Wantage (not just) Betjeman Festival

Wantage is one of those places that can so easily be overlooked- not Oxford with its intellectualism, not Swindon with its nouveau riche young upstart brother feel to it, but perched between, it is semi-forgotten with its 17th and 18th century market place and stacks of new build flats and houses, in that awful pseudo not really Victorian style so beloved of conservation officers up and down the country.

But there were some more interesting examples of contemporary style mixed with the older buildings- the beautiful brick of the house abutting the road led through to a more imaginative glass and cedar clad development behind, and for Halloween, one of the local pubs had very impressively erected a facade which was providing entertainment to both adults and children (and me, the adult with childish tendencies…) And I loved the abstract quality of part of the interior of the museum, a mix of wattle and daub, brick, wood and plaster mixed with more modern touches.

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But today it was buzzing, not just with the farmer’s market (artisan breads and cakes, eggs and honey…) jostling with the normal (fruit, veg, clothes you get on markets and nowhere else) but because for the last week it has been the site of the (not just) Betjeman Festival. OK, Betjeman is not going to rock the world or make waves- I have to be honest, I am not a big fan of his. A little, or a lot, too stuck in the past and although he mocks, it is always with too much love and affection for me.

Market Place, Wantage
Market Place, Wantage

The morning session, (creative Writing Masterclass: Magical Realism) which the local MP tried to interrupt- how convenient bringing his young son to the library, so he could attempt to gatecrash our writing (which didn’t go down well, we all avoided eye contact and made it clear how we felt) was led by Megan Kerr. She is a prize winning writer who encouraged us to investigate examples from Marquez to Winterson, Angela Carter to Kundera, and then worked through exercises to create the bare bones of our own short stories. My problem is that I’m really not quite a short story writer- in fact I’ve never been into them- too short to really get me going, too long to be poetic enough… but I’ve got the outline and some imagery that will become a poem.

Plus, Megan told us about an exhibition at the museum, of her “Rope of Words“, which was awarded first prize in the British Fantasy Society short story competition in 2012, with illustrations by her mother, Lin Kerr, an artist and calligrapher. The original images are stunning and I was forced to purchase my own limited edition copy so I can enjoy both the writing and artwork at leisure. Another example of how artwork and text is the way forward….

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Lin Kerr’s illustrations to Megan Kerr’s “Rope of Words”

The afternoon session (a poetry writing masterclass: conversations) was led by Jo Bell (the “Canal Laureate”,) who is the most charming, witty, entertaining and all round amazing person I’ve met in a long time. She is genuinely interested in what everyone in the group thinks, she doesn’t make you read things out loud unless you really want to, she believes that workshops are not there to produce the finished article, that such articles are shiny and glossy and often just to show “cheap tricks” and impress your neighbour. Instead we worked through some challenging and enjoyable exercises, read and discussed examples of poetry that moved (or otherwise) us, and learned so much. I came out of the session with a stack of ideas to follow through. To feel like one really doesn’t want to go home, for the session to never end, that you’ve just been granted permission to walk on the path that could take you anywhere and everywhere, is a wonderful experience and I hope it will remain with me for a long time.

So this evening I’ve gone and entered a poetry competition… with some pieces I wrote for my final show. Nothing risked nothing gained….

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