The Independent Woodstock Literary Festival: A palace of delights

Arifa Akbar reports on five stimulating days of books, talk, food – and fun in the sun
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There are some sights that have, in the beautiful Oxfordshire town of Woodstock, become regular fixtures at this time of year; the phalanx of taxis hurtling towards the Feathers Hotel; a swish of celebrities on the gravelled courtyards of Blenheim Palace; lashings of tea and fruit cake at every opportunity – and books.

Piles of freshly published novels, biographies, memoirs and political theories, to read at one's leisure across Oxfordshire's undulating hills – along with a convivial clan of authors, gathered for The Independent Woodstock Literary Festival.

Yet there were also some gloriously spontaneous moments this time around, not least the surprising summer weather which cast a warm glow over the town. There was also the helicopter that flew noisily above the church as The Independent's Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, pondered whether he was being stalked by an American Apache helicopter as he spoke about the uses and abuses of words in a time of war.

There was a baseball-capped Nancy Dell'Olio, sitting discreetly among the crowd at the St Mary Magdalene Church, listening to a talk presided over by Ann Leslie about political scandals and the dubious morality of press exposes.

There was the last-minute addition of the comedian and Independent columnist Dom Joly to the programme – rather like the annual "surprise" film added to the schedules of the Cannes Film Festival at the eleventh hour – and the wonderful sight of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown rustling up a treat from The Settler's Cookbook for a roomful of hungry guests.

Delightfully unscripted moments included a mother's question to Bettany Hughes, halfway through the historian's illuminating discussion on the character of the ancient philosopher Socrates. She asked Hughes whether she would mind telling her young daughters, who sat beside her, exactly who this "Socrates" was? As it turned out, Hughes was more than happy to do so.

A more moving interjection from the audience came at a talk given by the China historian Frank Dikötter on the savagery of Chairman Mao's implementation of the Great Leap Forward in 1958 to '62. A woman in the audience, who had given birth in a Beijing hospital in 1960, recalled her memories of the growing numbers of sick, starving people who crowded around her as she was given special treatment ("because I was a diplomat") by being handed some food. "It was green liquid and I felt sick when I tasted it, but everyone crowded round to watch and I realised just how hungry they must have been," she remembered.

Intimacy is a hallmark of the festival, and Sally Dunsmore, the event's co-founder, stressed her ambition was not to make it big and brash, but "boutique". Next year, she hoped to create a salon-type experience, where guests could eat meals alongside authors as they discussed their books.

Certainly some audience members already seemed up close and personal to their panellists of choice: one woman listening to the Booker-shortlisted author Howard Jacobson talk about his book The Finkler Question and Jewish identity, asked him whether he had thought of making audio books because he had a "marvellous voice". An unflappable Jacobson responded on an even warmer note: "If you come round to my house one evening, I will read it [the novel] to you personally." Guests also talked back at Fisk, who appealed to the floor for inflammatory or over-used words used in the media for war reporting that he could analyse and deconstruct. What about the "clash of civilisations", wondered the energetic audience, or "regime change" and "infidel"?

The actor, playwright and director Steven Berkoff recalled some dramatic memories of his youth on the streets of Stepney in East London and after speaking for three quarters of an hour, he reassured those members of the audience who might have fallen asleep to carry right on doing so.

There was an uproarious meeting of witty minds as writers Arabella Weir, Kathy Lette and the comedian Ronni Ancona discussed women's obsession with food and their figures at the Palace's Orangery. Fittingly, guests – by far a female majority – helped themselves generously to "elevenses", including tea and an assortment of cakes.

Despite the mid-morning start, the raucous debate had a distinct "post-watershed" feel to it, with blue jokes about Barbie dolls, pneumatic breasts and Lette's observation that "the Australian version of foreplay is shearing." Ancona, on a more serious note, spoke of the connection between food and the family, from a personal point of view: "My father was a real chauvinist. I had two elder brothers and they were always more important. They went to a better school and I went to the dodgy local comprehensive.

"It was a subconscious thing, but my mother would give the sumptuous portions to my brother and I would always get the scraggy ends, like her. I equated food with worth; I would want to eat bigger portions than I needed because it made me feel more important."

Meanwhile, Bernhard Schlink commended Kate Winslet's turn in the film adaptation of his bestselling book, The Reader, and gently berated those authors who expressed their disappointment with the "film of their book". "I think they expect an illustration of the book with the images they have in mind. They shouldn't sell the rights, because that's never going to happen."

Allison Pearson, meanwhile, sat in the ornate surrounds of the Indian room at Blenheim Palace, with its magnificent view of the fountained gardens, and spoke ebulliently about the pleasure and pain of her 1970s teenage crush on David Cassidy. "You were either a Donny [Osmond] or a David [Cassidy] girl." Her latest book, I Think I Love You, about a girl who is obsessed with Cassidy, is in the early stages of being adapted into a musical. If it comes off, she said, "We can all go and dance around our handbags."

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