Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Cheltenham Literature Festival

My Cheltenham Literature Festival class seemed to go quite well - twelve keen writers eager to improve their dialogue. Since this is a topic I have always found quite difficult I had quite a lot to say on the subject - I think it is easier to teach something you yourself have found quite hard to learn. I've heard that some writers actually hear their characters’ voices talking to them but find descriptions more difficult - while others are more visual writers and I am sure I am in the last camp.

The Cheltenham Literature Festival looks after its guests very well. At the station was a volunteer holding a sign with 'Cheltenham Literature Festival Guest' and I realised then that that was some unrealised ambition of mine - to be met by someone with a sign...I was supposed to be sharing a ride with Alison Weir but her train was delayed so I was whisked off to my hotel alone with a reminder to go on to the town hall later. The hotel turned out to be one of those small quiet ones, backing onto a park, with a pretty back garden and friendly owners.

The town hall was about ten minutes away, clearly visible with banners advertising the festival all along the street and then lots more banners and flags outside the building itself -even I couldn't miss it. Inside I was given instructions to go to somewhere called THE WRITERS ROOM.

This turned out to be a small room with a bar in one corner, a table laid out with salad and fruit and a couple of drinks urns. There were a few people sitting around tables talking and at first I felt like I was intruding into some private club. There was a man sitting in a wicker chair I vaguely recognised from a television news programme. This time I managed to stop myself smiling at him as if I knew him. This is a mistake I've made before. The TV screen is one way, I reminded myself - he looks out at me, but he can't see me looking back. So I helped myself to some food as instructed in my Cheltenham Literature Festival letter and sat at my own at one of the tables hoping someone would talk to me - but of course no one did. Eventually I accosted an innocent author also sitting on his own who turned out to be the military historian and ex-Observer journalist Colin Smith who was very interesting and he told me where to get 'my performer pass'. This takes the form of a green armband which is much better than the piece of card I was expecting - although I have to say that the idea of me being any sort of performer is pretty funny...I also had a word with the author Andrew Taylor (who had taken a similar class that morning and is going to be a feature of a future blog).

A young and very charming helper in a black T-shirt then came up to me and introduced herself - Jasmine - she showed me to my venue - a room at the back of St Andrews Church, checked that everything was working and helped me rearrange the desks in the room.

She has just finished her education at the very famous and exclusive Cheltenham Ladies College, which was just next door.

We got through many examples of dialogue - and my 'students' produced some fine examples of their own. Then, passing by a man from Ottakars forlornly not selling copies of my books (he looked quite embarrassed, and I paused for moment wondering if I should offer to sign any, but decided against it) went on to the Festival tent... listen to Lawrence Sail, Helen Dunmore and Bernard O’Donoghue read out their own and other people’s poetry from an new poetry anthology LIGHT UNLOCKED which is a beautiful little book nearly each poem illustrated with an engraving by John Lawrence. Since there some of my favourite poets in here (viz Gillian Clarke, Wendy Cope, U.A. Fanthorpe, Benjamin Zephaniah and Seamus Heaney) I bought a copy. I think I am going to use it as an poet autograph book.

The tent is really a big extension of Ottakars’s bookshop and some of my books were on display just like all the rest - so I was pleased. Apart from the bookshop area there was a small stage and screened off theatre. A covered walkway leads to the town hall where I was very lucky to be able to see Alan Bennett read and speak to a packed audience. Towards the end he appealed to the audience to buy books from INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS rather than chains (e.g. Waterstones) because their 3 for 2 offer has resulted in many bookshops being unable to compete and consequently going out of business.

This was followed by an illustrated talk by the geographer Nick Middleton on his book EXTREMES ALONG THE SILK ROAD which was fascinating, especially the section about an island called Voz in the Aral Sea where there has been extensive experimentation with biological warfare agents by the Russians. It sounded frightening and I wanted to learn more. I wanted to know what they did, how exactly do you experiment with biological warfare agents? What is there to test? The microbes kill - what more is there to know? Maybe they try tried to make the microbes more hardy or more potent. Apart from this the Soviet regime had also drained the 'sea' (which used to be the world's fourth largest lake) - and there were impressive and depressing pictures of great hulks of beached trawlers, presumably representing ruined lives and a way of life now gone forever.

Back in the WRITERS ROOM things were becoming even more hospitable with the happy sound of corks being extracted from wine bottles and I spent an enjoyable few minutes talking to Michael Buerk about the joys of living in the north west of England before he was irritatingly removed to the stage (after I had been ushered to a reserved seat in front of a large hushed audience). His discussion on life as a BBC war reporter with Rageh Omaar (who still doesn’t look old enough to be out of school never mind reporting from war zones) about being a BBC war reporter was very interesting. According to Mr Omaar part of the BBC pre-visit safety training course before going off into a war zone involves testing for the presence of land mines with a biro.


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