Cheltenham Literature Festival 2014

Radio Times Tent At Cheltenham Festival

The Cheltenham Literature Festival is, as the name suggests, a festival in the lovely Spa town of Cheltenham (seriously, go there, it’s a really nice place) that celebrates literature. It was formed in 1949 and I’ve attended for the past couple of years – thanks entirely to my wonderful girlfriend.

The festival takes places over ten days (starting on 3rd October this year) but it’s only really practical to stay in Cheltenham for a week due to travelling and work commitments. Unfortunately this meant that we had to miss one of the best days of the festival this year, the last day.

We still got to attend some pretty interesting talks though.


Welcome To Just A Minute!

One of my highlights of the week was a great performance of Just A Minute presented by Nicholas Parsons himself and with a panel consisting of Pam Ayres, Jenny Eclair, Shappi Khorsandi – the shows first all female panel since the show first aired in 1967.

They were there, of course, to talk about Nicholas’ latest book, but the discussion quickly become a series of anecdotes from all present about the show and its past participants – this was great and gave an excellent insight into the past 900 episodes of this excellent radio panel show.

Whilst it wasn’t entirely without hesitation, repetition or deviation it was very entertaining – including the brief intermission to deal with a slightly lost wasp.

What’s Next For Google

This talk was probably my biggest disappointment of the week. It was presented by Peter Fitzgerald, the UK Sales Director for Google. I was hoping for a discussion of the near-term future for Google, preferably including key issues such as privacy and government spying. It ended up however, as a big Google X advertisement for our “possible future”. Granted, the talk was well rehersed and Peter, as I’d expect, was a competent presentor but he didn’t seem to want to be there at all.

Interestingly, during the Q&A session, a question was asked about wearables and Google’s future focus. Peter seemed pretty adamant that their focus was purely on the software. This seemed odd to me given Google’s ownership of Motorola and the recent launch of the Moto 360 – Glass didn’t even get a passing mention.

Keep Britain Tidy

Hester Vaizey presented some of her favourite posters from her new book along with some interesting facts. One of the most interesting was the fact that the “Keep Calm And Carry On” poster we’ve all come to love (and probably hate) was never publicly displayed but rediscovered in 2000 and rose to ubiquity from there.

Golden Days Of The Railway

This was a panel discussion between three authors and a poet to determine if there was ever any such thing as the “Golden Days” and if golden days in the future are a possibility. The panel consisted of:

Whilst the panel didn’t really come to a conclusion about the “Golden Days” there were some interesting discussions including their opinion that the on-going restorations of the Flying Scotsman are a waste of money – even if it is good to have a living connection to the past. Also, their opinion that state-controlled railways (such as those on the continent) function far better and are more efficient than the privately controlled railways here in the UK.

One interesting fact too, it apparently cost around £80 to change a fluorescent light bulb in a station here in the UK – ridiculous.

Agatha Christie And The Monogram Murders

Another panel discussion, this time about the new Agatha Christie continuation book – The Monogram Murders with the author Sophie Hannah, Christie’s grandson, Mathew Prichard and expert John Curran.

I’m not the biggest of Christie fans but it was interesting to hear how Sophie created a continuation story by maintaining the well-established Poirot character but changing the stories narrator to suit her style of writing rather than trying to write in the style of Agatha Christie herself. This is in contrast to many continuation books that have appeared recently that choose to alter the main character in some significant way as well as copy the style of the original author.

Victoria: A Life

This talk by A.N. Wilson was more interesting than I expected it to be. He discussed his new book in which he explores, with new research, Queen Victoria as a successful diplomat, writer and anything other than a recluse after Prince Albert’s death.

He also talked about his disappointment at the number of letters in various archives that had been redacted / destroyed after her death leaving large holes in her personal history.


Overall the festival was pretty good, but I still think last year’s was better. One thing that was consistent was the overpriced and not brilliant food & drink – my advice would be to buy food from somewhere else and not from one of the festival tents.

Even if you don’t get the chance to attend a future festival be it literature you should definitely spend some time in Cheltenham. The festivals are always interesting but Cheltenham itself improves them greatly.

My Field Notes