GEMMA DE CRUZ: Martha and I are standing at the back of a group, listening to Patrick Barkham explain that in bad weather butterflies keep their wings closed and hide amongst nettles on the ground. Feeling a bit unsteady I say to Martha, “I wonder what those three pills were that guy in the tent gave me?” An elderly, well turned out gentleman turns round and gives me an angry look that says this isn’t that kind of festival.
Rewind to 9am when, on our way to have breakfast at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen tent, I get stung by a wasp which results in an outbreak of hives and general pain. I hobble off to the First Aid tent and get a big injection (and the aforementioned three pills), and two hours later I’m allowed to leave.
Cornwall’s Port Eliot Festival is definitely not the kind of event where everyone is talking about their drug experiences (even if they are medical ones). It’s a meeting of minds… and publishers; a literary festival set in the grounds of a stately home that dates back to Saxon times. During the fest, the house is partially opened for events including a ‘pop up’ exhibition by Martin Parr, cooking lessons in the kitchen and talks and music in the round room. Elsewhere on the grounds, the line up included Kate Winslet reading children’s books, Jay MacInerney reading and discussing his original draft of Bright Light’s Big City and an impressive outdoor cinema curated by Martin Scorsese, no less.
But it’s the quirkiness that makes Port Eliot worth the visit. While I’m standing at the back of The Idler tent a sparky little kid clutching ten pence is trying to figure out the pricing of the sweets. Five for 10p, Lollipops 10p, says the sign. “So how much for one?” a guy in a suit behind the counter explains: “They’re sold in divisibles of five”.
“So can I get one lollipop and four sweets?” the kid asks, and so follows an erudite explanation as to how although he technically is correct, no he can't. At a festival full of kids with 10p to spend, The Idler’s inclusion of a twee Tuck shop was asking for trouble.
On Saturday I got talking to Niki Segnit, author of The Flavour Thesaurus, the first book devoted wholly to the subject of flavour combining. Thinking she seemed like a nice person, I said I’d try and get a place for her talk which was due to start at 3pm on Sunday, “Oh, there won’t be a queue for my talk” she assured me, modestly. At 1.45 the queue was already filling the lawn. Hers was definitely a highlight of the festival as she explained some of the history and origins of flavour combination, not in a Masterchef, or, media chef way but in literary way. The flavours became characters whose personalities played a unique part in recipes.
In a sense, Port Eliot is just one big plug, a press opportunity for everyone who’s written a book to promote it. But within this setting it allows the authors to bring the stories and their characters to life in a far more convincing way than a signing, a book fair or even a radio interview. At a time when we are glued to our lap tops, iPhones and the rolling news, the chance for a taste of nature, a celebration of reading and escaping into books is something to be treasured. Sure, it was like an episode of Little Britain crossed with an Oxford class of ’91 reunion being covered by the Telegraph, but my guess is this festival can only get better.
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