The 2009 Small Wonder Festival Slam

I didn’t post on Friday because I was at the Small Wonder Festival at Charleston House, near Brighton. It’s a literary festival, now in its sixth year, that spans four days and takes place in a beautiful rural spot among the South Downs. The difference between this and other festivals is that Small Wonder deals exclusively in the short story, a distinction that guarantees a sense of completion. If you’re anything like me, you can sometimes get frustrated at literary events in which an author reads you a middle chapter from their novel. It’s great if you’ve read the book, but if you haven’t it’s hard to engage with the passage when you have no context and haven’t learned the nuances of the characters.

The short story avoids this problem entirely and makes, in my opinion, for a far better live experience. Whether you enjoy the story or not, at least you get the entirety of it rather than just a sampler. It’s more theatrical and engaging, and that’s what we got at Small Wonder.

A great deal of care and attention had gone into making the festival an absorbing place to simply hang out. The grounds had at once the landscaped quality of a stately home and the earthy satisfaction of farm premises. This year there was a Virginia Woolf trail in the garden and, when night settled in, bed time stories with warm blankets and mugs of cocoa under the stars. With autumn creeping in, the festival organisers made sure you could stay cosy indoors as well as out. A grand old barn had been dedicated to helping festival-goers relax.  Comfy sofas, library books, food, drink and Small Wonder’s very own brew of fine ale (which, if you’re interested, was sweet and malty).  The programme didn’t disappoint either, with the likes of Ben Okri, Owen Sheers and Will Self on the bill. If you get the itch to go next year I’d advise treating yourself to at least a couple of afternoons or evenings there. Learn from me, though, and assume that Charleston takes a little bit longer to reach than Google Maps implies.

With Friday night came the famous Small Wonder Slam, a double-header consisting of a commissioned writer talking about short stories and giving a reading, then the titular short story contest, open to all-comers. The commissioned writer was Mick Jackson, author of, most recently, The Bears of England. You can read the short story he wrote especially for the festival here. He also read a story from The Bears of England, which was the perfect kind to be read out loud, but more on that in my next post.

The rules of the slam were as follows. Contestants prepared their stories beforehand, wrote their names on slips of paper and dropped them into a hat to declare that they wanted to enter the slam. Fifteen names were pulled from the hat, and each of these was asked to read in turn before a panel of judges. The judges marked each contestant out of ten, and the three with the highest score were then lined up for the audience to choose a winner, through the scientific method of roaring, clapping and hooting. The catch? No story could last more than three minutes. The master of ceremonies (who compared the slam with genial wit) had an old bicycle horn and a stopwatch at the ready. If any story outlasted its three-minute welcome, he’d sound the horn and the reading would be brought to an abrupt end.

So off they went, these brave souls, reading one by one. I’m not sure I could have gotten up there among them to take part, for these shortest of short stories are a hard form to master. I remember trying my hand at them when Dan Rhodes’ Anthropology came out (which I drop in here because it’s a masterpiece of the genre) and finding them incredibly hard to get right. Writing a story like that is like trying to mix an exact shade of paint. You need to get the proportions of all its constituent elements precisely right, or it can become muddied and useless. There isn’t much room for plot, or even scene in such a story. The best, instead, seem to focus on a particular emotion, hold on to it for a moment, and then close.

I felt that the slam’s judges were completely on the mark, and was pleased with their choice of the top three stories. We had Andrea Samuelson’s tale of a man with a body made up entirely of household objects (his legs were brooms, his belly a bucket) except for his hands, which were human and as such loved to feel things. It was a deftly constructed image carrying a sense of loneliness and a metaphor for old age. Then there was Ruth Maxwell’s blissfully naughty tale about an elderly thief getting a thrill from stealing. Ruth herself was of stately years, and she told the story with such delicious enthusiasm that the entire audience were in hysterics. And finally the champion on the night, Nell Currie, whose story was a deserved winner. This was the tale of a mother convinced that her son was a saint, so much so that she collected all the souvenirs of him that she could (such as his baby teeth) into a reliquary. She was convinced her son’s every act was a miracle, and so strong was her conviction that she eventually drove her son away. Nell’s story was not only composed with great craft, but was delivered pitch-perfectly in slow, blackly humorous tones. Getting up before an audience can make you speed up your reading and spoil important details with rushed pace, but Nell kept the performance slow and steady. I hope there is much more from her where that story came from. If you want to check it out for yourself, it’s going to be hosted on the website of the event’s sponsors, Spoken Ink.

The slam was lively, engaging, and created a fantastic sense of shared experience among the audience which, I suspect, was also felt by the fifteen contestants. In these respects it’s the perfect microcosm of the festival itself. Bright and beautiful, small and wonderful.

Ali Shaw is the author of the novels The Man who Rained and The Girl with Glass Feet, which won the Desmond Elliot Prize and was shortlisted for the Costa First Book Award. He is currently at work on his third novel.

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