It’s all sun, Sherlock and sex for arts fest tarts and vicars

Of all the delights that have returned to us this summer, my favourite is the arts festival. Before the pandemic I’d pack up the car every June and zigzag round Britain at weekends, stopping off at village greens, town halls and dilapidated country houses. My mission was to talk, chair panels and get tipsy in a field with authors, would-be pop stars and young women smothered in glitter. It’s a peculiarly British phenomenon to glimpse a marquee by a duck pond, wander up for a closer squint and find Alastair Campbell addressing an audience of 200 people (this actually happened to me on Wimbledon Common earlier this year).

The arts behemoths at Edinburgh, Hayon-Wye and Cheltenham have inspired a host of more intimate platforms in recent years. My favourites include the Curious Arts Festival, the Idler Festival, the Cambridge Literary Festival and potter Emma Bridgewater’s Festival in a Factory at Stoke-on-Trent. What I love best about these cosy, eccentric forums is how democratic they feel. There’s pretty much no distance between the speakers and their audience, and heated debates continue outside the tent. I love it when the village bookworm tells Ian Rankin there’s a plot flaw in one of his Rebus novels, or a vicar ticks off Philip Pullman about his atheism. I once saw an audience member tell Dame Vivienne Westwood that her designs were mind-blowing, but her rhetorical skills were “pants”.

If the creative folk are off duty it’s quite likely the punters won’t even recognise them. A couple of years ago I came off stage at Hay’s How the Light Gets In philosophy festival after chairing a taxing panel on transhumanism. I was desperate for a drink and went up to a group of festivalgoers and asked a man in a baseball cap, “Who do you have to fuck to get some booze around here?”, which led to some jolly banter and a glass of prosecco. A bit later I bumped into an old friend who said, “I’m sorry I didn’t say hello earlier, but you were so immersed in conversation with Benedict Cumberbatch that I didn’t interrupt.” Only then did it occur to me that I’d propositioned TV’s  Sherlock like a drooling Cumberbitch.

This chastening memory was in my head as I bombed along the A11 to Essex’s Castle Hedingham for the inaugural EA (East Anglia) Festival – taking place in the castle’s spectacular grounds. The Norman keep is generally agreed to be the best-preserved example of such architecture in the country and you’ll have seen it in countless TV dramas. I now know it’s best viewed by moonlight when there’s a fair chance of encountering its ghostly inhabitant, Maud, who drowned in the lake.

EA was propelled into being by Joanne Ooi, a US-Singaporean entrepreneur and force of nature who moved to the Essex/Suffolk border five years ago. She instinctively knew that what the locale needed was a kick-ass, creative shindig in the castle. If there’s one key thing I know about festivals it’s that behind every great one is a human dynamo, who toils night and day to create an apparently effortless salon-cum-cocktail party. Someone who’s mainlined Field of Dreams and the line, “If you build it, he will come.”

Joanne Ooi with Sass Brown 

In Joanne’s case the “he” was a clutch of global luminaries including comedy legend John Lloyd, percussionist Evelyn Glennie, film director Mike Figgis, pianist Roman Kosyakov, and performance and multimedia artist Rosey Chan. I was there to offer some light relief – as the actress said to the bishop – discussing all things erotic with podcast host Daisy Buchanan, whose debut novel Insatiable is 2021’s sauciest read. (In brief, ingénue Violet is seduced on multiple levels by a beautiful, charming, rich couple who promise her a job in the art world but seem more intent on inveigling her to sex parties – and have clearly played this game before.)

Rowan Pelling (centre) with Daisy Buchanan (left) and Louise Agran (right)
on the panel, Let’s Talk About Sex

As you may imagine, this led to a lively, well-attended session that covered a wide extent of smutty terrain. Daisy and I discussed what had first led us to take an interest in erotic literature (answer: Jilly Cooper and Lady Chatterley), infidelity, later-life sex, pornography and the “orgasm gap” – or the well-established fact that men nearly always have a climax while making love, while women often don’t. You may fear men didn’t get a look-in, but we handed the mic to John Lloyd’s son Harry, lead singer and songwriter of Waiting for Smith, who said to applause that erotic odysseys should concern the quest for trust and intimacy.

Harry Lloyd of Waiting for Smith

The conclusions Daisy and I came to, roughly speaking, were: shame should be no part of sex; the woman who knows how to pleasure herself can share that knowledge in future relationships; imagination is key to great lovemaking; Jilly Cooper is a goddess; men aren’t as cocksure as they seem and often seek kindness; lying is destructive; and if one person in a relationship no longer wants sex they should allow a more libidinous partner to seek solace elsewhere.

It was only afterwards that I gathered there was a bunch of teenage children listening in, who seemed sanguine about what they’d heard. When I asked if they talked to their parents about sex they replied, “No, gross! I don’t want to think about them doing it.” But then this is the whole point of arts festivals – an audience of all ages and types listens to people making off-the-cuff remarks that are far more candid than the scripted stuff. Who knows, at some point in the future we may even throw a Perspective festival. I can already see the banner: “Sex and Politics”.

Rowan Pelling is a British journalist and former editor of The Erotic Review

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