It began in a Wobegon sort of way…

26 10 2012

It began in a Wobegon sort of way. Spring ’98 and Garrison Keillor was in town. The bestselling author of ‘Lake Wobegon Days’, and long-time host of US public radio programme ‘A Prairie Home Companion’, was paying a rare visit to the UK. A master of the humorous monologue, infused with   dry irony, he washed up on a damp Saturday afternoon in Chelt–en-ham Spa to promote ‘Wobegon Boy’ – his latest warm-hearted portrait of life in the US mid-west.

Leaving behind the dripping Saturday afternoon shoppers on the Promenade, I took shelter amongst the Corinthian style columns of the Town Hall’s Pillar Room, with a few hundred like-minded souls, and sat spell-bound as the author read extracts from his latest offering, interspersed with humorous anecdotes shedding some insight into the writer’s psyche and how he had developed his craft.

It was my first Cheltenham Literature Festival event and I was hooked.

The following year I was back for a spot of undercover intrigue from the master of the British espionage novel – John Le Carré. I just happen to know that for a fact as, not only did he sign my copy of ‘A Perfect Spy’, he dated it 25 ii ’99 – Cheltenham.  

I’ve returned every year since, with the exception of 2010 – when it would have required something of a trek from Rwanda! There have been countless memorable encounters. And with each year, as the nights draw in, and the first leaves change their hue; an annual @cheltlitfest fix has become an essential part of my Autumn Almanac. (Sadly, the autumn fest is now so large that the spring weekend – where I first encountered ‘Wobegon Boy’ has been shelved)  

Described as a ‘literary lover’s dream’, Cheltenham’s standing is second to none. It is the longest running festival of its kind in the world – formed in 1949 – and remains one of the most prestigious and well attended literary events in the world – this year close to 90,000 were expected at nearly 400 events.   

Whilst fiction and story-telling has always been at the heart of the festival it has also showcased the talents of some of the world’s leading, actors, adventurers and artists, historians and  humorists,  poets, philosophers, politicians and sporting legends.                                

A cursory glance upwards from my keyboard and along the adjacent bookshelves serves to jog my memory and illustrate the range and calibre of recent contributors.

Louis de Bernières, William Boyd, Jung Chang, Roddy Doyle, Sebastian Faulks, John Irving,  Hanif Kureishi, Alexander McCall Smith, John Mortimer, Eoin Colfer, Terry Pratchett, Vikram Seth, Lee Child, Colin Dexter, PD James, Ian Rankin, Clive James, Michael Palin, John Simpson, Jeremy Paxman, Peter Blake, Jack Vettriano, David Badiel, Stephen Fry, Frank Skinner, Michael Parkinson, Joanna Lumley, Alistair Darling, Neil Kinnock, Michael Portillo, Michael Atherton, Will Greenwood, Simon Hughes, Kenny Logan, Christopher Martin-Jenkins, Matthew Syed …

This year’s festival cast was assembled under the broad theme of ‘People Power’ and I managed to take in the following:  

Will Gompertz: Wild eyed, eccentric BBC Arts editor and former director at the Tate Gallery, he of the fly away hair strands, attempted to demystify 150 Years of Modern Art – based on his book ‘What Are You Looking At?’ Entertaining but an hour is barely time to scratch the surface on such an extensive topic!   

Paul Auster: This was a BBC World Service Book Club recording (to be broadcast on Saturday 3rd November) which focussed on the US author’s best-selling ‘New York Trilogy’ – three interlocking short stories – variations on the classic detective novel. To be honest I wasn’t familiar with Auster’s work but this session certainly whetted my appetite, I bought a copy and I’m currently part way through the opening story, ‘City of Glass’.     

Salman Rushdie: It is twenty-three years since a fatwa was pronounced upon the author, by Ayatollah Khomeini, following the publication of ‘Satanic Verses’. He was accused of being against Islam, The Prophet and the Quran and ‘sentenced to death’. Forced into hiding, and under constant police protection for ten years, he took on a new identity, that of ‘Joseph Anton’ – a combination of the first names of two writers he  much admired, Conrad and Chekhov.

Rushdie read from his recently published memoir of the same name, interestingly, a narrative written in the third person, which he found a better vehicle to convey his story. He spoke candidly but unapologetically, suggesting the astonishing events surrounding his battle for freedom of speech was but the first act of a drama still unfolding somewhere in the world every day. 

I was pleased to be able to get my beautifully illustrated Folio edition of ‘Midnight’s Children’ signed ; the novel awarded ‘Booker of Bookers’ (in 2008) to mark the 40th anniversary of the prize.  

Mariella Frotrup’s Book Show: The highly acclaimed Sky Arts show for book lovers returned to Cheltenham for a series of recordings in front of a live studio audience. I was present for a programme to be broadcast on (Sky Arts 1 HD) Thursday 29th November at 8.00pm.

Mariella’s main guests were Pat Barker and Philip Pullman.

Pat Barker, Booker Prize-winning author of ‘The Ghost Road’ – part of her Regeneration Trilogy – who has successfully blended fact and fiction in exploring the history of the First World War, shared extracts from her latest novel ‘Toby’s Room’, a partner to her last book ‘Life Class’, a tale of war artists and surgeons, drawn against the backdrop of the horrors of the Great War. 

Philip Pullman, renowned author of the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy has returned to the grim side of fantasy for his latest book, graphic retellings of fifty classic Grimm’s Fairy Tales – first published 200 years ago this year. He treated us to a grizzly extract from the tale which forms the basis of ‘Cinderella’, in which ‘the ugly sisters’ slice off pieces of their feet in an endeavour to fit the ‘lost slipper’ – not very Disney!     

J K Rowling: Her rare public appearance was never going to be a typically intimate Cheltenham Festival affair. An audience of over 2000, many drawn from the Potter Generation, crammed into the Cheltenham Racecourse – Centaur conference centre – as the creator of the multi million pound Hogwarts franchise set about promoting her first novel for grown-ups –The Casual Vacancy’.

It is a million miles away from her fantasy of wizards and witches, firmly set  in the world of ‘muggles’ – an apparently idyllic country town of Pagford. But appearances can be deceptive and as the story unravels, around its central theme of a parish council election, hidden passions, prejudices and duplicity are revealed. Central to the storyline are teenage characters, far removed from the wholesome Harry and Hermione, through which the author attempts to tackle thorny issues of grimy casual sex, drugs and self-harming. And yes (shock horror )there is swearing – in fact a whole barrage of four-letter word outbursts.

I had never really warmed to JKR, through her occasional TV appearances, maybe influenced by the way she has sometimes been portrayed in the press. But here she won me over as she became increasingly relaxed and engaged with an audience that was clearly on her side. Like myself, not many had read the new book, but the queue, following the event, for collectable signed copies  – a two-hour tailback – suggested that quite a few now will. I take my hat off to her in this regard, she stuck with it until every last book was signed and had a quick word of thanks for everybody – impressive. 

Benedict Cumberbatch: JKR somewhat self-deprecatingly described herself as the warm up act for the man who followed; ‘Sherlock’ – ‘A Thoroughly Modern Victorian’. I am an admirer of Cumberbatch the actor, and a huge fan of the ‘Sherlock’ series, but this was probably the most disappointing event I attended. For me, it failed to live up to its billing.

There were very few if any fascinating insights into the creative process that has transformed Conan Doyle’s character and stories into a 21st century detective series. This, I felt, was largely down to the banal interview technique of ‘journalist’ and Sherlock co-star Louise Brealey. Although, to be fair, she was probably playing to an audience heavily comprised of hyperventilating teenage girls!      

The novel chosen for this year’s Times Cheltenham Festival Big Read was Ian Fleming’s ‘Dr No’ – in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first Bond film. Having seen the movie on the big screen when it was first released, and subsequently, many times over, on the small screen, It dawned upon me that I’d never read the original story. An omission now rectified.

With on-line tickets already booked, at Worcester Vue, for the opening of the latest Bond extravaganza, ‘Skyfall’, there is more on the great British cultural icon, 007, to follow…   

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