The Best Litfest in the West - Penzance Literary Festival

Reader Logo The Best Litfest in the West - Penzance Literary Festival
25th-29th July 2012
by Catherine McNamara

I set off from Victoria Station on a sticky night after a plate of noodles. Friends told me I would fall in love with Penzance, that I would adore the enchanting coast and devour Cornish pasties and excellent fish and chips.

But as drove I was concerned about something quite different: my appearance on Day Three of the impressive Litfest programme, where I would be interviewed by writer Sarah Duncan with fellow debut author Liz Fenwick. Would I find anything to say on our topic 'How Did I Get Here?' Would I stutter? Stumble? Or ramble on and bore the audience to tears?

Day One of the three-year-young Festival kicked off with a lively session with Patron Patrick Gale, whose latest novel 'A Perfectly Good Man', set deep in Cornwall, tells the story of the marred goodness of one man. Patrick enthralled the crowd and set the bar rather high!

Throughout the afternoon the secrets of the Festival came to light. Events took place in magical settings such as the tome-lined Morrab Library, the Penlee Coach House in the grounds of the sub-tropical Penlee Gardens, elegant Trevelyan House along irresistible Chapel Street leading down to the bay. The theme of the festival being 'Journeys', I found myself listening to writer Sara MacDonald speaking about her novels set in Pakistan, Tim Hannigan who shared stories and photographs of his travels through the Indonesian archipelago and Jane Johnson who spoke about the background of her latest Morocco-set novel 'The Sultan's Wife'.

There were many, many more talks covering topics from Arctic travel to Cornish walks; from Guardian journalist Michele Hanson's 1950s suburbia to Jessica Mann's memories of feminism in those years; from A.M. Crawford's contemporary on Greek mythology to Paul Murphy's pilgrimage through Spain.

(And how to wind down after a day of inspiring/daunting literary happenings? I quickly worked up a healthy routine: a pint of Cornish bitter at the Acorn, which each evening rocked with music such as the brilliant ‘Bookshop Band’ and Penzance’s enduring punk poet rockers, ‘The Surgeons’.)

The highlight of Day Two was an entertaining talk between Patrick Gale and Sarah Winman (‘When God was a Rabbit’) on centre stage at the Acorn Theatre. The mood was intimate and comfy, with both Sarah and Patrick offering insights to their writing background and approach, and Sarah reading beautifully from her moving text. Elsewhere in the seaside town there were young people's events, a selection of poetry readings from local and ‘up-country’ writers and a range of talks, workshops and round table discussions on the business of writing. These included 'How to Hook an Agent' with literary consultant Diane Johnstone, ‘Overcoming Writer's Block', 'Writing Best-selling Novels for Children and Teenagers' and 'Creating a Cookery Book'. There was also a well-attended session concerning today's big themes of 'Self and E-Publishing’.

Festival organiser Peter Levin said that over 2000 tickets were sold in an event that is manned by volunteers and manages to keep its running costs very low. ‘There's a lot of community spirit in Penzance and Penwith. Partly it's an end-of-the-line effect, I suppose; partly there's a tradition of people pulling together and wanting to do something for the community. We tap into that.’ Local writers and poets were out in force to hear the vast array of speakers, as were many ‘up-country’ attendees who enjoyed a week of sunny weather along Cornwall’s shores. I wondered what sort of selection process was used to put together a programme that included award-winners such as Patrick Gale and Sarah Winman? ‘We don't do a huge amount of selecting. We try to provide a venue for most local people who want to take part. For out-of-towners, those who want payment are automatically ruled out, so we get people who are in sympathy with our aim to make the Litfest very much a 'community' affair.. And we don't lash out on expensive marquees..’

And for next year? Peter says: ‘We are very happy with the “selection” that we ended up with this year.. I'm not a great one for speculating about the future, but I think writing does have a future in this part of the world.’

On Day Three I met the moderator for our interview, Sarah Duncan (Sarah's latest novel is 'Kissing Mr. Wrong'), and debut author Liz Fenwick ('The Cornish House'), with whom I would be speaking. Both ladies immediately put me at ease and I began to consider that I might actually enjoy being on stage and talking about my book. The hall was not full, but there were genuine bright lights in my face and a microphone and a jug of water on a stand - just like a real writer interview. What fun!

Sarah's questions were easy: I think I did waffle on about aspects of Italy and the part about writing the book in the chicken shed so my kids wouldn't disturb me at work. The best moment for me was when Sarah read out my first paragraph and it sounded so enticing that I felt like a real writer, finally, sitting on a stage, smiling like an idiot at the people. Fantastic!

I must confess I never tried a Cornish pasty. I did fall in love with the stone houses and their tall windows peering down to the sea where I wandered along the promenade. But mostly I was doing revisions of my next book in my room. Although I must say the local beer was good, oh very good. And massive Cornish breakfasts with smoked salmon and scrambled eggs.

Who would live in Italy on brioche and cappuccino?

Photo: Joshuaheller

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