Half past eleven on a warm Wednesday night in the depths of the Charente countryside. I’m on my bike, racing down a dark lane, acorns crunching under my tyres. Tarmac gives way to a narrow track, alternately stony and muddy. Shapes lurk just outside the halo of my battery light.
I hear heavy breathing behind the hedge.
It’s just the cows, I tell myself, and giggle out loud. Then I hit a bump and my lamp flies off the handlebars.
Bugger. I wince at my screeching brakes. The heavy breathing turns into a flurry of galloping hooves, and silence reigns. I turn to see a sorry pinpoint of light lying in a bed of nettles twenty feet behind me. I giggle again.
It all seems excessively funny. I suppose it would: I’ve just left the merry opening meal of the Charroux literary festival and I’m (very slightly) drunk. Not just on wine. I’m drunk on delight at seeing the writers from last year’s St. Clementin literary festival. I’m drunk on the freedom of being a solitary camper in a farmer’s field. And, more than anything, I’m drunk on the prospect of three days of literary inspiration.
The authors listen to each other’s talks, demonstrating how even bestselling writers can learn something from their colleagues. Have Verteuil Verse chosen the authors for their generosity, or is it the convivial atmosphere of the festival that makes it so easy to have a cup of tea and chat with the literary icons?
Most surprising is how each session is completely different. Exquisite fiction writer Isabel Ashdown (Glasshopper) makes our hearts sing with her settings. Crime queen Elizabeth Haynes (Into the Darkest Corner) is a thoughtful, romantic sweetie. She’s the last person you’d expect to write about decomposing bodies. She tells us how her seven years as an intelligence analyst in the police force have influenced her writing, and goes on to share a crime panel with Roma Nova expert Alison Morton and organiser Christine Collette. The session soon becomes a fascinating open discussion about moral dilemmas and Goodies v Baddies.
This relaxed atmosphere is at the heart of the festival, where our love of stories brings writers and readers together on an equal footing. Kate Mosse shares the history of the Languedoc with her spellbound public. Jacqui Lofthouse (Bluethroat Morning) inspires us to use art as a basis for writing, and chairs a useful writers’ networking session in which we get to talk to each other about our own projects. Barry Walsh (The Pimlico Kid) gives an insight into mixing memory and imagination, regularly entertaining us with his theories – such as how your preferred seat in a train can reveal your approach to writing.
On Thursday evening Diana Morgan-Hill (Love and Justice) ends the author talks with engaging readings from her memoir. And Sarah Harrison (The Flowers of the Field) rounds off Friday evening with stand up comedy as she reels off anecdotes from her writing and broadcasting career.
Between sessions I chat to other festival-goers at the bookshop or in the Hope charity refreshments marquee. Lots of faces are vaguely familiar. That’s part of the fun of being foreigners in France. Now they’ve reminded me of their names (once again), I’m confident I’ll remember them next time we meet.
It’s impossible to participate in all the events, which include bookmaking, short story critiquing, theatre skills and the art of translation. Gordon and Jocelyn Simms, the lovely couple who organise the St.Clementin literary festival, are able to relax and enjoy things this time – although they are running the poetry & playwriting workshops.
By 7pm I’m exhausted (nothing to do with the hangover). After a 20-minute cycle ride along the muddy track, over the footbridge and up the long, steep hill to my campsite (I don’t remember that bit from Wednesday night), I collapse in front of my tent. At half past nine I’m sprawled over my camping mat, zips closed, listening to the screech of owls and thinking back over all the wise words I’ve heard.
I hear a strange, breathless grunting beside my tent.
I’m not as amused as on Wednesday night. I peek outside.
There are no lights in sight. But I’m not alone. Although there aren’t any other tents, there is a cluster of animal shadows around me. The grunting begins again and climaxes in a recognisable braying. Not the flashers / rapists / murderers from Elizabeth Haynes’ stories. Just donkeys.
I zip up the tent and wonder who I can persuade to camp with me next time.
Many thanks to Kate Britten, Christine Collette and their team of volunteers. You made the first Charroux festival a wholly enjoyable occasion.