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The Daphne du Maurier Festival 2010
[Submitted by Sam Rimington : 23 June 2010]
I've been back from Cornwall for over a month now, and already my time there is receding into limbo. While I'm there even the most mundane seems special, but recapturing it's magic later is well nigh impossible. Wild flowers, sunlight on water, warmth upon my face, music, laughter: all gone. Hopefully my memory will sustain me through the barren months ahead. How I envy Ann and David, Festival friends who 'seized the day' and moved to LIVE in Fowey. Their bookshops are a testimony to their real love of Daphne's Cornwall.
The 2010 Festival was it's usual mix of events, programmed to please as wide an audience as possible, celebrity speakers, musical evenings, dramatisations of Daphne's stories, other plays in other venues, conducted walks and boat trips: all in memory, loving memory of Lady Browning, Daphne du Maurier.
Before the Festival was first aired, I often made pilgrimage (as it were) from my annual holiday on the north coast to pay my own 'respects' to Daphne; there was nothing then but the place, no grave, no memorial, nowhere I could focus upon. I'm not entirely sure WHY I did it. The nearest I can come to, is to see how Daphne caught the essence of the west country and loved it, as I and lots of others do. Coming over the Tamar into Cornwall is to enter a land of myth and faerie, where reality is abandoned for a while.
Someone else has commented upon the incredible beauty of the Festival's location, it's a beauty I try to imbibe like a drug, to savour, and from which to find support when 'reality' is unwillingly resumed. Scarlet rhododendrons against a piercingly blue sky, pine trees of surreal proportions laden with noisy crows, the backdrop of Polruan across the water, the river a blinding glitter, a warm breeze which ought to be bottled for days when gloom is all around.
I know Fowey has it's down side, high flown rhetoric probably has a hollow note for local people trying to find and keep remunerative employment, but not in May, and not when you are a visitor, unused to it's attractions. Daphne knew all this I'm sure, that's why, escaping from claustrophobic Hampstead, she wanted to be nowhere else. Canon Hall, where she spent her early years, is a large house, but was not large enough apparently to contain Daphne's free spirit, a free spirit embodied in 'Janet Coombe', her heroine from The Loving Spirit', her first book. And too I think Daphne loved the permanence of Fowey, it's aged houses, it's narrow streets, all dominated by 'Place', the seat of the Trefry's since heaven knows when.
My friend Barbara attempted to attend, she had her case packed twice, only to be thwarted by her physician, who insisted that she was not strong enough to attempt the trip. I was, and am very sad that she could not make it; she loves the Festival, and her laughter was sadly missed. Rose and Rob, who have been attending since the annual festival commenced, were there again this year, staying in a rented bungalow high above the river, and with a most marvellous view over the car ferry to Bodinnick, and beyond. We spent a lot of time together eventing and socializing (that means Festival, and pubs and meals).
I spent a happy, sunny afternoon with them and their visiting friend Vickie (first time in Cornwall!) , calling at Tregaminion Church on the edge of Rashleigh's Menabilly estate. Like Menabilly itself, the little church was locked to us, so all we could see was the outside, and in the case of the house, just the roof! Not a lot to facilitate our imagined Manderley, but we were not deterred and went on to Menabilly Barton Farm and down a long, and in places very muddy, path to Polridmouth Beach. I attempted to imagine 'Rebecca's' boat being scuttled into deep water there, before undertaking the long climb to the way-marker at Gribbin Headland. Some of us took longer than others but it was worth the effort as we were then able to savour the magnificent coastal views, and all in warm sun and balmy air.
Actually I drove down to Cornwall a few days early to stay with a friend near Newquay, only moving on to Fowey on the eve of the Festival's opening. I had to be there to join Ann and David for a viewing of the 'Birds', in a marquee at Pine Lodge Gardens, by St Austell. The venue was first rate, and for the first time this year Tywardreath Players' production was totally enclosed, which was a boon as previous productions have been partially open to the elements and correspondingly cold. We had been told that the production was closer to Daphne's intention rather than to Hitchcock's film. It's a long time since I read the novella but I don't remember it having the 'green' credentials of this showing. I have to admit that I was disappointed, for though the cast worked very hard, it was long (too long), noisy, and suffered from lax direction; much dialogue was unheard due to extraneous noise! Having hysterics is all very well, if it's a story requirement, but not if it drowns others' dialogue! The group have a splendid reputation, one hopes it is not passing. Like the revolting Smallweed elsewhere, it needs 'shaking up'.
Sue, one of Ann's assistants, very kindly invited me to visit her home, where I was introduced by Sue and her husband Roger to their new resident raptors ( that's 'hens 'in lay' to you and me). They were delightful birds, tame lively (not to say 'uninhibited') and inquisitive; it was amusing to see how determinedly they found high vantage points to spy on us as we had tea in the conservatory. They would have been in with us given the opportunity! Apparently they produce eggs on demand! Those who call chickens stupid, and only fit for factory farms, underestimate another creation of the Almighty, or ought I to say 'Mother Nature'.
Although I only attended less than fifty per cent of events, (a fact which I certainly do regret), I enjoyed the programme very much. Amongst the events I DID attend, I particularly enjoyed.
MC Beaton in Conversation, I've read a number of the 'Agatha Raisin' mysteries and enjoyed them immensely. They are light, and funny and are undemanding. Agatha is no Miss Marples, she is vain, politically incorrect and decidedly acerbic, she smokes, she hasn't given up on men, and she has a very blind spot for her own faults. MC Beaton, one nom de plume amongst many adopted by Marion Chesney (others being Sarah Chester, Helen Crampton, Ann Fairfax, Marion Gibbons, Jennie Tremaine and Charlotte Ward), also wrote the stories about a Scottish policeman, Hamish Macbeth. In conversation with Simon Brett (equally amusing) MC was very funny, and enlightening about the writing process.
Beatrice Underwood talked with Dr Helen Taylor, about Rosamunde Pilcher who was born in Cornwall. We were intrigued to discover that the writer enjoys wide celebrity in Germany particularly, (the speaker's homeland), where her name leads many readers to believe her to be a German national; apparently 'Pilcher' is mistakenly believed there to be German! In fact Ms Pilcher's family moved to Scotland in her infancy, where she remains. It would appear from her luminous Cornish descriptions that her childhood memories exert a powerful influence upon her writing, most notably maybe in her 'breakthrough' book, 'The Shell Seekers'. Literary Tourism apparently does indeed bring many visitors to Cornwall.
'An Audience with June Whitfield' was amazing; it is incredible to discover that this truly remarkable lady worked with media luminaries over so many years. Her memories really do need 'bottling', for later generations to access and enjoy. I wonder how many actors alive today remember working with the likes of Olivier and Noel Coward. This writer remembers her first as the ineffable 'Eth' in the 'Glums', a series of hilarious sketches included in 'Take it From Here' on the 'wireless'.
The event featuring Julian Lloyd Webber was delightful, with his accompanist he played many classical pieces, which were superb. However, he played one of his brother's show songs, and I could have listened to THAT genre all night. As Barbara couldn't be there, David joined me on that occasion. We were privileged to be there!
Daphne du Maurier Literary Landscapes. Professor Laura Varnam talked to us about The 'House on the Strand', (my favourite book of Daphne's) and I found Laura's medieval insights fascinating. Later in my visit, I used my satnav (often a leap in the dark) to find my way to the 'Hidden Valley Gardens' by the railway tunnel where a character came to grief in the 'House on the Strand'. Without TomTom I would never have found my way there, down progressively narrower lanes (called 'roads', but the jury is out on that!) It was worth the effort though for the gardens were delightful, not over large but very beautifully tended and very atmospheric. When a train went by I was temped to hide!
I greatly enjoy many aspects of the Festival, finding much to enjoy in it's varied programme. I have to confess that although the attendance of celebrities allows a unique insight into their work, I enjoy with equal enthusiasm events where I can learn MORE about Cornwall in general, and Daphne and her contemporaries in particularly. I enjoyed the talk given by Lady Vyvyan about an earlier lady bearing that name, who became Daphne's friend and walking companion. Together they walked extensively in Europe; I was previously unaware that Daphne was a serious and intrepid walker, but am struck by the risks inherent in such perambulations, given the times.
'Tolkien in Cornwall' Professor Nick Groom talked about JRR Tolkien's connection with Cornwall, and how he thought that the epic 'Lord of the Rings' could be linked to the area.
'Cornish Writers and the Sea'. Dr. Helen Doe gave a talk in The Town Hall on the links between Cornish writers and the landscape and the people with whom they interacted. Another of the talks, under the aegis of Exeter University, which I found deeply fascinating. Dr Helen is descended from the family who owned the shipyard at Polruan, which built the ship, which had the figurehead, which Daphne obtained after the hulk had mouldered up Pont Creek, and which graces now a gable end at Ferryside, where Daphne wrote 'The Loving Spirit'. Hope that's quite clear!
'Mediaeval Baebes'. Usually I an cautious about the musical content of the festival. I am not wildly enthusiastic about groups exploiting nostalgia; I tend to think that the past cannot really be recaptured. The Mediaeval Babes were not like that at all, and I thought them splendid. I gather a newspaper writer suggested elsewhere that one imagined ' the Spice Girls at the court of Henry VIII', and the analogy seems apt. The ladies looked splendid in their long gowns, and their close harmonies and period dancing was a delight for the senses. My interest was academic, but enthusiastic non the less, and my enjoyment was very real. I was disappointed that the Blagovast Ensemble were not coming to the parish church this year, so the 'Babes' were a very welcome alternative.
In the Town Hall again for 'Daphne du Maurier's Cornwall' a fascinating talk by Lynn Goold on the local areas featured in Daphne's books.
Stephen Armstrong's 'The super rich shall inherit the earth', on the last day was a subject in which I was interested, remembering how many years ago the Science Fiction writer, Arthur C Clarke had postulated in one of his stories that world power would not rest in the hands of politicians, or even religions, but in the hands of big business, multinationals (think Microsoft, or BP, whose attempts to avoid their responsibilities suggests an attitude superior to elected government). I thought highly then of Mr Clarke's opinions, and events seem to bear out his assertions. However, the cough I had developed as soon as I entered Cornwall a fortnight before, finally gained the ascendancy, and I had to exit ignominiously only a few minutes into Mr Armstrong's talk. I later read an article by Stephen Armstrong describing Fowey and the Festival in glowing terms, so I could not have spoiled his presentation too much.
I had a ride to the Lost Gardens of Heligan again; I find it a deeply satisfying experience, the gardens are never the same and the atmosphere is wonderful. I imagine the work that was done there by the gardeners, when Heligan was still occupied by the Tremayne family. I wonder if the gardeners' ghosts walk the gardens, since they perished in the so called 'Great War', the war that was' to be over by Christmas'.
The staff at 'Safe Harbour Hotel, couldn't have been more obliging, and the food was first rate, the beer too! Fortunately I didn't repeat the gymnastics of twelve months ago. The stewards at the Festival seem more like friends now, and I salute Jonathan Aberdeen's team for helping me to enjoy myself once again.
I see Ann Willmore has contributed an illuminating and enjoyable report, and I do hope that other visitors will contribute their thoughts too.
Best Wishes all.