Behind The Scenes At The Cheltenham Literary Festival


The smaller literary festivals – the ones where you have to stay overnight in a hotel room that still has a trouser press – are a bit like attending a bathroom fittings convention. We drink too much, stay up too late and have a good moan about work.

The Cheltenham Literary Festival is not like that. It is a phenomenon. Like Hay and Harrogate, it exists in an enchanted part of the country among rolling sunlit meadows, where the high streets are filled with kitchen shops and little boutiques full of dried lavender and anyone from a sink estate would be run out of town with burning torches.

Hosted by The Sunday Times, Cheltenham always has a hell of a lineup and is the kind of event we don’t get a sniff of in London. The global big names are all here with a mix of physical and virtual appearances from authors like Jonathan Franzen, Sebastian Faulks, Sarah Moss, Colm Tóibin, Isabel Allende and dozens of other ‘recognisables’.

In the crime fiction genre it’s a similarly huge lineup of familiar names, from which I am notably absent again. The festival is described as a place where the world’s foremost thinkers and writers meet, although Richard Osman is there as well. Which brings me to the odd thing you start to notice after studying the lineup for a while. A large number of authors are already familiar to the public from other spheres of life. The ideal Cheltenham guest is Michael Palin; a good writer, a familiar face, a fine raconteur.

I’ve been a guest speaker just once, and that to talk about the more respectable ‘Book of Forgotten Authors’. When you get there you are greeted and ushered into the great white tent on the green. From here on in it’s like a chicken factory. You pass along the line to be processed for public consumption, an author ahead of you, an author behind. A brief buffet luncheon, a tidy-up, a formal photograph, a few personal details, a microphone fitting, the main event of a panel or interview, a slickly organised signing, then you’re packed off to the train station.

It’s a superbly polished operation that manages to be completely soulless. In my one visit there was no interaction, indeed, very little time for any conversation, but I am one of the minor poets, as they say, one of the sidebars to the main event. I assume there’s a part of the festival that authors like me don’t get to see, a secret world of champagne cocktails and Firbankian gossip. But I’m perfectly content with my minor role. I don’t have much choice.

It’s all faultlessly organised and the public – especially those of a certain age – love it. Does it sell books? Well, it certainly adds to the groundswell of interest that accrues to an author like barnacles around a stanchion. And that can only be a good thing.

20 comments on “Behind The Scenes At The Cheltenham Literary Festival”

  1. mike says:

    We stopped going to Cheltenham a good few years back when it went through a period of “Slebs”, people of miniscule talent but huge self publicity ability, the like of Love Island contestants and internet “influencers.”
    Never had anybody at Harrogate moan about signing books, unlike Cheltenham where several “literary giants” were too exhausted to scribble over more than their current masterpiece.
    We have missed Harrogate though, fingers crossed for 2022

  2. Brooke says:

    Sound absolutely horrible…again financialization strikes like a snake. I suppose one can say it gives employment to Times junior staff and the caterers.

  3. Paul+C says:

    The Durham Book Festival (9 – 17 October) has more real writers this year rather than TV celebs who have infested this event in the past – Mike above is right about these festivals. Inevitably though, Richard Osman is appearing (I can’t get past page 1). Durham is a wonderful city to visit anyway and is a stop on the main London to Edinburgh train service.

    Sad to hear that some literary giants are standoffish. I’ve been lucky enough to have had books signed by Iain Banks and Michael Moorcock who were both happy to sign umpteen books and pose for photos with long lines of fans. They were exemplary unlike racing legend Jackie Stewart who flatly refused to write anything other than his name. His fans were not impressed.

  4. Stu-I-Am says:

    By and large, authors tend to be solitary creatures so I guess literary festivals have value in allowing them to come warily blinking into the light for occasional congress with other members of their species. Certainly considering the book do, next to the film festival, appears to be the favoured civic embellishment after upgraded street lighting, there are now more such opportunities. And while I very much appreciate good writing, I can’t say the same — with few exceptions (he said disarmingly…) — about those who do it. This may indicate a certain level of self-hate, but I did say ‘good’ writing.

    Next to actors banging on about their ‘craft,’ authors attempting to describe their creative impulses (present company excluded, he again said disarmingly…) is the auditory version of watching paint dry for me. Perhaps, at the few festivals I have (willingly) attended, this may have had more to do with long-winded interviewers obviously enamored of their questions, than with the authors’ usually tortured responses. Since these were open to the public, there was also that feeling of being among contestants for “Who Wants To Be An Aesthete.” Yes, as I said, the ‘milk of human kindness’ seems to have curdled some time ago. Ah well, apart from the promoters who made out quite well (I was told) from ticket sales and sponsorships and a couple of B-list celebrity poseurs who doubtless received appearance fees, at least the host towns received some revenue to help pay for that upgraded street lighting.

  5. Helen+Martin says:

    Upgraded street lighting is important, especially if you’re going for the “no light in the upward direction” kind. I have had wonderful times at local book festivals (before Covid) even the 50% at which I was working lettering bookmarks and heard some great presentations, even the charming gentleman who criticised me for crocheting during his talk and was amazed that I had a question for Q and A time. The Writers and Readers Festival was always in mid October and one day was always the universal teachers’ professional day so regardless of what your staff planned the students could all go to the events if they could get tickets. One year I actually got into the Poetry Event, something that was plugged with high schoolers. Some of their parents would have been shocked at the language and topics but none of the kids could have gone out saying poetry is boring. The other event, at the end of Sept. was a one day affair that has shifted around a bit. All the small presses had booths, especially the ethnic and cultural ones, there were authors and illustrators, especially kids’ books ones. I was back to back with a new mystery writer and his agent (I think) one year and I had a good time encouraging passers by to come and talk to him because he was interesting. He was launched on what was to be a series of mysteries named for wrestling holds, an approach which may give you something to seize onto (heh, heh!) but might become something of a straight jacket after a while. The first focused on the relationships between authors and their readers while the second was more on printing and publishing. The Alcuin Society had a stand and some years there was an actual press there to demonstrate the early process. Like so many events you get out of it what you put in, although a boring or self centred person is never much fun and the more interactive a demonstration is the more fun it is for the viewers.

  6. mike says:

    apropos Stu re audience aesthetes.
    We used to hate the end of the talk and audience question time. In the many years we have been going to talks I have only heard about 3 short questions.
    The majority ask the most convoluted questions with multiple sub clauses that seem to go on for ever. And ever.
    Another questioner that actually used to amuse us always managed to bring in to her question the fact that her 10 year old child was writing a book. She did this for at least four years before lockdown. We often wonder if her by now teenage child ever wrote the book. I have noticed that crime authors are happy to chat and sign loads of books. Never had a refusal from any of them. Pleasant people

  7. Laura Spira says:

    I have never been to a literary festival as I’d rather spend the money it would cost me on books. One of the blessings of social media is finding favourite authors there and being able to tell them how much you enjoy their work (thank you so much for B & M). The sideswipe at Richard Osman made me smile – I think he’s great on TV but his first book was dire.

  8. Keith says:

    “Although Richard Osman is there as well”…… 🙂

  9. andrew.holme says:

    Many years ago at the Oxford Literary Festival, George MacDonald Fraser not only signed ‘Flashman in the Great Game’ for my daughter, but flourished it with a personal dedication. It is still treasured by her.

  10. Stu-I-Am says:

    Off topic (although the series does marginally involve publishing). Had a chance to rewatch the BBC One three series ‘The Worst Week of My Life’ (Ben Miller, Sarah Alexander, Alison Steadman, Geoffrey Whitehead) during the last week. Yes — certainly over the top, but has to be one of the funniest (make that regularly sidesplitting for me) Beeb sitcoms ever — especially under the influence of several healthy drams of Scotland’s finest. It is streaming on Acorn TV, Amazon and some episodes may also be available free on YouTube.

  11. Ian Luck says:

    Geoffrey Whitehead would make a good John May… Just sayin’.

  12. Helen+Martin says:

    I realise I read a Richard Osman book a while ago. Thought it was, well, not great, a little silly. Saw one in the window of a bookstore this afternoon. We went out! We had coffee in one bookstore and bought books in another! It was a lovely day and yes, we wore masks.

  13. Paul+C says:

    Ever noticed that the trashiest novels have the most exalted quotations at the start ? Nietzche, Plato, Galileo etc. Then the duffest prose follows. It seems to suggest that the authors have the same level of serious intent.

    They also have pages and pages of acknowledgments, thank yous and reflections on how I wrote it – as though they were Dickens or Tolstoy and future literary historians would need to know how this guff and fluff came to written. Very tedious.

  14. Hazel Jackson says:

    I have to say that in an idle moment during lockdown, I found myself listening to The Thursday Murder Club read, or rather voice-acted, on R4 by the superb Hadyn Gwynne. She actually made it sound quite entertaining.

  15. Glasgow1975 says:

    I hope Glasgow and it’s trouser press hotels will welcome you back again soon to Aye Write! and that next time I’ll remember to give you my name for a signed book rather than Helen’s for a postcard 😉

  16. Helen+Martin says:

    A postcard which I still have, Glasgow. What is wrong with a trouser press, anyway? Don’t people want their trousers looking neat for their business meetings?

  17. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – A trouser press can also be used to cook the ‘flatter’ kinds of foods, like bacon and salmon fillets. You need aluminium foil to save the trouser press. There is, I believe, a trouser press cookbook out there somewhere. I jabe worked with a bloke who tried cooking bacon. He said it worked rather well.

  18. Ian Luck says:

    ‘Have’ not ‘jabe’. She’s a tree person from Doctor Who, as ane fule kno.

  19. Helen+Martin says:

    Could you cook the bacon and press the pants at the same time? Think of the time saving in the morning. Perhaps the lingering odor of bacon would have a negative influence on business discussions or the bits of lint in the bacon might have a dampening effect on the breakfast. I think I have a clearer image of the hotels in question.

  20. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Ian Luck I also found trouser presses useful for drying freshly made £20 notes.

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