He read it and we became friends, mainly via the favouring winds of social media. Then he and his wife and adorable child had time to spare in Harwich. We met and the plot was hatched.

Now I could really burst into holiday mode as my lovely Francis hasn't been able to go anywhere since he arrived home from a lit fest in Australia four years ago and began suffering excruciating, debilitating back pain which has led to a depressing series of operations and what they call 'procedures' in health-speak. The most recent was performed by a doctor who strolled in with a needle and asked Francis where he wanted her to stick it. Nobly controlling himself he simply suggested that as she was (allegedly) the professional he'd rather hoped she might have had some ideas... ? So she jabbed it in, the darned thing appeared to work and we were in the car and heading for the Harwich-Esbjerg ferry without pausing to check whether she was actually an escaped vet, more used to sedating the rhinos at Colchester Zoo.

But I won't. I won't tell you what joy it was to be trundling through the North Sea islands of Romo and Sylt, the two of us together in our trusty Skoda Fabia, nor will I mention sitting in the sunshine on a Baltic excursion vessel investigating the merits of Pilsener, Dunkel, Weizen or Gold while munching on an equally bewildering variety of pickled herrings and looking out for dampfers, galeasses, jollen and dei klassischen Yachten. I'll just say that if you like boats and books, Flensburg is the place for you.

What festival organisers do -
2. Detlef Jens in the bookstall
accompanied by singers
The literature festival took place on two of the town's historic vessels and was particularly interesting in that the emphasis seemed to be much more clearly on the text rather than the author. Books were to be read aloud, not simply talked about. This was a treat for me as it meant that Alistair Tarwid, who is translating Das salzbeflckte Buch, had the job of reading it. The audience was ... small. In fact I'd probably say that the only uninvited member was an elderly lady who looked as though she might have been in a similar situation to my mum. Detlef Jens, author, journalist, festival-organiser and general all-round good guy, was sad about this as tickets for festival events over the previous few days had sold well. But Alistair was undaunted and read three long chapters as if he'd been hired to do a one man show at the National Theatre. I leaned against Francis, surrendered to the gentle rocking of the Gesine (a former freighter) and loved it. Oh the villainy of my bullying policeman when read aloud with melodramatic emphasis in German!
Support team = Francis, Martin, Alistair,
Manya, Doris and Gesine

Audience size was possibly a disappointment for the Friends of Lowestoft Library who organised "the most easterly festival in Britain" and yes, you guessed it, had rather hoped that Peter Duck might like to come... But I was only just home from "the most northerly town in Germany" and what is 40 minutes on the train from Woodbridge is a full day's sail by boat. So they only got me and anyway I'm not entirely sure how PD would have fitted into the pleasant upstairs meeting room where I joined five other guests. There was Anneliese Matheron, bubbly author of children's books for the 7-10s (and enthusiastic amateur astronomer AND home-schoolerof her children): David Butcher, indefatigable local historian (how I wished I'd met him before writing Mr Vandervelde in The Lion of Sole Bay) and illustrator Mandy Stanley whose Lettice Rabbit books have sold over a million copies and whose main problem is the physical pain she experiences keeping completely as she draws on her graphics pad. I wish I could express how impressively  professional she was and how much I hope that she'll never need the services of Francis's escaped-vet-back-injector.

The enthusiasts, Lowestoft: Julia, John, David, Mandy & Anneliese
Elly was double-acting it at Southwold Library

And that was just the morning. After lunch we had The Curator (+ her Peter Duck leaflets) and then the irrepressible 'writerman' John Hales who had been taught throughout his Lowestoft secondary school by indefatigable David Butcher (above), had run a travelling Shakespeare company (plus plus plus) , saved the Lowestoft Seagull Theatre and had just been nominated for his first BAFTA in the 'breakthrough' category at the age of 44. I mean it was all -- wow! I couldn't stay to hear thriller-writer Elly Griffiths but guzzled two of her hugely enjoyable Ruth Galloway investigations there and back via Abellio Great Anglia. A Great Day Out, as the posters would say.

I have no conclusions to draw. All I can say is that, for me, these three festivals were properly festive. And I'd like to thank all the people who gave up their time to organising them and who invited ... Peter Duck.
What festival organisers do -
3. Diana, Friend of Lowestoft Library
bravely realising she has only The Curator to introduce

(PS If mention of the Riddle of the Sands awakens feelings of nostalgia, you might like to consider Mark Chisnell's The Fulcrum Files or Sam Llewellyn's The Shadow of the Sands, two thrillers reviewed on our sister site Eclectic Electric.)


Jan Needle said...

What a wonderful piece of writing, Jul. Thanks. I wanted to be on board PD with all of you and mum. xx

Bill Kirton said...

A lovely post, Julia. Like Jan, I wish I'd been with you. Sailing and old boats always seem to conjure up a different set of values.

julia jones said...

Mum would have loved it even more - MEN! Yes!!!!

Lydia Bennet said...

lovely to read about sea/boat centred lit Fests! so glad you, your mum and Francis all had some good times, Peter D as well of course.

julia jones said...

You'll be off to Iceland soon, won't you Valerie? I envy that!

Reb MacRath said...

Thanks for sharing this, Julia. A delight that's inspired me to get out and about, interacting next year.

Reb MacRath said...

Thanks for sharing this, Julia. A delight that's inspired me to get out and about, interacting next year.

Lydia Bennet said...

yes Julia, and I"ve booked a super jeep excursion including a snowmobile driving bit on a glacier... might be a bit much but I'll have to manage! I like festivals and have done quite a few and they vary wildly and widely in organisation, ambience, and fun. You seem to have a good sense of finding some fun ones!