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A weekend at the Cheltenham Literature Festival 2017

posted on 10 Oct 2017

A weekend at the Cheltenham Literature Festival 2017

The Cheltenham Literature Festival has become a fixture in my diary over recent years and I can usually find a good clutch of authors to go and see – although there seem to be a fewer each year as the celebrities peddling their tedious scribblings increase in numbers. I’m always slightly ill-at-ease in this environment because it’s like watching the mobilisation of the white, middle classes – you could get a prize for spotting a black face in the audience. As a working class man I can sense that these people aren’t my tribe but what else can you do if you want to hear authors talking about their books?

This year pretty much everyone I wanted to see is scheduled in for the first weekend and I have tickets for events on Saturday and Sunday – so there’s a lot of toing and froing involved and absurdly large amounts to spend on parking fees.

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First up is Roddy Doyle who is promoting his new novel Smile. Doyle is always an amiable interviewee and there’s something naturally roguish about his persona – I struggle to stop myself thinking of him as a character from one of his own books. The general good nature of the interview was enhanced by Mark Lawson who was doing the questioning. His broadcaster experience holds him in good stead because he’s relaxed and confident in his handling of often quite potentially difficult subjects – he even coaxed an answer out of Doyle on the Irish Brexit question of hard or soft borders!  What we’re promised in Smile is an unexpected, even earth-shifting ending which is so good that it couldn’t even be hinted at for fear of spoiling the book. Can it be possible that it will live up to this level of hype – we’ll see.

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Next on the list for me was Salman Rushdie with his new novel The Golden House. Rushdie is now almost wholly resident in the USA and so it’s no surprise that his new novel deals with things American and with the rise of despots. Interestingly, Rushdie’s target here did not start out being Trump - his novel’s origins pre-date the Trump rise to power – but has inevitably come to be seen as commentary on the country’s drift to the Right. He was is mellow mood and was chatty and affable – happy to talk to fans at the post session signing too.

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The event of the day however was the bestowing of the Sunday Times Award For Literary Excellence on the wonderful Sarah Waters. The interview was conducted by the Sunday Times chief fiction reviewer, Peter Kemp, who helped create a relaxed, very literary interview that allowed Sarah to talk about her body of work in a serious, albeit self-deprecating, way. It was a great chance to just sit and listen to a great writer talking about how she feels her oeuvre has developed and what led her to the choices she has made. Really great stuff.

Oh, and by the way, her ‘award’ was a beautiful copy of a first edition by one of her favourite authors, George Gissing.

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Then it was Sunday – so it must be Alan Hollinghurst. This was by some distance the most laid back and thoroughly enjoyable session of the weekend. Hollinghurst clearly has a wicked sense of humour which was constantly being teased out by The Time Literary Editor, Robbie Millen who was intent on keeping the interview light and racy. The ostensible focus of the interview was the author’s new release, The Sparsholt Affair but almost as much time was spent reviewing Hollinghurst’s back catalogue – with special emphasis on how he revolutionised the notion of depicting gay sex in the literary novel. Hollinghurst was open, chatty and not at all phased by any of the lines of questioning and the hour slipped past very quickly.

But I must also make a special mention of Hollinghurst’s interview because it was the only one that allowed a space for the author to read from his new book and, as is often the case, I’d have been happy for that to have taken up the whole hour. He has a beautiful reading voice that wraps you into the story and in the space of the very few pages he read I was already completely carried away.

 

Weekend over.  Phew, it’s hard work going to all these events!

 

Terry Potter

October 2017