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.