Monday, 27 July 2009

Canvas Opinion

"I've been to a Marvellous Party, I must say the fun was in tents ...".

Misquoting Noel Coward is no way to skewer the canvas and plastic packaging of the Port Eliot Literary Festival except insofar as Coward is probably more in the age range of this festival's goers, than, say, that of Creamfields or Glasto. It's hilarious that the most common complaint received by the "People's Paper" generated by journalists during the course of the festival was that the music was too loud and they couldn't get to sleep. I mean, isn't that the whole point?

From the Ralph Steadman Oddbins-logo titling, to the CVs of most of the performers which largely recorded their previous exploits "used to be a major talent in London's Soho in the 1970's" being typical of those whose current achievements would fill fewer paragraphs - the material is beamed steadily at the already middle-aged. For here life is lived on the grassy edge but only in retrospect, mostly by comfortably-off thirty- and increasingly forty-somethings attempting to reclaim their lost youth.

Largely encumbered by buggies and similar wheeled contraptions containing a bigger selection of rug-rats than you'd find in the average Montessori kindergarten, this is a family-friendly event although without many activities for children and certainly nothing to keep them up late. In fact, Port Eliot needs to decide whether it's a festival, or a fete.

The 'Hog Wild Comedy Club' featured a number of smart and edgy comedians who were distinctly put off by the presence of beribboned eight year olds in the front row. Particularly the guy with the paedophile routine.

Too many of the poetry, music and cookery events were ruined by some noisily spoilt brat or crying baby - if you're going to encourage quite so many breeders to trawl their fractious offspring round a moist Cornish hillside at over £100 a pop, at least provide a creche. Preferably in Devon.

Rock headliner Evan Dando - former lead guitar with The Lemonheads (last hit album 1998 shortly before he became less of a musician than a full-time crack addict and a has-been if ever there was one), told me the trouble with this festival was "too many rich people", immeditately prior to passing out on the floor of the press tent.

Since a lot of the performances were quite dull, it became more interesting to observe the audience, and I began to take fashion notes. There's clearly a dress code for Festivals, but it mustn't have come in my information pack.

If you are a woman over 40 you will slacken the straps on your bra and wear a flowing, patterned, loose-fitting kaftan, muumuu or smock. If you are a lesbian, or a feminist, or Rosie Boycott, purple will feature substantially. Accessories will be chunky (your choice of celtic or crystals) but leave the Mikimotos at home.

Women under 40 (or trying to be) should tie a silk rag round the expensively-distressed John Frieda cut and their outfit must include a quilted body warmer as favoured by the Queen on moorland shoots, Hunter wellingtons in any colour other than black, and absolutely de rigeur footless tights.

Full length is stylish, mid-calf preferred by razor-shy munters, anything above the knee is pure chav.

Men over 40 should really try to be invisible, but if dematerialisation proves impossible after multiple pints of Trelawny's Old Speculum, visible attributes seemed to include bald patches surmounting greasy grey pony tails, unfastened waistcoats and sub-Liberty print shirts.

Younger men can adopt the by now traditional schoolboy-to-grave uniform of below-the-knee shorts, often in camouflage or linen and with sufficient pockets to mimic Virginia Woolf on her foray into the river Ouse, a wordy t-shirt crossbanded into illegibility by the strap of a canvas shoulder bag, and the chapeau of the moment, the Sinatra pork-pie hat (vegetarian option: straw).

Other accessories were equally predictable: when I lived in New York they told me I was never more than ten feet away from a rat. By the same token, at Port Eliot you're never more than ten feet from a Guardian-reading corporate dickhead trying to keep an unfamiliar roach alight.

There's a coloured wristband regime for festival-goers which outclasses the social stratification at the court of Louis XIV in its arcane hierarchy and accorded privileges.

Top of the tree are the pink-wristers known as 'Friends of the House' who seemed to get in everywhere whether or not they had followed the rules and signed up for a given event, joined a queue, or competed for a limited-numbered place. Universally Sloane-y, predominantly female, they made themselves enormously unpopular and paying festival punters labelled them 'FOTHs' for fear of being overheard using the full description.

FOTHs were housed, like the luckier artistes, either in the ramshackle 'Castle' itself, or in tidy tents erected in a walled garden high above the water table, and with dedicated toilets. The rest of the campers were abandoned to the wild and windy hillsides.

Some of them had been allocated 'jobs' assisting performers and exhibitors and to her great credit and personal charm, the wonderful Barbara Hulanicki confessed she'd been allocated two identikit FOTHs but persistently could not remember their names. 'I just call them the twins' she said.

I have to say that Hulanicki was, for us, the saviour of this event. Not only was she personally pleasant and approachable - she even shared her bag of chips with me on the first evening, and she made a dress out of Mylar reflective plastic for my friend Michelle which was endlessly photographed - she was clear-eyed and intelligent and, in terms of achievement or iconic status, towered over the rest of the rag-bag of entertainment lazily and cheaply assembled, it seems, through friends-of-friends of (Lady? Countess?) Cathy St Germans, chatelaine of the house.

the gorgeous Barbara Hulanicki stapling Michelle's dress (above)

and looking cool and serene eating a cone of chips (below)

Catherine St Germans, who became the Earl's third wife in 2005, is a sometime 'style director' of the Telegraph magazine and occasional contributor to Vogue or the Economist's pappy 'Intelligent Life' colour supplement of simpering puffs like this one on the work of hatter Stephen Jones (a nice enough man, but I think Philip Treacy might dispute St Germans' accolade of "the greatest milliner of his generation") or this one about her passion for expensive shoes. Deep and discoursive journalism, I think not.

Not all of the performers were paid, and many very little - the comedians earned £30 a gig which was quickly returned to the Festival through their purchases of food and drink, authors seemed to be attending for a chance to 'push' signed book sales, and the standard of talks and presentations was low.

A couple of highlights did surface - even in a septic tank the really good chunks rise to the top - and I enjoyed comic writer Ben Moor who was one of the few performers whose work looked planned and rehearsed, and authentic Mersey Poet Phil Bowen. It's not a proper festival if the top stars don't pull out, and true to form cancellations included comedian Arthur Smith and Monica Alli, who possibly had a sudden attack of good taste and though better of it.

Rosie Boycott was amusing and articulate but her I-used-to-be-a-druggy-hippy-chick-and-then-I-edited-the-Independent routine has not only become stale with repetition but conveniently edits out her wealthy family in Jersey and her schooling at Cheltenham Ladies' College, so that precarious risk of failure when she was starting up Virago and Spare Rib has a less convincing edge of danger than the anecdotes suggest.

I had high hopes of the food presentations by Rose Prince in the 'Big Kitchen' (which had only been cleaned up and decorated the day before the festival opened) - but with cramped seating and the inability of most of the audience to see what was being demonstrated - no mirrors over the demonstration table, and lots of pesky FOTHs crowding the front.

Like so much of the festival organisation (inadequate lighting, signage, catering, retail and ill-served exhibitors with no electricity or hand-fetched water) it was another case of poor Port Eliot event management.

Don't give up the day job, yer ladyship.

Trivia 1 : The Daily Mail last month made salacious fun of the marriage of Catherine Wilson to the 68-year old Earl, Peregrine Eliot, linking it to an equally tempestuous family row now raging over Earl Spencer's current courtship of Bianca Eliot, flame-haired temptress and the recent widow of the Earl's eldest son.

especially the second half of the piece.

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