When politics is brought to book

Cheltenham lures an inspiring line-up of writers for a timely look at the political use of language
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The Independent Culture

Writing just after the Second World War, George Orwell noted how "adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, inevitable, inexorable... are used to dignify the sordid process of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic colour, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, mailed fist...".

At a time when public debate is dominated by the "axis of evil", dodgy dossiers and the war in Iraq, his observations are as pertinent as ever. Appropriate, then, that the Cheltenham Festival of Literature Spring Weekend this year is to focus on politics and the political use of language.

For many in the UK, the war in Iraq was mediated by the BBC correspondent Rageh Omaar, and he will discuss his book Revolution Day, which charts the effect of the war on the Iraqi people, with Matthew Bannister of Radio 5 Live. Bannister will also talk to Michael Shea, the Queen's former press secretary, and to Martin Sixsmith, the Civil Service press officer who was forced to resign along with Jo "good day to bury bad news" Moore. Sixsmith has distilled his experience into a novel entitled Spin. Any resemblance to persons...

Christopher Cook, the festival's artistic director, says that his intention is to explore "the political territory we are now in, and the journey we made to reach this landscape". The journey begins with a discussion between Brian Cathcart, whose The Fly in the Cathedral tells the story of the splitting of the atom, and Peter Goodchild, the biographer of Edward Teller, creator of the H-bomb.

Eva Hoffman has explored the ways in which the children of Holocaust survivors deal with their parents' experi- ences in her book After Such Knowledge. She and Ladislaus Lob, a Holocaust survivor himself and the translator of Bela Zsolt's memoir, Nine Suitcases, will join Steven Gale to discuss the legacy of the Shoah.

David Edmonds and John Eidinow, the authors of Wittgenstein's Poker, will discuss the famous contest in the 1970s between chess masters Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky that became a microcosm of the Cold War. There will also be a rare appearance by the children's author and illustrator Raymond Briggs, who tackled the difficult subject of the effects of nuclear war on ordinary people in When the Wind Blows.

A highlight of the festival will be the visit, from Jamaica, of Rita Marley to discuss her biography of her late husband, Bob Marley, the reggae musician whose political lyrics were an inspiration to many.

"To think clearly", Orwell wrote, "is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous." Lynne Truss - leader of the Pedants' Revolt - continues the good fight against the misplaced apostrophe with a presentation of her surprise bestseller Eats, Shoots & Leaves. And, in preparation for the 2004 Orwell Prize for political writing, Margaret Drabble joins the former prizewinner Polly Toynbee, and the chairman of the judges, Bernard Crick, to discuss the art of which Orwell was such a powerful exponent.

CJ Schuler

Cheltenham Town Hall and other venues (01242 227979; www.cheltenhamfestivals.co.uk) 2-4 April