Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 10 Oct 2019

The 2019 Cheltenham Literature Festival : the first weekend

I have to be honest and say that I thought this year’s festival programme was, from a purely literary point of view, a bit of a disappointment. That’s not to say that there aren’t lots of very interesting events scheduled over the two weeks but where are the big literary names this year? The trend towards current affairs and celebrities flogging television linked product seems to be an unstoppable tide that perhaps covers over just how thin the fare is when it comes to heavy-weight literary figures.

So, we are attending fewer events this year than we have done over the decade or more we’ve been coming to the festival. The festival got going for me with Richard Dawkins who was there to promote his latest book about religion and science, Outgrowing God, which is aimed at younger readers. Dawkins is an entertaining, urbane and thoroughly civilised speaker at events like this and he’s able to fill an hour with no problem. The new book doesn’t exactly revisit the arguments made in The God Delusion but does spend time trying to show the younger reader how to develop a critical approach to the hegemony claimed by religion and in doing so debunks many of the religious stories that are clearly myth rather than reality. That might look like shooting fish in a barrel but, as he said several times, his aim is focussed on US readers who may find themselves in much more fundamentalist territories where the literal truth of The Bible goes unquestioned. The second half of the book looks at science as an alternative way of seeing the world and, one, he is keen to stress, that is a lot more constructive.

As I was in that event, Karen was seeing the novelist Elif Shafak and she had this to say about that event:

“Time spent listening to the award winning Turkish author,  Elif Shafak is always a pleasure. She comes across as being warm, modest and passionately eloquent about why she is driven to write her novels. She began by reading an extract from the beginning of the novel  ‘10 minutes, 38 Seconds in this Strange World’, which she explained is set in a real graveyard in Istanbul where people are buried with names not numbers. These include street people, LGBTQ people who have been disowned by their families, hundreds of refugees, and other outsiders from the mainstream of society. She wanted to give at least one of these people a voice and so the subject of the story is about a prostitute who has been murdered and left in a dumpster.   The premise is that brain activity may continue for several minutes after death, and if, so, what might be going through her mind as she fades away.

The rest of the event was skilfully managed by Sam Baker, a journalist who is obviously a big admirer of Shafak and was able to give her plenty of space to answer a range of questions from herself and the audience. She went on to talk about her own background living in France, Turkey, America and now London where she now lives permanently as it is too dangerous for her to return to Turkey as she is deemed as one of their ‘ dangerous’ writers. Over far too quickly but I was able to talk with her briefly as she signed my books afterwards and am delighted to report that she appears to be just as charismatic at close quarters.”


Next up on Saturday morning for me was Kevin Barry whose novel, Night Boat To Tangier, I consider one of the standout novels of the year so far. Barry has that easy Southern Irish charm and ease with storytelling that makes any event a joy. He was fascinating (and very funny) when it came to talking about the main themes of the book but I was struck by just how much he sees writing as an essentially musical event. The sound of words can be just as important as their meaning – which is a key to his writing I think.

Meanwhile in a parallel world Karen was seeing the new Children’s Laureate, Cressida Cowell.  Karen is planning a separate piece about this so I’ll hold fire on saying anything more at this stage.

Then it was on to see Jackie Kay hosting an event under the auspices of The National Centre for Writing and their International Literature Showcase. Jackie introduced three authors from diverse backgrounds - Eric Ngalle Charles ( from Cameroon, via Russia, to Wales), Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi ( originally from Uganda) and Birmingham poet, Zaffiar Kunial who is mixed heritage (Pakistani father and white British mother) – and their stories and pathways to becoming professional writers were riveting.

On Sunday we took in two titans of children’s literature and radical politics – Michael Rosen and Chris Riddell. Michael Rosen’s event  gave him space to think about a whole range of issues autobiographical, educational, political and relating to the role of children’s literature. This was really an event for adults rather than children and , from my perspective, all the better for that because it gave him a chance to really range across the spectrum. He must be one of our generations most effective communicators and I mean it literally when I say I could listen to him speak all day long.

Chris Riddell was promoting his new book, Guardians of the Galaxy, and he does this in his own unique way by using a mixture of storytelling, anecdote and drawing. Just watching such a master illustrator draw in front of your eyes is mesmerising enough but the way he sewed together what seemed to be a series of random anecdotes into a delightfully constructed story of how Guardians came about was a real joy.

Highlight of the weekend: A table full of signed David Cameron autobiographies and everyone circling past them as if they were a pile of nuclear waste….

And that was it for the first weekend – a weekend that mopped up the majority of the events we wanted to go to over the festival as a whole. There is more to come but  next weekend is looking pretty empty.


I can’t stop here without having my usual gripe about the lack of diversity in the festival-going audience – there must surely be more that can be done to address this issue?


Terry Potter / Karen Argent

October 2019