Tuesday, 8 October 2013

A Gem of Small Wonders

The downs above Charleston

It is a testament to the rich diversity of its programming, the top quality of its speakers and the gloriously inspirational location that the Small Wonder Festival at Charleston has grown into such a success. For the organisers, ten years must have flown by and it must be heartening to see such a throng of people eagerly swimming their way round the site every Autumn.  I have only been once before, when I was lucky enough to win an Asham Award, and I had such a wonderful time I was eager to come back. I managed to cram three events in one day this time and found them all stimulating, inspirational and thought-provoking.

A short story festival is indeed a wonder and attracts readers and writers alike – very often they are also one and the same. Short stories constantly receive such a mixed press. We are told there's no market for them by publishers and booksellers, that nobody reads them, or that they are now enjoying a resurgence! It's sometimes difficult to pick your way towards the truth here, though I suspect that a bit of everything is probably the most accurate reflection. Surely a medium perfect for bite-sized podcasts is ideal for our technological age and those journeys to work? There's such a range of material too covering everything you can think of … and more … from all over the globe. Try a classic Chekhov, Woolf or Dickens. How about something by Flannery O'Connor, Alice Munro or Raymond Carver. There's Helen Simpson, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,Vanessa Gebbie, Yiyun Li, Adam Marek, Haruki Murakami …. Some you will know, some not but look them up and you're in for a treat … anything from separations, reunions, unrequited love, lost children … zombie restaurants. Zombie restaurants? Oh yes!

I have loved reading short stories since I was at school and an inspirational English teacher introduced me to the work of Katherine Mansfield – a revelation. I still marvel at her skill, her humanity, her insight into human nature and her glorious way with words. There's a lovely piece about one of her stories by Cath Humphris on the Thresholds' site here: http://blogs.chi.ac.uk/shortstoryforum/beyond-words/

The Man Booker longlistee Alison MacLeod gave a wonderfully vibrant talk about her and eloquently echoed so many of the things I have always felt about her work. It is always heartening to find people who feel the same way as yourself about certain things, even more so when they are people you admire. There was also a lovely reading of 'The Garden Party' – one of her most well known stories – by a young actress, which really set the mood for the evening and placed the audience right at the heart of her writing. A perfect way to end my visit to this year's Small Wonder.

My treasured old school copy

Charleston is such a unique place, with the slant of the downs curving round its perimeter and, of course, the wonderful farmhouse with its glorious interior imbued with the work and lives of the Bloomsbury Group. I have visited the house a few times before, marveling at the unique exuberance of the decoration on walls, tables, fireplaces, doors, and the other art works by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Picasso, Renoir, Sickert, Derain … it is an emotive place and the studio, the last room you pass through before leaving, has a charge all of its own – extraordinary.

If you fancy a visit check it out here: http://www.charleston.org.uk/  

The garden at Charleston

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