The Wonderful Women of the Port Eliot Festival

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Last week Mr. Yellow Dot and I took some time out to relax and enjoy the Port Eliot Festival.  I thought it was just a holiday and I didn’t expect to blog about it for Yellow Dot Women but it turned out to be an incredibly inspiring few days and, this year, it was especially inspiring if you are a woman.

Port Eliot is, in the organisers’ own words, a celebration of “words, music, imagination, ideas, nature, food, fashion, flowers, laughter, exploration, fun and all that is good in the world!”  Women featured strongly in all those categories.

Today’s blog is my own tribute to the wonderful, inspiring women of the Port Eliot Festival.

“The Cinemateque” was an area curated by Women Under the Influence and The Violet Book and was dedicated to the important role of women in film.  This was not particularly about actors but gave space to women filmmakers, journalists, activists and producers and allowed us to view the world of film through the female lens.  A highlight for me was a discussion with Nimco Ali and Lily Cole who were exploring ways of using film to bring about social change.  Nimco is director and founder of Daughters of Eve, a non-profit organisation that works to protect girls and young women who are at risk from female genital mutilation (FGM) and Lily Cole is a model, actor, activist and author.  Their discussion included a showing of Lily’s powerful short film “Lights in Dark Places” about the refugee crisis in Greece.

I felt incredibly privileged to sit in on a discussion about the suffragettes featuring Helen Pankhurst and Antonia Raeburn.  Helen is the great granddaughter of Emmmeline and granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst, she is, herself, a women’s rights campaigner and the author of Deeds not Words – the story of women’s rights then and now.  Antonia is the author of The Militant Suffragettes and the last remaining woman to have personally known many of them and to have made recordings of their voices, some of which we heard.  This year, the 100th anniversary of some women getting the right to vote, has been an opportunity to reflect on that great achievement and to focus on what still needs to be done in the drive to equality – this discussion reinforced the need for more action and inspired (in me at least) the desire to put that agenda front and centre.  At the end of the discussion it was particularly gratifying to hear a young girl (I am guessing pre-teen) in the audience ask “what can I do to make a difference?”

There were women poets and authors aplenty, discussing their books, reading their work, running workshops and generally entertaining and informing their audiences.  Stand outs for me were Vanessa Kisuule for her exuberant personality, her confidence and her honesty as well as her way with words and Vanessa Tait talking about Victorian women and drugs (did you know that Victorian women could buy little bottles of Heroin at the pharmacy – it was used as a cough syrup, to treat headaches and just as a “pick me up”?)

On the main stage (The Park), Shappi Khorsandi proved that (contrary to some opinions) women really can be very funny indeed – and if she inspired you there was even a workshop on how to be a stand-up comedian.

If you have ever considered women to be the weaker sex then you needed to see Lola – from the Cradle of Flamenco, (a tribute to and celebration of Lola Flores, a legendary flamenco artist) where the female dancer demonstrated phenomenal, strength and skill – easily as much as her male counterpart.  If more evidence of strength and physical ability was needed the midnight trapeze artists provided it every night (and gave lessons in the day time).

Those with musical ambitions would not have been short of inspiration with some incredibly talented women artists playing on stages all over the festival site.  My own personal favourites were Dana Immanuel and the Stolen Band who are, according to their website, “a banjo-whacking, guitar-shredding, fiddle-sawing, foot-stomping, whiskey-soaked, all-female assault on the senses” and I have no argument at all with that description.  I also loved Hat Fitz and Cara – Cara’s stunning voice (and excellent drumming and flute/whistle/washboard playing) is complemented perfectly by a personality the size of a house.  I couldn’t talk about the female musicians at Port Eliot and not mention Naomi Holmes, the very talented bass player with William the Conqueror.  I have known Naomi since she was eleven years old when she and my daughter and other assorted friends would make music together in each others houses.  Over that time I have watched her work incredibly hard – not to be “idly famous” but to hone her skills as a musician.  It was a privilege to watch her (and the rest of the band) perform in the walled garden.

My apologies to all those wonderful women I didn’t mention – those I saw and those I missed.  I would love to go back and do it all again in different tents with different speakers and performers – but I guess I’ll just have to wait until next year…

It would be disingenuous of me to talk about the festival without mentioning some of the many wonderful men involved – I was privileged to hear and meet Billy Bragg (a long time hero of mine) and to attend a writing workshop with the immensely talented Wyl Menmuir.  The previously mentioned Cara does not perform alone and her musical partnership with Hat Fitz produces something magical that neither of them would produce alone.

This was not a women’s festival but this is a blog for women so of course my focus is on the wonderful women of the Port Eliot Festival.  I genuinely believe that all women, but young women in particular, need strong female role models and I found them at Port Eliot in abundance.  So, if you want to be inspired, to be provoked to think,  perhaps you should consider attending a festival this summer – take your daughters too – you never know who they might grow up to be.

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