Another year, another festival

It hardly seems a year since I last wrote about the Cheltenham Literature Festival (here), but here we are again. Autumn in Cheltenham and Montpellier Gardens becomes home to book tents and coffee shops and hoards of book lovers, clutching their complimentary copies of the Times in their free cloth bags and clambering for a signed copy of Stephen Fry’s new memoir.

I am a long-time festival-goer, attending annually for about 7 or 8 years now. Seven years ago, there were two festivals a year (including a shorter event over the Easter weekend) and I would take several days off work, booking tickets for a packed itinerary of lectures, debates, readings and interviews. My favourites have always been what I call the “unknown quantities” – panels of 2 or 3 new writers, united by a single theme, reading from their first novel. They were always half price to under 25s (as I was then) and I discovered many new favourites at those events.

But I’ve also seen – and in some instances had the honour of meeting – some of my cultural heroes. Maya Angelou moved me to tears (I wasn’t the only one the room to be so overwhelmed by it all). I met and chatted with Douglas Coupland. I was star-struck and mumbled my name to a book-signing Sir Antony Sher. I shook the hand of Daniel Libeskind and, in that moment, made a big decision about my life. I was even (rather unexpectedly) won over by a charming Alan Carr.

This year, I was most excited about seeing director, author, producer, genius Guillermo del Toro and was gutted last week to receive a photocopied letter (in the post!) to inform festival-goers that he would no longer be appearing at the festival. But I remembered that the festival gems are always the low-key events and I went along with @AllyWickstead on Saturday with high hopes.

Our first event – ‘New Feminism’ author, Natasha Walter – was fascinating debate. The assertion that, as feminists, our new ‘enemy’ is other women – that in fact the sisterhood had turned on itself – was a convincing one and one which certainly had a lot of support in the auditorium (we were in the newly opened Parabola Arts Centre, part of the Cheltenham Ladies College, and what an excellent venue it is, too). We returned to the Parabola Arts Centre once again for what was billed as “chilling” exploration of Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories. It was certainly a lot of fun (I wouldn’t have liked to be the chairman who kept Martin Jarvis under control) but they tried to pack in too much for the audience to ever feel truly unnerved.

The 2010 festival is on for another week and, if you’re in the area, I highly recommend a visit.

What really struck me this year was how the festival has grown. I should say now that I have never attended Hay, though I have been in the town whilst the festival was on. Cheltenham clearly aspires to be Hay: the corporate sponsorship (The Times, Waterstones, Carte Noir, SkyArts), the radically different target audience (though I still find myself amongst the youngest adults in attendance), the big – usually political – hitters amongst those appearing on stage. This is not, by any means, a criticism and I am thrilled that the festival is thriving and growing because it means I can keep going for many more years to come.

If I’m honest though, I miss the days when the only events that took place were in the Town Hall and the book tent was a cramped marquee in which you could barely move for stacks of hardback books on any subject you could name. I would spend a small fortune in that tent. This year, I bought just three books:

  • Natasha Walter’s ‘Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism’
  • Mark Kermode’s ‘It’s Only A Movie’
  • Deyan Sudjic’s biography of Norman Foster ‘A life in architecture’ (partly because the beautiful green of the dust jacket made up for the frankly hideous cover of Kermode’s book).

There were a few other books I picked up and put back down but, well… for one reason or another, the book-buying magic just wasn’t there for me this year.

Though it does mean I get to spend twice as much next year…

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