When I phoned Nikita Lalwani to brief her on the arrangements for the three-day writing course she was about to teach for us at The Laugharne Weekend Festival in West Wales, I said, ‘Be warned – this isn’t going to be like one of our normal creative writing courses. It’s all going to be a bit Spirit-of-Laugharne.’ Nikita just laughed – she’d been to the festival before, so she knew just what I meant …
The Laugharne Weekend has got to be the UK’s most eccentric literature and music festival. It’s been running for 10 years now; Laugharne devotees go back year after year, and the weekend tickets sell out well before any of the acts are announced. Being at the Laugharne Weekend is like being at a particularly great three-day party, held in various venues all over a beautiful and kooky little town. You meet the most interesting people – any of whom you might find yourself in an unusual and fascinating conversation with – probably late at night. The acts are great, and the atmosphere wonderfully intimate. The organisers actively keep it as a small festival because, well, if it got bigger, it just wouldn’t be the Laugharne Weekend any more.
Musician and writer Tracy Thorn, who appeared in 2016, which was also MY first year at the festival, encapsulates the Laugharne experience very well in this piece from The New Statesman.
So, to Laugharne on Day 1 of our beginners’ creative writing course: At midday on Thursday 6th April, I turn up at Strand House, a Grade 2-listed private Georgian house overlooking the estuary and the Dylan Thomas boathouse, to be greeted by two enormous, barking dogs – and no sign of their owner, the documentary-film-maker John Bonham-Carter, who has generously agreed to host the course in exchange for just a couple of weekend festival passes. When I eventually find him in the studio at the side of the house, he seems confused as to why I’m there. I tell him I’ve come to set up for the creative writing workshop.
“Ah yes,” he says, cheerfully. “It starts tomorrow, doesn’t it?”
No. The course starts in two hours.
His expression changes … “Oh my God! My cleaner was supposed to come this morning but she’s off with an ear infection. The chickens have got in and there’s shit everywhere! Now they’re sitting in a row on the couch watching television.”
None of this is particularly surprising: This is the Laugharne Weekend, after all. That’s why I turned up two hours early … When Nikita arrives with her teaching materials an hour later, I’m still carrying chairs into the studio while John is scrubbing the bathroom. Nikita takes it all in her stride. And before we know it, the 16 students are arriving and I’m reassuring them all that the dogs won’t bite, and serving tea and biscuits. When I stand up to greet the group and and introduce Nikita as their tutor, a chicken wanders through the room … This is definitely an ice-breaker!
Day 2: I head down to Strand House mid-morning in gorgeous Spring sunshine to make tea for Nikita and the students at JBC’s (as he will henceforth be known). When I take the tray through to the studio, I can see it’s all going well. The group have clearly bonded – they look inspired and happy, and they all appear to have befriended the dogs. I hang around after the tea-break to eavesdrop on the class: One-by-one, the students read out the results of a writing exercise about character that Nikita has set them. They’ve all invented characters, several of which are fictionally roaming around JBC’s house and grounds, offering highly opinionated views …
Later, in a sun-drenched evening, Rufus and Jack (the other two members of our little CBC team) arrive after a long drive from London, and the festival-proper kicks off. “We should do this every year,” says Nikita, as we all head to hear some live music. “It’s so inspiring, looking out on that view across the estuary. It’s an amazing place – me and the students, we’re all in love with it. I want to rent the house. I want to live here through the summer ….” She’s sounding a bit crazed now – I think it’s Spirit-of-Laugharne …
Day 3, Saturday: Rufus and Jack are on tea duty for the final morning at JBC’s – they had a pretty late night at the festival, and had seemed a bit confused about how to get back to their cottage a few miles out of Laugharne, so I do hope they make it there on time … I, meanwhile, am watching my partner John (one of the two festival organisers) take part in a five-a-side football match in a small park: The Laugharne Weekend V The Locals, with Keith Allen as referee. Few of the players are looking exactly ‘fresh’ this morning, but the visitors triumph with the aid of their star player – a nine-year-old boy called Isaac hastily recruited from the local deli just as the match was starting …
Down at Strand House afterwards, all is well, and the group is sorry that the course is coming to an end. Nikita’s been running a writing exercise in which the students go rummaging through each other’s handbags and manbags, with some hilarity; they’ve come up with stories featuring a mixture of actual and invented handbag items, including Christian Dior lipstick, viagra, asthma inhalers and fat wads of cash.
The afternoon is a busy one for me as I’m running two events at the festival featuring published CBC alumni: First I host our former student Janet Ellis on stage in the community hall: Janet reads a gloriously visceral and meaty extract from her 17th Century debut The Butcher’s Hook, and is so charming that even the Vegan lady who comes up to talk to her afterwards has not been put off. Then later, in the marquee, I’m in conversation on stage with another former student, Kate Hamer, and award-winning author Tessa Hadley. Kate talks about the many ghosts which haunt her mysterious and beautiful new novel The Doll Funeral. Tessa reads a short story from her new collection Bad Dreams, all about how the acts of reading and writing novels can be secret, powerful and magical.
Later, much later, the CBC team joins the throng at the Fountain Inn for ‘Laugharne’s Got Talent’, the open mic night run by Keith Allen and his band of session musicians. Peformers range from cartoonist Martin Rowson as one half of a duet singing Rolf Harris’s ‘Two Little Boys’ – to sea shanties from The Reed Family, a wild act from The Isle of Sheppey who beat time on the stage with a doll’s head impaled on a stick … But arguably the star of the show is CBC’s very own Jack, who – newly infected with Spirit-of-Laugharne – gets up and astounds Keith Allen with a stunning performance of ‘I Shot the Sheriff’. (Nikita has the whole thing on video …)
And finally – finally – the weekend ends, and the exhausted CBC team limps back to London … We’ll doubtless be back for more Spirit-of-Laugharne next year …
For early news and information about next year’s Laugharne Weekend Festival, join their Facebook page.
For an in-depth course as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission) with a great tutor and participation from our literary agents, apply for:
Six-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Christopher Wakling (deadline for applications is Sunday 21 January).
Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell (deadline for applications is Sunday 28 January).
For a dedicated online course for those writing for young adults or children as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission), with a top children’s author, apply for:
Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sunday 4 February).
We are also offering three low-cost ‘foundation’ online courses, featuring tuition from CBC director Anna Davis:
Starting to Write Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 15 January).
Write to the End of Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 22 January).
Edit & Pitch Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 29 January).