thu 18/07/2024

theartsdesk at the Port Eliot Festival | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk at the Port Eliot Festival

theartsdesk at the Port Eliot Festival

Notting Hill meets Cornwall at boho-hippie-rock-literary love-in

© Michael Bowles

Remember when festivals were only about what they were ostensibly about? When, say, Reading offered nothing beyond hard rock bar disgusting toilets, overpriced hamburgers and the prospect of a punch-up. When literary festivals dealt only in, well, literature. Nowadays, the average music festival offers all the amenities of a small city, not just music, but shopping, comedy, ballet and every form of spiritual and bodily therapy.

But even in these times of festival as free-form lifestyle experience Port Eliot is something else.

Arriving at the festival site, in the grounds of a neo-gothic mansion hidden away on a wooded creek in southern Cornwall, it’s as though you’ve entered a parallel world that has all the essential elements of a festival – tents, stages, stall and milling sun-dazed people. But what the festival is actually about or for isn’t immediately apparent.

The atmosphere is superbly benign, the setting glorious, the food – by festival standards – superb, security, negligible and the people of all ages friendly. There are musicians on the bill, writers, gardeners, fashion designers, cooks, and a bewildering array of fringe events from discos in hedges to films projected in trees. (Pictured, early-morning yoga in front of Brunel's viaduct). But above all it’s the festival as an end in itself that’s important. What’s actually listed in the programme feels the least important element.

Port Eliot began in the Eighties as the Elephant Fayre, a musical festival created by the lord of the manor Peregrine St Germans, which closed down after it was taken over by New Age travellers. Eleven years ago the event was reactivated under the directorship of St Germans’ wife Catherine as a literary festival, which has gradually expanded, taking in music, food and fashion to become a festival that’s about whatever you want it to be about.

At times it’s a rave – with brain-crushing volume at Andrew Weatherall’s session on Saturday night (pictured). At times it's a sort of Notting Hill goes to Cornwall, hippie-boho garden party. And quite a lot of the time it’s a relatively conventional literary festival.

Listening to Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, interviewed by Rosie Boycott on the increasing authoritarianisation of the British criminal justice system isn’t to my mind the most enticing way of spending time in a baking tent in Cornwall on one of the hottest days of the year. But the large Bowling Green Tent was rammed, mostly with older people. "When you live in Cornwall," one told me, "you don’t often get the chance to hear people talking about bigger themes that aren’t just about Cornwall." So much for the globalising effect of the 'Net.

Down the hillside, through rhododendron glades, where groups of children beat samba rhythms on hub caps and plastic dustbins, the Idler Academy on the balmy creek-side hosted Chris Difford of Squeeze, talking his way through his career and dropping in classics such as “Cool for Cats” and “Up the Junction” in a gravelly monotone that was all but indistinguishable from his speaking voice. Don’t become a rock musician, his parents advised him, you’ll end up an alcoholic, a drug addict and broke. His performance recounted how he went about doing precisely that, delivered with intimacy, warmth and effortless deadpan humour. The audience, mostly his age (approaching 60) and mouthing along with the words, loved every minute.

Another punk-era cult figure, the Slits’ Viv Albertine (pictured), described the writing of her autobiography Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys, in the nearby Caught By The River tent. Holding forth with a refreshingly artless, no-holds-barred frankness, she described the empowering feeling of buying her first guitar in the company of her then boyfriend, the Clash’s Mick Jones. She was having lessons from PIL’s Keith Levene, using a Marshall stack stolen from the Faces by the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones. “But somewhere in the back of my mind,” she said, “was the thought that I couldn’t play it.” The intermingling of the sublime and the ridiculous in Albertine’s up-and-down life was beautifully caught.

Alongside these tales of suburban redemption through rock’n’roll, Hanif Kureishi described his own journey from suburbia to literary stardom in the Bowling Green Tent, while Joe Dunthorne and Adam Thirlwell read chapters from their forthcoming novels to a sun-blasted audience lying prostrate under a tree. Meanwhile, down by the creek, a ballroom dancing class took place under the trees, as scores of people leaped into the muddy water, and in the foreground a group of people effortlessly and unwittingly echoed the poses from Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe. It was exquisitely surreal.

The beautiful medieval church was packed for a haunting performance by Ben Watt and Bernard Butler, while Andrew Weatherall, just recovered from Saturday night’s hammering, interviewed Eighties rock enigma and first-time novelist Julian Cope on the Park Stage on Sunday afternoon. If I’m giving the impression Port Eliot was all about Seventies and Eighties rock nostalgia, those were just the moments that appealed to me. Other people were off on their own trajectoriesd of fashion, food, fiction or wild foraging. Port Eliot provides you with a vast array of elements and you put them together in exactly the way that suits you, creating a festival of the mind which, for all the bonhomie, is an oddly private experience. 

Don’t become a rock musician, his parents advised him, you’ll end up an alcoholic, a drug addict and broke

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Thank you for your reference to the quite beautiful St Germans Priory church which abuts the Port Eliot estate and which, with Port Eliot House, provides such an iconic Festival backdrop and venue for some wonderful concerts. What may be less well known is that the church was recently threatened with closure by the CofE and is in the process of being transferred to the stewardship of the St Germans Priory Trust. The Trust ( aims to preserve our heritage by broadening the building's utilisation for concerts, arts and crafts events and more - maybe even as a location for film and television - whilst preserving the dignity of its role as a sublime place of worship for the St Germans Parish community. The Port Eliot Festival concerts are perhaps but a taster? Please do encourage readers to visit us in a wonderful unspoilt corner of South East Cornwall (but don't tell everyone!), and do whatever you can to help the Trust in its ambition to protect and sustain a beautiful building and important part of our collective history - for the collective benefit of locals, visitors, our national heritage and future festival goers alike.

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