My Cheltenham Literary Festival (2015)

In 2014 I flirted with #cheltlitfest, booking only one event. I took my mum to see Danny Baker. He was brilliant, but I was as captivated by the whole set up, and the oceans of books to browse, touch and buy in the pop-up Waterstones tents. It was there I stumbled across Colm Toibin signing books (the book review of late), and got a little star struck… but we’ll gloss over that! Think: ‘I carried a water melon.’

Despite blocking the whole event in my calendar, I couldn’t do the opening (loads of Times/Sunday Times heroes I wanted to see) as our grand daughter’s naming ceremony took precedence, but I was determined to overdose in a couple of days. I attended nine sessions in just over 48 hours. It was perfectly paced, and I enjoyed and took something from each of the sessions that I attended.

I love the format. It was a series of ‘sort of’ literary chat shows. For the authors and journalists that I saw, each was hosted. This took away the practice of reading great swathes from their books, and made for a fantastic ‘user’ experience. It meant that the balance was great, between the latest book for publication, and something of the author… their inspiration/process/struggle. You can imagine that this was all heaven-sent for me, curious as I am about the writing process. What united all the writers I saw was the fragility they have… Like me! The questioning of whether we are good enough, what we write is what anyone will want to read. These incredible writers were a little bit like me – and that is very humbling and very reassuring. I saw Rachel Joyce, SJ Watson, Rosamund Lipton, and Virginia Bailey. All very generous in what they shared.

Alexander Armstrong gave a very entertaining session on his latest venture, the Arctic Adventure (although I’m not sure I’d buy the book, we have to draw some lines!). The most incredible and moving session was part of the Defining Moments series, Rotherham. Andrew Norfolk was The Times journalist who spied the patterns of the sexual abuse of girls, secured three months from the editors to research, and ended up working on the story for four years. He was visibly affected. He was there with Nazir Afzal, the CPS guy in the north west that put the gang on trial. I have such admiration for both men.

I attended a rather mad session on the art of short story writing – at least it was called The Brilliance of Brevity. A panel session, hosted by Edge Hill University, where they included a glass of wine. It was mostly a rambling discussion about the form and whether it was in form, or not. I have a whole list of short story writers that I didn’t have before, so homework too, and some essentials to think about. I want to write more short stories, so perhaps this will distill in my subconscious for a while. I wrote a couple of pages of notes at this one, more than any other session. That surprises me now – I blame the wine.

One session, on travel writing, got cancelled. I ended up seeing Matthew Paris and Oliver James as a substitute. Oh my. It was brilliant. Matthew Paris, ex-Tory back bencher and Times columnist, introduced Oliver James, the left-wing Guardian columnist, as his hero. The two men had such respect for each other, and the debate was fascinating. I’m not particularly party political, and somehow these guys weren’t in the discussion either. They had different views, but the quality of the debate was brilliant. Listening, engaging, arguing, all within the bounds of respect and winning by oration. I could listen to those two more than most politicians.

In between the sessions, I could be found browsing (and buying) in the Waterstones tents, or sitting in The Feast having coffee. It was an isolated experience at one level. I loved sitting in solitude thinking about what I’d heard, so I had no desire for anyone to take up space, but it surprised me that people didn’t chat. Well, they did, because the air was buzzing with the murmur of voices, but it was mostly people who had arrived together, and most people did seem to be in couples or small groups.

I loved every moment of #cheltlitfest and came away inspired and motivated – to write more, to read more and certainly to add #cheltlitfest to my 2016 diary when I get it (7-16 October 2016).

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