Books: A world of words turned upside down

Boyd Tonkin looks forward to revolution for the fun of it at this year's Cheltenham Festival of Literature

CHELTENHAM, IT has to be said, is not a name that often crops up in the same breath as "revolution". Nor, to be honest, does it automatically conjure up the prospect of 10 days of cultivated hedonism. In which case, it may be high time to overturn your stereotypes and pay the place a visit.

This year's Cheltenham Festival of Literature, which runs from 9 to 18 October in association with The Independent, brings a bookish perspective to a fine array of tumults and upheavals. More than 300 writers will crowd the halls, galleries and bars (if not quite the barricades) of the Gloucestershire town for 180 events.

Thirty years on, the boulevard radicals of the Sixties have their place in history scrutinised by the likes of Arthur Marwick (see above), Tariq Ali, Michael Ignatieff and Molly Parkin. Other uprisings come under the literary microscope: Orlando Figes and D M Thomas explore the Russian revolution and its legacy; the rebellious 1790s are revisited by Richard Holmes and Marilyn Butler; biographers Frank McLynn (Napoleon) and Graham Robb (Victor Hugo) come to grips with French revolutions, and Gillian Slovo recalls her family's role in South Africa's transformation.

Not that the more tradition-minded visitor need feel frozen out. From a well-populated blue corner (do Tories have more time to think these days?), Alan Clark discusses Enoch Powell, Chris Patten unveils secrets from his Hong Kong years, Douglas Hurd talks about his thrillers and Sir Edward Heath introduces his memoirs. Elsewhere, Roger Scruton joins Archers editor Graham Harvey to inspect the state of the English countryside as the state of the English bard - William Shakespeare - engages Jonathan Bate and Frank Kermode. And Jeremy Paxman interrogates the nature of Englishness itself (sloppy answers definitely not allowed).

In the town once known as a sort of elephants' graveyard for the officer class, wars and their aftermath feature strongly. Sebastian Faulks and Pat Barker talk about their recreation of the world wars as historian John Keegan considers the impact of 1914-1918. Antony Beevor evokes the hell of Stalingrad, General Sir Michael Rose recalls his Bosnian tour of duty, novelist Robert Stone explores conflict in Vietnam and the Middle East, while Jeremy Isaacs reveals how his epic series on The Cold War came to fruition.

Away from the battlefields, pleasures loom large in the programme. Raymond Blanc and Antonio Carluccio talk gourmet food, Ian Dury rock lyrics, Deborah Bull ballet, Oz Clarke wine, Howard Marks recreational drugs and Ralph Steadman cartooning. Evening highlights include a Sixties cabaret, a Gothic night and the fourth All-Comers Poetry Slam, while live poetry and music fill the "Voices Off" fringe events every day. If all this enjoyment sounds a touch unwholesome, then victims of the work ethic can buckle down to developing their own literary skills in the "Write Away" programme of creative workshops.

Meanwhile, Felicity Kendal, Dame Judi Dench, Richard E Grant and Steven Berkoff all explore their life and times on stage and screen, and now in print. Novelists in Cheltenham to discuss their work include Helen "Bridget Jones" Fielding, Terry Pratchett, Jane Smiley, Hilary Mantel, Susan Hill, William Boyd and Michele Roberts, with two of this year's Booker Prize hopefuls, Patrick McCabe and Julian Barnes.

To close the show, one of the festival's most successful wheezes - the historical "Booker Prize" panel - this time judges British fiction from the year 1928. A team led by Douglas Hurd (chair of the actual Booker), along with festival director John Walsh, Victoria Glendinning, Melvyn Bragg and Claire Tomalin, will choose a victor from a field that includes Lady Chatterley's Lover and The House at Pooh Corner. So will the woodland frolics of those mischievous furry creatures prevail... or might it be Pooh and his chums? Come to Cheltenham and find out.

The Cheltenham Festival of Literature runs from 9 to 18 October. Brochure hotline: 01242 237377. Box Office: 01242 227979. See our Cheltenham travel feature on page 21 of this section.

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