Back to Port Eliot: festival reporting by Lauren Elkin

by HRM on August 10, 2011

Part 3: Turtles & lobsters

The news came down heavy on Sunday morning. On one half of the Observer’s front page: Amy Winehouse is dead. On the other: a Norwegian fascist has gone on a killing spree, murdering a hundred teenagers and an increasing number of people in Oslo. People borrow each other’s newspapers and shake their heads. The tone is quieter today.

We walk up to the Walled Garden and I notice the rat head is down again. That’s good. Joanna draws for awhile at the Five Dials tent, and I sit on the grass and listen to the editor of Five Dials, Craig Taylor, read from a work in progress. Joanna has bought a pack of cards at the Hermès wagon which each feature a variation on how to tie an Hermès scarf. I splay the cards and offer them to her facedown. “Pick a card!” She does. “Don’t show it to me; put it back in the deck. Now shuffle.” She does. I take back the deck and choose a card at random. “This is not your card,” I say. “Yes it is,” she says. I have performed magic without meaning to. That, or I’ve beaten the odds.

Later, we head to the Idler Academy, where Joanna is giving a talk on how to be a tourist. Joanna, better known as her nom de plume Badaude, has recently published a book called London Walks. To promote the book, she’s been giving variations of this talk at Shakespeare & Company and the Idler Academy in London. “I’m here,” she announced, “– inappropriately – to talk about walking in cities.”  We are in the country, she says, but she goes on to talk about urban and suburban experience. She informs the audience of the two major animal-led walking tendencies of the mid-19th century: quoting Walter Benjamin, she notes that

Around 1840 it was briefly fashionable to take turtles for a walk in the arcades. The flâneurs liked to have the turtles set the pace for them.

On the other hand, it is well-known that the poet Gerard de Nerval had a pet lobster whom he would take for walks in the Tuileries.

Just for fun, Joanna proposes a race between a turtle and a lobster that she extricates from a box.  (Both are wind-up toys.) The winner, of course, is the one who moves most slowly. On this occasion, the lobster wins.

Moving from flâneurs to tourists, Joanna talks about the importance of adopting the “dépaysement” [removal from your native country, or alienation from the familiar] technique of the flâneur to one’s tourism. City walking, she says, allows us to “discard our everyday selves.” In order to see for ourselves, Joanna proposes a game.I’ve often sat in a café in Paris,” she says, “and seen tourists, in groups or couples stop outside, trying to work out whether this might be a place they wanted to stop at or whether it could be too expensive, not cool enough or too cool… The café I happened to be in [when writing this talk] had a terrasse with walls on three sides and after being examined four or five times I felt a bit like I was on the telly – except that I could look back out of the screen which begs the question are they looking at us or are we looking at them?”

Joanna and CrowdJoanna offers a series of Situationist-type games out in the festival itself. She instructs those carrying backpacks to turn them around to the pack is carried on their fronts. She distributes tourist paraphernalia, including a rayon scarf and a t-shirt that say LONDON in big letters. One lucky guy gets to wear a British policeman’s helmet. Umbrella raised, she ushers the audience out of the tent and through the nearby field, stopping before a drink stand selling £5 bellinis in an alarming range of flavours. We stop and watch the men as they serve two girls in leggings. They become uncomfortable, and laugh nervously, as Joanna analyzes their menus aloud. We all find this hilarious.  “Now turn to the person to your left and take their picture.” We obey. Here is the woman standing to my left:

Woman with backpack

“Now take pictures with each other.”

Lauren and guy with tuxedo

With that, the talk was over. We got to chatting with the guy in the tuxedo, who, it turned out, was a budding psychogeographer, having walked from London to Yorkshire with a friend who insisted on carrying his cello on his back the entire way, in spite of the weight and resulting boils, without playing it once. A sylph-like young girl in a fur coat and dark lipstick came to his side; they made a handsomely eccentric pair. We left them then, and went off to split a bottle of Sancerre and toast to a successful talk. The festival was winding down; we saw fewer familiar faces. People were beginning to leave. Too exhausted to dance to the Bhangra sounds of RSVP, we spread ourselves out on the grass outside the Big Top and bobbed to the beat from the ground. And then, as we lay there on our backs, looking up at the sky, feeling, as Joanna said, “the circumference of the world,” the One Minute Disco people appeared out of nowhere and began to boogie around our heads.

We ended the evening by joining our friends from the Idler by the river, the air thick with midges and mosquitoes. Children turned cartwheels in the grass and we drank cider as I fell into a conversation about autobiographical writing with Matthew de Abaitua, and Joanna discussed utopias with David Bramwell of the Catalyst Club. When it was time to leave, we made our way back out through the Walled Garden. In a flash, I remembered walking out through that garden the previous year, who I was with, what it felt like; we usually think that those small moments get buried under the weight of intervening years. The paths we have traced through the world may fade with time, but when the avenues overlap, we stumble into the memories created there. The paths of Port Eliot are lined with light, like the strands of a city seen from the air, but the patterns are different for each of us: the topography of light changes depending on the people we’ve seen, the things we’ve done.  The thing is to keep coming back, to keep adding new lines to the memory map.

Port Eliot Book Recommendations
Hari Kunzru, Gods Without Men
Tiffany Murray, Diamond Star Halo
Caitlin Moran, How To Be a Woman
Matthew de Abaitua, The Art of Camping
James Attlee, Nocturne
Badaude, London Walks

Port Eliot Spotify playlist:

(Read part one and part two)


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