BudLitFest – Day 3

Budleigh stones on beach #budlitfest

I am up and out by 9.15am. On a Sunday. Last day of the festival and three events for me today. The weather is glorious again and I find a free parking space right by the Public Hall. Winning.

Keep reading to the end for a summary of the whole event.

If you missed them read:

  • Day 1 – Kaffe Fassett, Paula Hawkins and Poldark here
  • Day 2 – Sarah Winman and Hilary Mantel here.

Day 3 – Sunday 20 September

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst ‘Finding Alice’

We don’t bury ourselves in books, books bury themselves in us. And the books that we read as children really seem to stick.

I was intrigued the moment I saw this session in the programme. I love Alice and I’m fascinated by the iconography of these stories and the way they exist in the cutural consciousness. I also find them sinister and unsettling – as a child I never wanted to actually visit Wonderland in the way that I did Narnia. The talk is by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, a rather dashing Oxford professor who has written a book so big you could wedge a church door open with it.

Finding Alice event #budlitfest

What I learnt:

  • Alice Liddell’s life was forever affected by Carroll’s book. The real Alice and the literary Alice became muddled and intertwined over the years; something that Liddell seems to have both enjoyed and resented.
  • The major theme in the Alice books, and in Carroll’s life, is doubling or twins. Charles Dodgson was a religious mathematician who dealt in absolutes; but he was also Lewis Carroll who played with letters and numbers, magic and surrealism. By creating a fictional Alice, and by photographing Liddell, he created two versions of her. The real girl who would eventually become a woman; and the ‘character’ of a little girl he could control, who would never change and never grow old.
  • The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party can be read as a Dantian representation of hell. The characters are locked in purgatory for some nameless transgression which requires them move in never-ending circles around the table; trapped at a tea party where only the dormouse ever gets any tea.
  • No matter how you cut it, Carroll’s relationships with young girls are unsettling. It’s difficult to say for certain if he’s fetishising children or childhood, and we have to consider the cutural context for a man who lived in a society where young teens could marry. But still. He immersed himself in the world of fictional Alice for 30 years; long after real Alice became a woman.
  • There is an utterly charming 1903 film of Alice in Wonderland which the BFI have restored. Watch it on YouTube.

I had a brief chat with Douglas-Fairhurst afterwards. I could have spoken to him about Alice for hours, and I definitely don’t have a crush on the handsome, charming professor.

Patrick Gale ‘A Place Called Winter’

My editor said; ‘I think that’s enough ploughing now.

Gale’s event has the comfiest looking chairs I’ve ever seen – he’s clearly a festival pro. It’s a packed house and he holds the audience in the palm of his hand throughout. I sensed that the session could have been three hours long and no-one would have minded.

Patrick Gale #budlitfest

What I learnt:

  • Gale can only write at home on his farm where it’s quiet, and he writes all his novels longhand in a notebook.
  • A Place Called Winter is based on the real-life story of Gale’s maternal great-grandfather. He found out that his relative, Harry Cane, left his wife and children and went to Canada as a ‘homesteader’ in the early 20th Century and didn’t return to England for 50 years. Only parts of Harry’s life story are know so Gale has filled in the blanks with fiction.
  • Winter is a real place and, as part of his research, Gale travelled to Canada and visited the farm Harry worked. He used map co-ordinates to see the exact spot where the farmhouse stood.
  • The government shopping list of things needed for a move to Canada in the novel is real. It includes equipment suitable for a trip to India and only one winter hat. It shows how so many homesteaders were woefully unprepared for the Canadian winters and may explain why so many of them died.
  • Gale has done a phenomenal amount of research about the early pioneers in Canada. His findings on the Plains Cree Indians are both fascinating and appalling.
  • Gale’s next novel will be about a cellist and will follow the whole course of a man’s life.

Afterwards I met Patrick Gale and introduced Booey to him – so I’ve totally nailed parenting – and then we had a brief chat on Twitter and I did a little happy dance.

Patrick Gale tweets #budlitfest

Sarah Waters ‘The Paying Guests’

It’s a book about mess, in all sorts of ways.

It’s the final session of the festival so there’s a bit of a giddy, end-of-term feel. Sarah Waters is teeny tiny, very stylish and has fabulous hair. She is also intelligent, engaging and funny.

Sarah Waters #budlitfest

What I learnt:

  • Waters read Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley and DH Lawrence when she was researching the 1920s, but none of them gave her what she was looking for. However, Vera Brittain’s memoirs were incredibly useful.
  • In the 1920s The Manchester Guardian ran a series of articles about getting rid of household items which collected dust to help families who found themselves without domestic servants for the first time. Waters enjoyed writing the domestic side of the novel: “There was more homework in the earlier drafts; I got very fond of it!”
  • The Paying Guests addresses some of the concerns of the era such as anxiety about the suburbs, the rise of the lower middle classes and women’s autonomy over their own bodies.
  • You don’t have to go back very far in history to find a very different set of social norms. It’s helpful to remember that the ‘traditional’ ideals we become so fixated with aren’t so fixed. Fiction is a great way of exploring British social history.
  • Tipping the Velvet is now a stage show…  You may not want to take your gran to see this.
  • At the beginning of the session, chair Rachel Cooke explains that they will be very careful not to give away the plot twist. They then give away the plot twist. About three times.

To wrap-up

It’s been an amazing three days and I feel lucky to have such a brilliant festival on my doorstep. The line-up was so good it was really an embarrassment of riches; I just wish I’d had the time (and the money!) to see Ben Okri, Margaret Drabble and David Hare too.

Over the eight sessions I went to I felt that three themes seemed to appear.

  • The roles of women – they way they live, the way they are represented and the choices they are able to make.
  • Memory and it’s reliability.
  • The joy and the challenges of blending fact and fiction.

I’m not sure whether the writers were all covering similar areas; or if I’m just attracted to those themes. Next year I’ll need to have a bigger sample size to come to a conclusion.

And I definitely will be going next year. This festival had such an incredible sense of community and celebration – it really is a wonderful, stimulating, fun event. Roll on 2016.


BudLitFest – Day 2

Budleigh Beach

Only two events today. It’s a hot sunny day, so between them I eat a sandwich on a bench overlooking the beach and read a book. Children are swimming in the sea and a man is selling fresh fish on the pebble seafront. Today is a very good day.


Day 2 – Saturday 19 September

Sarah Winman ‘A Year of Marvellous Ways’

It’s about the story of your life that you tell yourself.

This is an extra session for me. The original writer Liza Klaussman was forced to cancel at quite late notice and Sarah Winman stepped in to fill the space. This is fantastic news for me as I’m a huge fan, but it does mean that the room is only just over half full. It’s a real shame as Winman is interesting, engaging and articulate. So much so that I become completely absorbed in the talk and make hardly any notes.

What I learnt:

  • Winman is absolutely passionate about the importance of the arts and creativity in education as she believes Marvellous Ways coverbeing creative is what helps us to become well-rounded individuals.
  • Landscapes are very important in The Year of Marvellous Ways. Winman wanted to set the book in Cornwall, but she felt the Cornish landscape was masculine because of the rocks punching through the land, and Marvellous needed to be in a feminine landscape. She resolved this by putting Marvellous on a lake which was based on a creek she saw in South Carolina – and then dropping that in to Cornwall.
  • Winman was an actor and narrates her own audiobooks. Someone in the room specifically asks about this because her reading from The Year of Marvellous Ways in the session is so beautiful.
  • When the audiobook of When God Was a Rabbit was made Winman had to audition for the job of narrator; and the producer told her that she was doing the voices for her own characters wrong.

This was a really lovely session and I could have listened for much longer. I’m about 100 pages in to The Year of Marvellous Ways and I highly recommend it. It’s sweet, dark and very magical.


Hilary Mantel ‘The Mirror and the Light’

It’s in time’s erasures, in the white spaces between the lines, that the novelist goes to work.

The session at St Peter’s starts at 4.30pm and by 4pm there’s already a queue of festival goers snaking down the church drive. Inside, the church fills quickly and there’s a lively and expectant atmosphere for Budleigh’s beloved ‘bard’.

The lady next to me says; “For the last couple of years she’s told us that she hasn’t finished The Mirror and the Light yet. I wonder if it’s finished now.”

“I haven’t yet finished The Mirror and the Light!” announces Hilary Mantel as she arrives onstage.

Wolf Hall picture

I forgot to take a photo, so here’s a gratuitous picture of Damian Lewis and a cross toddler

What I learnt:

  • The Wolf Hall universe now includes books, tv programmes, a stage play, a CD of the stage cast singing and a cast football team called Wolf Hall Wanderers; who are yet to win a match.
  • The Wolf Hall tv programme was filmed using natural light and candlelight. Female cast members told Mantel that they spent large parts of their time on set afraid they were going to catch on fire. “Welcome to the Tudor World!” says Hilary.
  • Mantel was writing new material for The Mirror and the Light while she was working on the stage adaptation of Wolf Hall in New York. One night she wrote a new scene in flashback between Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Moore and gave it to the actors playing those roles. From that point on they played the roles slightly differently as they incorporated the new information in to their performances.
  • After visiting the set of Wolf Hall Mantel found herself stuck on a country lane while a convoy of trucks moved props to the next filming location. It occurred to her that very few authors find themselves in a traffic jam with the products of their own imagination.
  • Household accounts were an important primary source for Mantel’s research. She used them to understand how Cromwell managed his home and family. The accounts show what things are in the household, but not how they got there, so Mantel has to imagine what happened. In The Mirror and the Light she explains the appearance of a leopard.
  • Mantel is very, very, very funny. Her eyelash anecdote is hilarious and she seems to genuinely enjoy making the crowd laugh.

Two incredible sessions and my head is buzzing with new information. We have a walk along the seafront in the evening sunshine and then back home for wine and spicy chicken. Two days down; one to go…

BudLitFest – Day 1

Budleigh Beach Huts

This last weekend all the stars aligned and there was a festival for my favourite things (books) in my favourite place (Budleigh Salterton).

I got so excited about this that I booked tickets for eight events over three days and decided to review the whole lot.


Day 1 – Friday 18 September

Kaffe Fassett ‘Dreaming in Colour’

Anything worth doing is worth over-doing.

This is a fascinating hour. It starts with a chap in a jazzy shirt standing in front of a sedate audience and talking about knitting; and ends with a cluster of women jostling each other and murmuring with delight as they stroke the luscious, fabulous textiles spread out in front of them.

Kaffe Fassett quilt

What I learnt:

  • Colour can heal and can revive. At one point a lady in the audience testifies to the healing powers of Fassett’s work. Fassett describes his workshop sessions as being like ‘colour orgies’ and by the end of the session you can see what he means. There is a visceral reaction to the colours. It’s an almost spiritual experience.
  • Fassett thinks we should all just do it. He decided he wanted to be a textile artist working with colour so that’s what he became. He claims that he’s achieved it all with only 40 minutes of knitting tuition, so if he can do it anyone can.
  • There are no mistakes; “If you do something wrong, just repeat it on the other side.” Advice for knitting and for life.
  • Fassett has the true artist’s gift of being able to put things together which really shouldn’t work, but always do.

At the end of the session my friend Wendy, an artist and designer, leans over and whispers “I need to get my sewing machine out!”


Paula Hawkins ‘New voices’

Really sad and damaged women; that you really wouldn’t want to spend any time with.

This event was originally meant to be a two-hander with Renee Knight, author of Disclaimer. To be honest, I think that would have been a much better session. The problem with a whole hour on The Girl on the Train is that if there are people present who haven’t read the novel (about half the room) then you can’t really discuss more than the first chapter without giving vital plot points away.

Paula Hawkins

What I learnt:

  • Hawkins was a financial journalist, she moved into fiction when she was commissioned to write romances under the pseudonym Amy Silver. She decided to write a thriller when she realised that her romances were becoming increasingly more dark.
  • The character of Rachel is an alcoholic because Hawkins was interested in memory loss and the balance of guilt and responsibility. How can you feel the right amount of either if you can’t remember what you did? It also gave her a way of making Rachel vulnerable to manipulation.
  • Although Hawkins has been accused of misogyny the women are all without a job during the events of the novel because it best serves the narrative, not because she believes women shouldn’t have jobs. This is simply one story and one snapshot in the lives of the characters, and not representative of her views.
  • Characters don’t have to be nice for you to engage with the story and want to find out what happens to them.
  • Hawkins is working on her next book which will be about sisters and memory, and will be set in the north of England.



Love, rivalry, jealousy, ambition; those things never go out of fashion.

The final event of day one takes place at the suitably dramatic setting of St Peter’s Church at night – the only thing missing is candlelight. On stage were Andrew Graham, son of author Winston Graham and script adviser; Debbie Horsfield, script writer; Ruby Bentall who plays Verity and Heida Reed who plays Elizabeth. The event was chaired by Erica Wagner.

Poldark actors


What I learnt:

  • The first Poldark novel was probably conceived in June 1941 when Graham became a coastguard at Perranporth beach. This involved spending long hours watching the changing sea and listening to local stories told by the other coastguards.
  • Debbie Horsfield had never done an adaptation before or worked with historical material, but when she read the first two novels she realised that the themes were universal.
  • Ruby and Heida found the costumes incredibly restrictive. Ruby particularly was very vocal about the control of women through their clothes; “Those outfits were made purely to repress women. You can’t even climb the stairs without help!” Both actors found it difficult to understand living in a society where women had such little control over their own lives.
  • Winston Graham HATED the 1970s BBC adaptation of Poldark so much that he asked for the contract to be terminated. He felt the script didn’t include any of his dialogue from the book and he loathed their version of Demelza. He was reconciled to it in series two when a new director and script writer were brought in.
  • Elizabeth’s character was tricky and at first seemed too cold to a modern audience. The script had to be adjusted to make it clear that she lived a very restricted life and could not just pop to Poldark’s house to talk to him. Heida defends her passionately; “Even today, if you were engaged to someone else and an old flame came back after three years, you wouldn’t just leave them!”
  • When asked about dealing with filming and the Cornish weather, Heida recounts an anecdote about getting soaked during a scene where she shared a horse with Aiden Turner. An excited murmur ripples through the crowd.

I’ve also learnt that Poldark fans are very, very active on Twitter!

Poldark signed book




The joy of digital

Sing it: “We are living in a digital world and I am a digital girl!”

Alright I know you didn’t sing it, but you get my point.

I love digital; my day job basically consists of me trying to create the best websites I can while sneakily checking Twitter and pretending it’s for work; and I go home in the evenings to watch time-shifted telly, spend more time on Twitter and buy books online.

And the books I buy are always honest-to-goodness paper ones.

I’ve had the ebook vs paper book conversation more times than I can count (alright then, about six times) and I am a staunch believer that paper books are far, far better than their pixel brethren – I’ll blog about why later.

However, I do think there is a wonderful marriage to be had between lovely papery books and magical interactive digital. And there’s a Twitter account at the moment which, to my mind, is absolutely nailing how this should be done.

Cover of Slade House by David Mitchell

Another beautiful cover

David Mitchell’s new novel Slade House is due out in October and as a precursor to the release of the book he’s tweeting an account for one of his characters.

@I_Bombadil is the Twitter account for a man obessessed with his co-worker, Lottie. They work at the same company in London and, as she doesn’t have a clue who he is, he’s taken a 21st Century approach to the love letter and is tweeting his love for her.

Over the course of the daily tweets he shares the ‘loving’ things he’s doing such as noticing her outfits, sending her roses on her birthday, hacking her emails and her phone, checking her sister’s smear test results…

Lottie also has a Twitter account, which is currently locked at @TuttiLottie


Slade House actually started life as a Twitter short story so it’s the obvious marketing approach. And the events of the novel culminate on 31 October 2015, so presumably the Twitter narrative and the novel will weave together at that point.

Tweets from @I_Bombadil

I love this approach. And I think that the possibilities for mixing paper and digital are absolutely dizzying.

I’ll never give up my paper books; I don’t think digital can replace them and I don’t think it should try. What it can do brilliantly well is augment and embellish a book in clever, fun and original ways – opening up texts to readers who may not otherwise find them – especially useful for those books with teeny tiny marketing budgets (i.e. most of them).

I know some of you are ebook enthusiasts and/or digital citizens – what do you think? Do you want Spotify playlists with your books? Online ‘DVD extras’ style content?


Meanwhile keep an eye on @I_Bombadil – because, let’s face it, that’s really not going to end well. And who wouldn’t want to read about that?

Bookworm briefs: August

Ooh! Aah! It’s a new regular feature. Bookworm Briefs will be a monthly dash through my reading, anything that’s been recklessly added to my already impossible-to-ever-complete TBR and any bookish activities I’ve been involved in. I’ll publish Bookworm Briefs on the first of each month and, as it’s important to start as you mean to go on, this one is already a day late. Marvellous.

What I read

The Watchmaker of Filigree StreetThe Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
I was so wonderfully surprised by this. I borrowed it from the library on the back of a slew of Twitter recommendations, and because the artwork on the hardback version is completely arresting. There’s something very old-fashioned about the narrative; it’s slow and steady and it’s clever. It’s refreshing to read an author who expects you to pay attention and read between the lines. The writing is crisp and considered, her dialogue is both witty and natural and she draws her characters with real affection. This is Natasha Pulley’s debut novel and on the basis of this I’m very excited to see what comes next.

I love this book. It’s well-researched, well-written and has, at its centre, a genuinely moving love story. This is the book for you if you like a rewarding slow-burner, a vaguely steampunk historical mystery and a sweet love story with a dash of magic. Read it; love it; immediately attempt to acquire a clockwork octopus.

For God’s sake, the closest I can get to medieval England is a Walter Scott novel. People shouldn’t be throwing away their history when it’s doing archery practice forty miles up the road.


Armada by Ernest Cline
The second book by Cline, which is spookily similar to, but not quite as good as, his first book; Ready Player One. Both of Cline’s books are love songs to 80s films and video games, and a sort of lit-by-the-evening-sun, coming of age American childhood which may only have existed in movies like The Goonies and Stand by Me. They’re marshmallow books – fun and easy to get through, but there’s limited nutritional value. Armada starts with a cracking concept, so good in fact that it’s already been covered in Ender’s Game, but it’s let down by the ending. However, Ready Player One is good fun, and definitely worth a read before the film version is released in 2017.


Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
As always a brilliant premise from Stephenson, but for some reason I’m struggling to get through it. The moon has broken in to seven pieces and will shatter into many more before it destroys the earth. The survival of the human race becomes focused on the crew of a satellite orbiting earth, and a project to adapt the ship to house as many people as possible before time runs out. It’s intriguing, but I’m struggling to get more than a few chapters in.



The First Bad Man by Miranda July The First Bad Man
Bought this for the cover alone, which seems to repel as much as it attracts. Forty pages in and the cover seems deeply appropriate for a narrative that is both fascinating and uncomfortable. I’m not exactly enjoying it, but I stood up reading it for 20 minutes because I was too engrossed to sit down.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Romance, sci-fi and another amazing cover – an honest to goodness work of art. Since buying it I’ve read this frank and moving interview with Faber which has added a new level to the novel. My reading of the novel will now be influenced by the knowledge of Faber’s real-life situation and I’m honestly not sure how I feel about that. Hmm…


Something Coming Through by Paul McAuley
Dystopian fantasy which seems to be in a similar vein to The Long Earth – there are multiple earths and shady affairs are happening on all of them. So far, lots to like about this. I’ll be doing a full review for Gollanz Geeks shortly.

The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry PratchettThe Shepherd's Crown
Another book which is impossible to separate from the real-life events that loom large over it’s release. I’m going to take a rare diversion into sentimentality and say that for me this book shows what the best literature can be; a pact, a friendship, an understanding between a writer and a reader. A gossamer bond that can lead you into strange new worlds, and help you find your way back out again. I’m five chapters in to the last journey I’ll ever take with Terry Pratchett and every page feels like a joyful goodbye to a dear, dear friend.



Coming up

Budleigh Literary Festival
Budleigh Salterton (Bubbly Saltybum) is my favourite place in the world and for four days in September it will be full of sensational writers. I’m reading The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters in preparation and hoping to get in A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale before then too.



A problem

I really want to read Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. I go to the library to borrow it, but it’s out on loan. ‘That’s ok,’ I think, ‘I’ll order a copy in.’

On my way out of the library I spot at least two more books I want to read, so I borrow those. I do not order Miss Peregrine. After reading them, I return the books I borrowed to the library and look for Miss Peregrine, but it’s out on loan. On my way out of the library…

I have now completed this cycle four times in two different libraries. I have not read Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.  

Picture of to be read pile of books

My current TBR pile. Chicken for scale.

A heads up for Heyer fans

Two useful bits of information for fans of Georgette Heyer’s romance novels.

First, BBC1 is showing a series called 24 Hours in the Past where a motley band of ‘slebs take on different 19th century jobs to show that, shock horror, living in the 19th century was really very hard for working folk. The second episode has the six celebrities working in the type of coaching inn featured in virtually every Heyer novel and includes a change of horses for the mail coach. Fascinating to see what a coaching inn really looked like and how it operated. Watch it on iPlayer until 3 June 2015.

Secondly, a recommendation. My current favourite Heyer audiobook is the abridged version of Venetia narrated by Richard Armitage. I don’t usually like abridged audiobooks as I just don’t see the point; and the plinky plonk music between each chapter in this one is tedious, but Armitage’s husky northern narration makes it all worth it. If you’re missing Ross Poldark, I recommend treating your ears to a few hours with the debauched Lord Damerel on a Sunday night instead. Armitage also narrates the abridged Sylvester and The Convenient Marriage. Enjoy.  

I’m just here for the literature