Books: Purple vans and orange men

WAYS WITH WORDS LITERATURE FESTIVAL DARTINGTON '99
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The Independent Culture
THE DARTINGTON Literature Festival drew to a close last weekend with brilliant sunlight, full halls and sharp debate.

The venomous food critic and comic novelist A A Gill kept a lunchtime audience spellbound with tales of his spats with the chef Gordon Ramsay and Robert Kilroy-Silk ("a little orange man").

Granta editor Ian Jack and writer Andrew O'Hagan wrestled with the differences between fact and fiction. O'Hagan pointed out that the "new" fashion for confessional memoirs is no more than marketing hype, the genre having its roots in 19th-century diaries and personal accounts.

Buster, the celebrated diarist dog, made many new friends at the festival, and even accompanied his master and amanuensis Roy Hattersley on to the stage. Later on Saturday night, Andrew Motion gave a poetry reading presented by Ruth Padel. It was a spellbinding introduction to his work, interleaved with his own explanations and reminiscences.

Raffaella Barker turned up to talk about her novel accompanied by the Hens Dancing van, a rackety purple vehicle with yin-yang hubcabs and a skull-topped gear stick. Sadly she was not allowed to park it on the lawn. Adam Nicolson, scheduled to talk to Raffaella about their experiences of rural life, only just made it to the event because he'd fallen asleep in a field. Perhaps his formula for the good life isn't very practical ("I don't know why more people don't buy land ... it's so cheap!") but we were all taken by his view that London should be miniaturised and left entirely to children ("a lot of crisps and Ribena"), while their parents enjoy rural solitude.

Ruth Padel took the stage again on Sunday to chair a live version of her ever-popular column The Sunday Poem. Fellow poets Jo Shapcott and Michael Donaghy joined Ruth in taking turns to deconstruct each other's work. The poets and the audience then discussed whether poems should be published with glossaries.

Cole Moreton, chairing Edwina Currie's event, mischievously introduced her as "the second sexiest Tory ... after Michael Portillo". "I thought you were going to say Alan Clark," said a slightly fazed Currie.

Biographer Jane Dunn and literary editor Suzi Feay discussed the bad behaviour and brilliant writing of novelist Antonia White, a terrible mother and wonderful friend. So uneasy was Antonia with her femininity that her ultra-chic appearance was, according to Suzi, in fact a form of cross-dressing. This got a big laugh.

The forces of GM were routed in our debate, with writer and activist Luke Anderson and Tony Juniper from Friends of the Earth providing blistering rhetoric and righteous passion. But Steve Hughes and Mick Fuller held their own against an audience which seemed to have made up its mind before coming in.

It was left to Ben Okri to bring the festival to a close. His lecture on childhood was an impassioned plea for us all to rediscover a sense of wonder. And the impromptu meditation session to his poem "Be Still" left a genuinely lasting impression of the relaxation and stimulation the whole week provided.

So the festival is over for another year; but watch this space for details of the rest of the year's literary weekends organised by Ways With Words.

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