Saturday 27th September 2014. A day trip to Charleston Farmhouse, in Sussex. I’d been meaning to go for ages, given I spend so much time mooching around the Bloomsbury Set’s city haunts in actual Bloomsbury. Charleston was ostensibly the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant from 1916, but in practice it became the whole group’s countryside retreat. I’m fond of two particular facts about its story. One is that it was discovered by Virginia and Leonard Woolf while they were walking across the Sussex Downs. The other is that a farmhouse was a practical choice as much as a romantic one. Duncan Grant and David Garnett were conscientious objectors in WW1, so they needed to be in jobs that could exempt them from fighting. It was a choice between mining or farming.
This week Charleston plays host to the Small Wonder literary festival, ‘The Short Story Festival’ as it bills itself. Seven days of events connected with the short story form. Despite being out of the way and focussing on a type of fiction that rarely sells many books, the festival is very busy. Slightly more women than men. There are free shuttle buses to Lewes station, but most people seem to come by car. I’m here to attend one particular event: a discussion on the BBC National Short Story Award. It features two of the judges, Di Speirs and Philip Gwyn Jones, along with two of the shortlisted writers, who turn out to be Lionel Shriver and Tessa Hadley. Although I wasn’t so keen on her story, I’m captivated by Ms Shriver’s performance today when she airs an excerpt. She pauses in the all right places, and looks up at the crowd at all the right times – and so steely-eyed, too. Tessa H makes the observation that there isn’t a UK equivalent of the New Yorker, ie a newsstand-style magazine that regularly includes literary short stories. It’s true. I wonder why.
Small Wonder is entirely contained in two barns next to the house. One is for the actual events, while the other manages to house the box office, bar, bookshop and lounge area. The other barns are still in use as part of a working farm. I only discover this when Ms Shriver is briefly interrupted by loud mooing.
The Charleston house itself can only be visited by going on a guided tour, so that’s what I do while I’m there. It is such a unique attraction. Site-specific art is everywhere. Every possible surface has been painted, not just by Grant or one of the Bells, but by anyone who was staying in the house at the time. You stay, you paint. Walls, bathtubs, bed-boards, even box files are decorated. And that’s before you get to the paintings. One Vanessa Bell canvas is titled ’46 Gordon Square’. It is a view any student at Birkbeck School of Arts is familiar with: the east side of the square as seen from one of the windows. Charleston’s walled garden is full of colourful flower beds, mosaic pavements, tidy ponds and elegant statuary, my favourite being Quentin Bell’s ‘Levitating Lady’.
Earlier, I’d glimpsed some modern levitation, from the window of the train into Lewes. A paraglider over the Downs, their dot of a chair suspended against the green hills. At Charleston, I ask one of the other visitors about the difference between hang gliding and paragliding. ‘Hang gliding is where you hang. Paragliding is where you have a nice sit down.’
The merchandise at Charleston’s shop includes Virginia Woolf mouse-mats, along with cotton stockings of the sort worn by V & V. You too can have legs like Virginia’s.
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Sunday 28th September 2014. Occasionally I like to battle through the Sunday Times in paper form, though I feel guilty about the amount of waste it entails. A certain amount of gutting is always necessary too: out goes the Sports supplement, out goes Travel and Property. Worlds not meant for the likes of me. Sunday papers have their own bubble of affluence. Despite all the coverage of writers going unpaid, here is a Wilbur Smith interview where he says his novels earn him more than one million pounds a year (‘an average year for me’). I wince at an instance of my least favourite word, ‘famously’. Today it’s ‘Ed Sheeran’s famously arduous work rate’.
I peruse the Bestseller lists. Always fascinating to see what people are buying to read, though they still don’t allow for e-book sales. Ian Rankin is at Number One. Lee Child and Ken Follett shifting suitably butch amounts of their hardbacks. Jeffrey Archer still sells by the truckload. The biggest novel of the year so far is a title for teens (or Young Adults, rather): The Fault In Our Stars.
Kate Mosse has a novel out called The Taxidermist’s Daughter. It has the same title as my favourite entry in this year’s BBC NSSA, by Francesca Rhydderch. I suppose you wait ages for a story about a taxidermist’s daughter, then two come along at once.
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The immortality of innuendo. I walk through Covent Garden. A juggler is entertaining a large crowd. I only hear one line of his routine: ‘I’m now going to ask this beautiful lady to hold my balls.’ He must have said it a thousand times before, and indeed it must have been said by a thousand jugglers before him. But the crowd laughs, and I smirk as I pass through.
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Monday 29th September 2014.Â Term begins. All the BA English students have a one-off ‘induction lecture’, this year by Isabel Davis. It’s on the medieval Apocalypse, by way of Chaucer. We’re not expected to be tested on the lecture. It’s more a kind of warm-up, helping the students get used to going to lectures on literature again, and indeed helping them find their way around the labyrinth of the School of Arts. I still end up getting lost, and it’s my fourth year.
Afterwards: drinks in the Keynes Library upstairs. Pleasingly, the room has some Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant paintings of scenes at Charleston, views which I’ve now been to see in person. What with seeing a painting of a Gordon Square room hanging at Charleston, I feel like I’ve returned from the other side of a mirror.
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Tuesday 30th September 2014. The NSSA winner is announced on the BBC’s Front Row programme. Lionel Shriver wins, with Zadie Smith second. Ms Smith was my second choice too, so I’m half happy. I suspect the Shriver won because of the way it compresses a whole life, rather than dips into an episode. I still think ‘The Taxidermist’s Daughter’ did more with the form, though.
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Wednesday 1st October 2014.Â To the Crouch End Arthouse for Stephen Fry Live: More Fool Me. Like Charleston, I combine an event with a visit to a place on the To Do list. Crouch End is fairly near me, but it’s still a 25 minute walk – and only a walk, so I tend to favour the East Finchley Phoenix as my local cinema. The Arthouse is the former Music Palace on Tottenham Lane – I once attended a wedding party there. Before then it was a Salvation Army Hall. Now it’s been cut up into a lively warren of little rooms, including a foyer-cum-bar (which sales tiramisu ice cream), a main cinema room (tonight showing Pride), and a live space which doubles as a second screening room. The latter is where the Stephen Fry show is shown. Watching a live show in a cinema is no longer a novelty, but I think this is the first time a live book launch has been broadcast in the same way.
It turns out to be simple enough: Stephen Fry, on the stage of the Royal Festival Hall, talking for 90 minutes about his latest memoir, More Fool Me. No Q & A, no interviewer, no slide show. Apart from a section where he reads from the book at a lectern, Mr Fry paces the stage without a script. He unleashes a seamless flow of anecdotes, memories, quotations, musings on his beliefs, a few QI-style facts, and a crash course in how to do different accents (my favourite being the Australian Heartburn accent – a constant – gulp – stifling – gulp – of a burp). He really is a perfect raconteur, in the old fashioned sense.
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Friday 3rd October 2014. Incredibly, a literary short story collection is in WH Smith’s Top 10 today. It’s Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Two grand dames for the price of one.
Still hot and sunny. Still plenty of flip-flops in the city.
Tags: arthouse crouch end, bbc na, BBC National Short Story Award, birkbeck, bloomsbury group, charleston, Francesca Rhydderch, lionel shriver, nssa, stephen fry, zadie smith