Back to Port Eliot: festival reporting by Lauren Elkin

by HRM on July 30, 2011

Part 1: Nocturne

Last weekend I went back to Port Eliot, the annual festival of books, music, fashion, food and whimsy that is held on the grounds of the Earl of St Germans in southwestern Cornwall. Last year, writing for Bomb, I described the festival as:

Woodstock meets the New Yorker festival meets Sesame Street, with the ghosts of Vita Sackville-West and Samuel Johnson looking on. (…) Everything seems coated not with a veneer of irony, but with the kind of English magic that makes secret gardens bloom and children fly off to Neverland.

This year, I’m back for more, ready to try to understand a bit more about England, festivals, and the new sincerity: this Zeitgeist which embraces grammar classes, 1940s tea dresses, cream teas, and the medieval Crumhorn. I’ve come once again as the guest of my friend Joanna, who will be giving a talk on how to be a tourist at the Idler Academy on Sunday afternoon. (After camping together at Port Eliot last year, and at Latitude the previous weekend, we’ve gone through so much as tentmates that it’s as if we’ve been through the trenches together.) I’m particularly excited to see some of the writers who are here this year: Caitlin Moran, James Attlee, Matthew de Abaitua, Hari Kunzru, and Hanif Kureishi, among others. British Sea Power are playing. Some of our favorite acts from last year are returning. I’m just hoping I can fit it all in.

Port Eliot Festival

Image from Port Eliot Festival website:

The thing about Port Eliot, which is true of most festivals, conferences, and other such gatherings, is there’s always something fabulous happening just nearby. Down the hill near the Big Top or up the hill in the Walled Garden: you just have to catch it in time. But you may be so lulled by the Prosecco and the Pimm’s, the sun and the generalized feeling of goodwill, that you don’t want to move, or you forget to. Then you hear people talking about this amazing performer they saw, and that familiar feeling of having missed something special seizes you – part disappointment, part anxiety, part confusion. For me, at Port Eliot, it’s the One Minute Disco people. Apparently they go round the festival in a buggy of some kind, set down, attract a wide crowd, play disco for one minute, and then dissipate. It’s like a Port Eliot flashmob. But I have never seen them.

Last year I was in a bit of a haze – I didn’t know what was going on. I was camping for the first time, trying to deal with the minimal amount of sleep to be had when one is sleeping on the ground, and fuzzily enamored of someone new. This year I’ve hardened, against both camping and Cupid, so I was ready to really do the festival right – to see what there was to see, and to appreciate it with clarity and energy. Bring on the sea shanties, bring on the faeries. Bring on the One Minute Disco.

It was amazing to be back: everything looked, and felt, just the same, as if no time had elapsed at all. The field of tents stretching out as far as the eye could see, small communities grouping together, turning the countryside into a network of suburbs. Parents in linen clothing trailed behind children with faces made up like tigers. All the outlandishly dressed girls – be-ponchoed, be-hatted – were hiding out in the fashion tent, or bound for there, loping along on their long legs capped in identical Hunter boots. It seemed most people were there on a return visit: everyone found everyone, and embraced. There was a palpable feeling of great friendliness and companionship.

Round room muralsThe first event on our to-do list was James Attlee’s talk, which was held in the Round Room, inside the main house, which looks like anyone’s idea of an English castle. We all have to take our shoes off in the foyer to keep from tracking mud into the house. It really is a mark of respect on the part of the Earl of St Germans that he is willing to let festival-goers into his house – as many as will fit into the Round Room – as well as onto his property. (This respect was mostly met with good behavior, except for the bandits who were intent on toppling over the giant rat’s head which inexplicably sits on a hill near the house, watching over the festival with an almost audible sucking of its teeth.) The walls of the Round Room are covered in some kind of Surrealist murals. I have not taken the tour of the house, so I don’t know anything specific about them. The table, where we are lucky enough to find seats, is covered in sculptures of elephant tusks attached to things that don’t usually have tusks – bugs, candelabras, Thai pagoda rooftops. The room is full to capacity.

Attlee has a nice way about him, and talks conversationally about his new book, Nocturne: a Journey in Search of Moonlight, which is about our changing relationship to night, and the way this affects our “experience of what it is to be a human on earth.” Attlee points out the “theft of moonlight” achieved by the artificial light illuminating the inhabited parts of the globe. “Those of us who inhabit these regions of eternal day (most of us, in other words) are increasingly cut off from the movements of the silent satellite that controls the tides.” He runs through various creation stories involving the sun and the moon, and looks at the relationship between the moon and the human psyche throughout history. Moonlight, he remarks, has often been linked with “love, melancholy, and madness” and its light has been seen as particularly pernicious to the virtue of young women: in both France and Finland, at one long-lost moment in history, young girls were advised to close their curtains at night lest the moonlight penetrate their bedrooms and cause them to become pregnant. Perhaps in our haste to outlight the moon, we are still suffering from a moon-based superstition. Two days before I left for Port Eliot, I was advised by a friend to “stay out of the moonlight” – that is, to avoid someone who had hurt me in the past. As I listened to Attlee, I found the coincidence appropriate.

So, where is moonlight still honored? In Japan, for one. Attlee described traveling to Kyoto to witness the autumn moon-viewing festival Tsukimi. Hearing him talk about the Shinto and Buddhist rites that coincide with the tradition, and the poems and woodcuts of Japan and China that depict the power of the moon, was one of the highlights of my summer.

Film and aqueductThat evening, we practiced what James Attlee preached, having ourselves a nighttime wander through the grounds beneath an inky blue sky. Martin Scorcese had curated a film series especially for the festival, and we watched some of “The Leopard” down by the river, with the Industrial-era aqueduct that carries trains to St Germans in the backdrop. Listening to the Italian of the film (“No Tancredi! È pericoloso!”) I mused aloud that the aqueduct looked like a holdover from Roman times. “Romans in Cornwall? Not likely,” my companions laughed at me, but the probabilities of history seemed to collapse before the improbable beauty of the scene by the river. As the evening deepened, we got lost in a hedge-row maze. We listened to Caitlin Rose’s sweet country blues and watched the crowd of people we knew weave in and out of view. Walking through the woods back to our tent, we embellished the moonlight with the small insistent light of my torch.

(Read part two here)

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