Arts: Chapter & Verse

A Final Round-up from the Cheltenham Literary Festival

AN INDIGNANT crowd in Cheltenham was riled to rioting point on the final night of the festival, when a panel of judges attempted to remove The House at Pooh Corner from the short list for the "1928 Booker Prize", the annual debate held to bestow retrospective laurels on the greatest book of a former year.

The team, which included Melvyn Bragg, Victoria Glendinning and Douglas Hurd, had already seen off the claims of Aldous Huxley, Radclyffe Hall and Virginia Woolf without dissent. Surely they could dispose quietly of Pooh? The audience had been distressed enough to hear that Dorothy Parker had "frowed up" reading Milne, but they were certainly not prepared to hear the Cheltenham judges agree with her.

Chairs were rattled and speeches hurled from the floor. They defended Hundred Acre Wood as if Glendinning were planning to build a trunk road through it. They'd have manacled themselves inside Rabbit's warren of tunnels and set up a tree-top protest in Owl's front room. Or so you'd have thought. For when it came to the public vote, it seemed that a paltry four hands (out of 400) were prepared to commit themselves to Milne.

"Who'll ever learn to read an English audience?" said a baffled Bragg. And thus are prizes bestowed and out-of-town superstores built.

It was now a straight contest between Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall, and DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Lawrence seemed to have the edge, until the Festival director, John Walsh, read out a passage that proved that Mellors, the saucy gamekeeper, kept his pyjamas on during all his steamiest romps with Connie. "It is possible to have passion in pyjamas," argued Melvyn Bragg, but to no avail. Waugh had won.

Douglas Hurd stayed diplomatically non-committal throughout, but you could see him picking up hints on how to conduct his chairmanship of next week's judging of the real 1998 Booker Prize. To cut out further squabbling, I predict that he will select the winner by challenging Beryl Bainbridge and Ian McEwan to a game of Pooh Sticks.

And so the audience dispersed into the streets, arguing over which were the most curious things they'd heard this weekend.

Had it been the BBC's Foreign News Editor, John Simpson, recalling Colonel Gadaffi's flatulence during their meeting? Or Ted Heath revealing that he retained a world angling record for the largest amount of cod caught in a single day?

The novelist Tom Holland had given some convincing arguments to prove that Lord Byron was a vampire; while Richard Davenport-Hines had explored some of the curious trends in landscape gardening, describing how William Kent had gone round the grounds of Kensington Palace in the 1730s planting the lawns with dead trees in order to make them look more like a moody Salvator Rosa painting. Perhaps these plans could be revived for the proposed Princess Diana Memorial Garden?

Arthur Brown, the gaunt-faced psychedelic pop star who had leapt on to Top of the Tops in 1968 wearing a flaming helmet, cackling, "I am the god of hellfire... I'll see you burn", had, it seems, taken a while to perfect his incendiary headwear. Having tried balancing a bowl of petrol on his head, he then tried wearing a colander with candles poking through the holes. Unfortunately, the wax melded unbudgingly to his hair and he and the colander were as one for several weeks. Given that it was also metal and so conducted the heat very effectively through his head, we learnt that each demonic scream on the record was entirely authentic.

But Ian Dury never had to resort to cheap pyrotechnic gimmicks. And as the most moving and memorable guest of the whole festival, the valiant Blockhead talked his way through a couple of hours of his deliciously playful lyrics. Did he use any particular reference books to help him, someone asked? "I'm very specific. I use a Chambers '54," he said, toasting his dictionary as if it had the savour of a Chateau Petrus 1982. "I don't like any words invented since 1954."

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