A Week in Books: Cheltenham offers a finely engineered literary experience

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The Cheltenham Festival of Literature runs from 8 to 17 October, a Cotswold constellation of debate and creativity that boasts 300 events, almost 400 authors and performers - and with The Independent, once again, as its proud media sponsor.

The Cheltenham Festival of Literature runs from 8 to 17 October, a Cotswold constellation of debate and creativity that boasts 300 events, almost 400 authors and performers - and with The Independent, once again, as its proud media sponsor. Since the festival (now into its second half-century) outranks all its estimable followers and offers such a smooth, finely engineered and well-upholstered literary experience, it might be tempting to compare it to some luxury limousine from the time of its birth - a swanky Bentley or Daimler, perhaps. In fact, I think of it much more as a sort of ideal black cab. Amazingly capacious, infinitely manoeuvrable, it will comfortably take you wherever you want to go in our culture for a very modest fee, to a background of witty and stimulating discussion. Well, I did say "ideal".

Writing, talking or being reviewed, a small selection of this year's Cheltenham stars features in this week's pages: from Melvyn Bragg, who with Beryl Bainbridge considers the impact of Lord of the Flies; Michael Palin, back from his Himalayan heights; and Norman Sherry, who lectures on Graham Greene after finishing his heroic labours on the Life; to Richard Dawkins, Tony Benn, John Coldstream, Fay Weldon and Flora Fraser. This year, the theme of the "State of the Nation" has prompted director Christopher Cook and his tireless team to assemble a Platonic academy of journalists, historians, politicians and public servants with a revealing tale to tell: Neil Kinnock, Greg Dyke, Andrew Marr, Helena Kennedy, Jon Snow, Lisa Jardine, James Naughtie, Stella Rimington and William Hague, to name a few of this lustrous galaxy. Frankly, this depth of insight makes your average party conference look like a school debating club.

Cheltenham always seethes with familiar media faces and headline-grabbing topics, but sometimes their prominence has the unwanted effect of sidelining the literary programme. It should not. This year, the novelists due to appear range from Roddy Doyle, Louis de Bernières, Jonathan Coe and Ruth Rendell to AL Kennedy, Howard Jacobson, William Boyd and David Lodge. The poets span a universe of verse, from Les Murray and Andrew Motion to Carol Ann Duffy and Tom Paulin. Eminent visitors from other art-forms include the painter Jack Vettriano (in a rare interview), the playwright Mark Ravenhill, memoir-writing actors Sheila Hancock and Joanna Lumley, writer-comedians Dom Joly and Rob Brydon, and the directors Anthony Minghella and Neil LaBute. In the Book It children's strand, Jacqueline Wilson will no doubt set another world record for longest book-signing queue, with the limelight shared by the likes of Lauren Child, Philip Ardagh, Julia "Gruffalo" Donaldson, Michael Morpurgo and (in a real coup) the co-creator of Asterix, Albert Uderzo.

Watch out as well for the special happenings that add spice to the mix. Juliet Stevenson and Ian Richardson perform Shakespeare's Sonnets, while an earthier kind of literary love underlies a dramatisation of the Lady Chatterley trial. The cluster of events to mark Greene's centenary attracts not just Norman Sherry but Jake Arnott, Fay Weldon and Christopher Hampton. Once more, your columnist will be going into battle for Cheltenham's own mock-Booker prize, this time devoted to the novels of 1934. And a pair of the genuine Man Booker shortlist for 2004 - Sarah Hall and Gerard Woodward - will discuss their work, just 48 hours before the award of the prize.

The Cheltenham Festival of Literature, in association with Ottakar's, runs from Friday 8 to Sunday 17 October. Bookings and information: 01242 227979 or www.cheltenhamfestivals.co.uk

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