Cheltenham Literature Festival

Sorry this post is without photos… I sort of forgot to take any. I’ve tried a slightly different writing style here, so I hope it is still enjoyable?!

The weekend in Cheltenham started under the gaze of rainclouds rather than the sunshine, but that did nothing to dampen spirits as members of the public flocked into tents to either hear authors speak or to gawp at books. Despite a squelch underfoot you only need to look left to see Mariella filming her intros and look right to see Anne Robinson make her way to a literary event about Jazz age novels. Among the ever blossoming white tents there are avid book fans clutching new purchases or old favourites so they can have them signed and made even more precious.

The atmosphere is infectious and even those who wouldn’t ardently fight for a squiggle on a title page are being swept into the Waterstones tents with a small twinkle in their eyes… enough at least for the most passionate booksellers to tempt.

Off to the Forum, where Sebastian Faulks was pleasant and down to earth, he allowed himself to be pictured a little narcissistically though only in jest. When an author speaks you want to hear their love seep through the speech and push you into their world. Faulks did this without flaw and thankfully didn’t hide behind a polite façade. Honesty was a theme as he was asked his opinion on the recent TV adaptation of Birdsong. To paraphrase, Sebastian liked some of it, but it ultimately fell short – particularly in the casting. It was interesting to hear that he is currently writing a screenplay of Birdsong for a feature film. He gave away the TV rights on the condition that he could keep the film rights in order to develop his own vision.

A trip around the corner to Imperial square and you could hear a talk on 19th century fiction and Jazz age novels that was sadly more sales pitch for reading guides than a discussion of some of the best literature the world has known. Despite the enthusiasm of the hosts, sighs could be heard and yawns were being stifled. The lull in proceedings made way for the heavens opening and everyone using their free book bags from The Times as makeshift head coverings.

Arising on day two saw the sun with his hat on and the crowds began multiplying. Book chatter was now accompanied by the shrill joy of children finding cut outs of Wally and his friends or venturing into the children’s hideaway. Deckchairs were laid out on the still damp grass, students were discussing their favourite authors over picnics and scarves were accompanied by sunglasses on a beautiful Autumnal day.

The middle of the day was spent in the dim lights of the Sky Arts tent watching Mariella quiz the likes of Philip Pullman, Pat Barker and Anthony Horowitz. Not much can be said about the shows for fear of spoiling the content for fans of the show as they will run from November 8th.

Walking under the dappled sunshine among the red t-shirted volunteers (who kept the enthusiasm of our Summer of sport alive) was a pleasure. Smiles were on faces whether they were guiding people to events or standing in line for an autograph. These volunteers are flowing amidst young people trying to sell The Times or handing out samples of local cheeses. There was little in variety to keep patrons entertained as they moved through or between sites, but most were occupied by kicking a ball or reading on a nearby bench.

Suddenly a queue of people began to wind around the perimeter of Montpellier’s and it was a sign that soon Philip Pullman would take the stage to talk about Grimm tales. The chemistry between host and author must have been enjoying a late lunch in the food court while the two attempted to sustain banter for the crowd. It seems Pullman is such a dab hand at these things he could have taken the stage alone and kept the audience entertained. The inevitable questions about His Dark Materials trilogy and its adaptation soon cropped up but only after Pullman had enthused his way through mentions of research, writing technique and the idea of morals in fiction.

His most interesting points arose around the idea that fairy tale characters are two dimensional and have none of the depth we find in other aspects of fiction. He described how he enjoyed working in such a fashion as he could focus purely on the story. After regaling the auditorium with a reading of one of his stories – The Moon – in rapturous tones, he spoke briefly about The Book of Dust to a collective intake of breath from people of all ages.

Everywhere has been explored except the Speigeltent – a small venue and bar tucked between others, almost hidden away, like some alcoholic platform 9 & 3/4. As the doors of the Speigeltent open eyes are greeted by a concave material ceiling and mirrored walls. This is where Damian Barr has invited Jojo Moyes, Alex Preston and Michael Chabon to take part in his literary salon.

The evening opens as Barrs dulcet tones reflect around the room to introduce the stunning Jojo Moyes to the stage. After an endearing reading from her latest novel, Jojo describes her methods for writing. There is something captivating about Moyes as she relaxes in the spotlight. While another blonde female author entertained 2000 people two miles down the road at the racecourse, Moyes glowed in a secluded venue that was equally in the palm of her hand.

On possibly his third Manhattan Damian brought Alex Preston up to read ten minutes of his next novel which won’t be on shelves until Faber publish it in early 2014. Alex looked a little nervous as he gripped the printed A4 sheets and read his first historical novel to the crowd. However, the collective of fans was gripped by his prose and his tense plotting that took twists and turns throughout a range of emotions. From hearing just this small section, it’s clear to see that Preston has a great novel living on his hard drive waiting to be unleashed.

With onlookers, authors and the host himself staring in awe, Michael Chabon stepped into the gaze and read two sections from Telegraph Avenue with such a wonderful cadence that each person in the room was grinning from ear to ear. It’s very easy to say that Chabon is utterly charismatic and affectionate towards those listening to him speak. While being bold to paint an image of Telegraph Avenue in California, he also comes across as in awe as the rest of us.

Damian Barr shows why he is such an amazing host by using blunt statements to allow his guests to feel more at ease. On talking about homosexual relationships in Telegraph Avenue, Chabon seems coy about what he can say while Barr steps in and says what needs saying without fear or offence.

Chabon finishes by answering some questions from the audience, perhaps the most revealing being what his favourite of his own works is. While not wanting to sound “masturbatory” (Barrs wording) Chabon speaks honestly about his love for Wonderboys and how that novel gave him his confidence back after working for five and a half years on a novel that he ultimately had to abandon.

And so the sun has set while in the Spiegeltent and when it rises tomorrow this years festival will come to a close for this blogger. It has been a weekend of pure joy and I only wish this enthusiasm for the written word could surround me everyday.

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