• Helen Rye

Primadonna Festival 2019

Updated: Aug 3, 2020

My poet friend Julia and I were lucky enough to be given free tickets to this radical new literary festival, which took place last weekend. Primadonna was set up by women, with a strong representation of women of colour, and is aimed at including underrepresented voices, including disabled and working class writers.

When I dragged my ageing and cranky tent out of the shed during our pre-event packing it was immediately apparent that it had ramped up its decrepitude to terminal levels by going extensively, impressively mouldy. So I hurriedly bought a secondhand replacement on Gumtree, at a bargain price. It looked clean. It didn't smell like something had died in it. The previous owners said it'd be just right for festival camping. We loaded up my tiny car with the new tent, and a few things that felt essential for two people undertaking a weekend of camping in a field at the mercy of the British weather. It's bound to rain, I said. It'll be freezing cold, I said. We're going to need all of this stuff, I said. Trust me.

I've probably observed this before, but writers are not always the absolutely most practical of people. We got fairly extensively lost on the one-hour drive from Norwich to the Suffolk campsite, driving down one-track roads that didn't look like they'd been much visited since the Romans rumbled down them in their knife-wielding* chariots, which were apparently considerably narrower than a Toyota Yaris. Eventually, though, we found the place.

It was beautiful. A proper rural idyll with festive bunting. Happy-looking people flocked from the car park, dangling small tents from one care-free hand, maybe sporting a backpack or two, here and there.

Excited, we unpacked our own car into the pink, pull-along trailer I'd secretly borrowed from my eight-year-old. Then we unpacked the other side of the car. And the front of the car. And the boot. And the things we'd stuffed under the seats. And the things stowed in the glove compartment.

By the time we'd finished, the trailer was a teetering pile of stuff about four feet high and we were attracting curious glances from nearby festival-goers. It was hot. Very, very hot. Through a sheen of sweat, Julia observed that it was possible we weren't going to need the golf umbrella, after all.

This is fine, I said, and strode not at all defensively out of the car park, as far as it is possible to stride while lugging 700 kilos of bags in a child's pink trailer across uneven farmland.

Goodness, you've brought a lot of stuff, said a kindly woman with the accent and bearing of a parish councilor. Let me help you. She began surreptitiously to pick up the trail of small items we had started to shed in our wake as we reached bumpier ground. And so we processed across the field together, majestically, with an actual entourage.

We found a spot, and argued for ten minutes about which way the sun was going to rise and what direction we should point our tent. We were hot and thirsty and tired. I'm not sure who won. By this point, though, people all around us were flinging their little temporary canvas homes into the air with a laughing and serene ease which was soothing and reassuring to watch. This won't take long! We said to each other, our tempers rallying, and we gaily emptied the tent bag onto the sun-scorched grass.

The tent was huge.

People are going to think we're holding events in this, said Julia.

There were incomprehensible geometric designs printed in one corner that we supposed might be instructions.

There were a lot of poles. So many, many poles.

By the time we got the thing up we were too exhausted to cook the food that was still buried somewhere in the giant pile on the trolley, and our tent was casting a shadow that stretched across several acres, confused birds going early to roost in its pall. We tried not to look anyone in the eye.

Still. Once we'd drunk some of the Lidl canned g&ts we'd brought with us (who's laughing now, micro-backpackers) and eaten some of the snack food we'd unearthed from the depths of the baggage mountain, we started to feel better. There was live music coming from somewhere. The toilets, which we'd expected to be the normal festival hellscapes, were immaculately clean, contained scented hand cream and PLAYED CLASSICAL MUSIC. It was like stepping into John Lewis. There were massive ad-hoc artworks swaying gently on the breeze by the trees. We were surrounded by writers! We were in a field, in England, in the summertime, and it wasn't raining. And once we'd changed our clothes and put on sunglasses, probably nobody would recognise us as the women from the car park with the children's trolley stuffed with 427 bags. Yay!

And the next couple of days were a lot of fun. The two of us did retreat into a bit of a chippie, working-class-defensive bunker of awkwardness from time to time, overwhelmed with the volume of seriously impressive events, but we also went to a whole stream of brilliant panels and readings in tents and barns, sat and read and wrote in the cafe area, drafted story ideas in the quick-fire workshops. The panel discussion on the politics of representing language other than RP English in writing was particularly excellent, as was the working class writers' discussion and literally everything Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu said at any point throughout the entire event (I can't find the right adjectives to express my slightly star-struck admiration for Dr Shola, tbh - she was funny, challenging, rousing, brilliant, razor sharp and also so down-to-earth and friendly despite being a complete legend, basically). And I managed to say another awkward hello in my series of awkward hellos to Kit de Waal, one of my absolute writing heroes, who said some really nice things to me at a festival once about a story of mine she'd read and I was so overcome I had no idea what I said in return. I definitely managed to say hello this time, anyway. Yay, me.

Thank you for having us, Primadonna. You are an amazing thing, and we had a fabulous time. Next year, we'll be braver. Next year, we'll take sun cream. Next year, we'll go to all of the readings. Next year, we'll bring a smaller tent.

*I don't know much history but I reckon this is what they did

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