Woodstock Literary Festival: Literary luminaries descend on Blenheim Palace

The beautiful Oxfordshire town of Woodstock welcomes the first major literary event of the autumn from next Wednesday. From politics to pop, history to horses and reportage to reality TV, let John Walsh be your guide
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The Independent Culture

Biographers and bird-lovers, politicians and poker players, cooks and cricketers, football fans and philosophers, movie stars and memoirists will all descend on a town (and a certain palace) in the Oxfordshire countryside next week, for the second Independent Woodstock Literary Festival.

The streets of the beautiful small town, eight miles from Oxford, will throng with book lovers, authors, and visitors to nearby Blenheim Palace, whose doors will be opened to the public for 30 of the 90-odd events. In the Bear, the Feathers and the Woodstock Arms, drinkers will exchange heated opinions about the overthrow of Communism. In La Galleria restaurant, over forkfuls of pappardelle, misty-eyed film buffs will recall the Hollywood heyday of Leslie Caron. In Harriet's Tea Rooms and Cake Shop, fans of Sarah Waters will celebrate her matchless evocations of faded gentility. David Cameron, the local MP, will be found undergoing a kind of grown-up tutorial in St Mary Magdalen's Church with his old tutor, Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government at Oxford University. In the Oxfordshire Museum, the town library, the Marlborough School, in the Indian Room, the Orangery and the Courtyard Restaurant of Blenheim Palace, punters and authors, locals and tourists will celebrate a superb year of books.

Woodstock is a town saturated with history, not just as the birthplace of Winston Churchill, but as a plaything of royalty down the years: Henry the First kept a menagerie in the park, when the town was a royal forest. Henry II wooed Rosamund Clifford on the seductive greensward. And Aethelred the Unready held "an assembly" in the clearing. Posterity does not reveal what kind of assembly the unprepared king convened, but we suspect it was a prototypical literary festival, starring the Venerable Bede. So it's not surprising that new history titles and their authors feature strongly in this year's line-up.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet empire, 20 years ago, have occasioned a whole shelf of books by distinguished historians: three of the very best, Richard Overy, Archie Brown and Victor Sebestyen, will discuss the spread of communism after the Russian Revolution, the parcelling-out of Eastern Europe after the Yalta conference, and the startling domino-effect with which the communist satellite states threw off the iron grip of the Politburo in 1989.

The years between the two world wars, 1918 – 1939, brought flappers, the General Strike, Lawrence of Arabia, Jarrow marchers, the BBC and the Brighton Trunk Murders to the public's startled gaze. The days of the bright young things shaded into anxiety and foreboding as fascism extended its grip on Europe, and idealistic men were left to fight for the republic in Spain. Roy Hattersley, author of Borrowed Time: The Story of Britain Between the Wars, will discuss his fascinating, edgy period with fellow historians Juliet Gardiner and Richard Overy, in a session chaired by David Kynaston, the best-selling author of Austerity Britain 1945-51.

Andrew Roberts, one of the country's top military historians, is guest speaker at the Festival Dinner at the Orangery in Blenheim Palace. His after-dinner talk will be on the changing reputation of Winston Churchill during his lifetime and in the revisionary decades since his death.

A remarkable double-act takes the stage at the Feathers Hotel on Saturday – two young historians, friends and debaters, who've both explored themes of political revolt and civil liberty. Dan Jones's Summer of Blood tells the story of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, when thousands of serfs rose up against the poll tax and invaded London. Although their rising was technically a failure, it paved the way for the end of feudalism. Ben Wilson, meanwhile, in What Price Liberty?, discusses the gradual constructing and refining of the idea of civil liberties through 400 years of British, European and American history. Queen Victoria is the subject of two new books by women historians. Kate Williams has delved into Victoria's childhood, her furious relationship with her mother and the effect of her now-forgotten cousin Princess Charlotte on the growing girl. Miranda Carter tells a triple life of the queen's grandsons – King George V, Tsar Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm II – and wonders how they came to preside over the most destructive world cataclysm history had ever seen.

The great naval historian Andrew Lambert, who wrote and presented War at Sea for BBC2 in 2004, delves into the 1845 expedition by Captain Sir John Franklin to find the North-West Passage through the Canadian Arctic Ocean. Franklin took two ships, lavishly equipped, and set off full of confidence. They never returned. The ships stayed ice-locked for two years, as the sailors succumbed to scurvy and starvation, or tried to escape by sledges across the frozen tundra; some resorted to cannibalism. Lambert tells the story of the worst-ever catastrophe to befall a British expedition in Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation. Also exploring the world's most inhospitable region is the travel writer Sara Wheeler, whose The Magnetic North is a mixum-gatherum of history, reportage and reflection. A warm and sparkling writer, unlike her subject, she'll tell you everything you need to know about Lapps, Inuits, snow chemistry and what it's like being writer-in-residence of Greenland.

Cramming the history of Christianity into an hour is a tall order for an academic, but Diarmaid MacCulloch, Oxford's Professor of the History of the Church, is the man to do it. His BBC TV series Christianity: The First 3000 Years reveals how, in the Dark Ages, the Church divided into three disparate parts with sharply different notions about God, and has stayed pretty well divided ever since. And Karen Armstrong, the former nun and best-selling historian of Islam, sets out The Case for God: in a post-Richard Dawkins world in which atheism has become a theology of its own, she offers a history of belief and a reading of religion as a kind of discipline, like poetry or art.

Biography is the most popular non-fiction subject at literary festivals, and is strongly represented in five terrific books. William Shawcross, the author of lives of Rupert Murdoch and the Shah of Persia, launches his official biography of the Queen Mother at the festival, the first life for 19 years of the nation's former First Granny. Another charismatic royal comes under the forensic scrutiny of Jenny Uglow (biographer of George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Hogarth and Thomas Bewick) in A Gambling Man: Charles II and the Restoration. She rescues the king from his reputation as an idle hedonist afflicted with satyriasis, and shows how adroitly he balanced the warring demands of Church, parliament and foreign powers, and forged a vital new understanding between king and government.

Selina Hastings, the acclaimed biographer of Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford, has published The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham. Best known as the author of Cakes and Ale, The Moon and Sixpence and Of Human Bondage, Maugham was in the 1930s the best-known author in the world, a prolific writer of plays and short stories as well as novels. His books were translated into almost every known language, were made into a score of films, sold in millions and brought him enormous wealth. He held court at the Villa Mauresque in the south of France, feted, filmed and lionised. Behind this glamorous exterior, however, lay the secrets. Ms Hastings has teased out the complicated chronicle of Maugham's bisexual life, his work for British intelligence in both world wars, his crippling insecurity and self-consciousness, and offers a fuller picture than ever before of a man who, according to Stephen Tennant, "sold his soul to the devil... with sizzling relish."

The festival is delighted to welcome Leslie Caron to Woodstock. The legendary film actress and dancer has at last written her autobiography, entitled Thank Heaven – an allusion to her most famous film, Gigi. But there's much more to her than that pile of faux-Gallic frou-frou. She grew up in occupied France, danced at the same academy as Brigitte Bardot, was discovered by Gene Kelly and starred with him in An American in Paris. She was taken up by Hollywood and made a string of movies in the 1950s – and was nominated for an Oscar for the British kitchen-sink movie The L-Shaped Room. She was still acting 40 years later, in Chocolat. Her book tells all about her encounters with Beverly Hills predators, her marriage to Sir Peter Hall and her affair with Warren Beatty, as well as her later obsession with turning a dilapidated French auberge into a thriving restaurant.

Simon Carr is well known to Independent readers as one of the nation's wittiest and most acerbic political sketch writers; soon he'll be known to cinema-goers as the doyen of masculine child-rearing, when the film of his memoir, The Boys Are Back in Town, hits the cinemas. The story of how he brought up two sons as a single parent in New Zealand is touching, funny and full of insights into practical paternalism. And Mr Carr can tell us how it feels to be impersonated on screen by Clive Owen.

Fiction is strongly represented by veteran novelists and current bestsellers alike. Sarah Waters is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for the second time, for The Little Stranger, a ferociously gripping tale of a manor house in Warwickshire just after the last war, whose inhabitants are haunted by a malevolent ghost and whose disintegration is charted by aV C local doctor who used to visit the house as a child. Penelope Lively CBE won the Man Booker in 1987 for her novel Moon Tiger, and the Whitbread Children's Book Award for A Stitch in Time. One of the nation's most prolific and consistently rewarding novelists, she excels at vivid characterisation. Her new novel, Family Album (her 16th) tells an absorbing, rather sinister story about the secrets that lurk behind the surface of an apparently typical family.

Julian Fellowes is best known for playing the pompous landowner Kilwillie in TV's Monarch of the Glen, and for writing the screenplay for the film Gosford Park, but his first novel, Snobs, revealed an unerring novelistic ear for social mountaineering and aristocratic disdain. His second novel, Past Imperfect, is another sparkling and savage comedy of manners in which no arriviste or parvenu remains unskewered.

Giles Foden and DJ Taylor are distinguished novelists of the past – not the over-researched, cliché-strewn past of "historical fiction," but the past of just-about-living memory. Foden's new book, Turbulence, is set in 1944, as the Western Allies prepare for D-Day and try to establish the crucial detail of what the weather will be like as thousands of soldiers and airmen converge on Omaha, Utah, Juno and Sword beaches. DJ Taylor's Ask Alice is a rip-roaring, intricately plotted, transcontinental saga that takes the reader from the plains of Kansas to the drawing rooms of Mayfair in the 1930s, and explores the changing identities of figures in a changing world. And Tony Parsons, whose Man and Boy has been a global bestseller since it appeared in 2002, looks at what terrible genies escape from the lamp when a sober, middle-aged man is rejuvenated by a transplanted heart in Starting Over.

Readers who like to hear passionate recommendations of classic titles they never got round to reading should make a date with the Ultimate Read event, in which Joanne Harris will sing the praises of Lolita, children's editor Nicolette Jones will urge you to enter the wacky world of Dorothea and Casaubon in Middlemarch, and your humble scribe will insist that Catch-22 is the greatest fictional work of the second half of the 20th century. Readers with a competitive spirit and a good memory for titles, authors and literary trivia should not miss the literary pub quiz at the Woodstock Arms on Thursday. Teams of four can try to match the Independent's all-conquering quartet of bookish knowalls, while flooring the excellent local beer. Setting the questions is James Walton, chair and writer of Radio 4's popular books quiz The Write Stuff; his collection of devilishly tantalising literary quiz questions, Sonnets, Bonnets and Bennetts, came out last year.

Food books occupy an ever-more intrusive presence in the bestseller lists, and two of the best new ones are featured on Thursday. Our popular, combative columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has written a history of her family's migration from Uganda, a story of constant movement and relocation, through the perspective of food. In The Settler's Cookbook, she gives a culinary history of her deracinated east Africans – and the recipes to which they clung, to remind them of home. And Tom Parker Bowles reports on his travels all over the UK to discover what food means to the British, and what role it plays in establishing our national identity.

We haven't neglected sport. The summer's top sporting biography was Duncan Hamilton's Harold Larwood, a masterly portrait of the Nottinghamshire and England fast bowler who terrorised the Australians in the Ashes tour of 1932 with his near-homicidal "bodyline" technique. It caused a scandal that threatened to wreck Anglo-Oz relations for a generation. Hamilton discusses cricketing ethics, present and past, with The Independent's Brian Viner and Derek Pringle, the England all-rounder and veteran of 30 Test matches.

Victoria Coren, the journalist and broadcaster, presented Late Night Poker on Channel 4, became expert at the game and, in September 2006, won a million dollars in the European Poker Championship. She discusses her misspent youth and her book For Richer, For Poorer with the Independent columnist and poker fanatic Matthew Norman. Former Bookseller editor Nicholas Clee has written the remarkable history of Eclipse, the famous 18th-century racehorse which won every race by lengths with "the rest nowhere"; his owner was a penniless Irish chancer, whose girlfriend became the most celebrated madam of her day, and the story of their joint fortunes is irresistible.

The most celebrated – or, at least, most famous – football wife of her day is probably Victoria Beckham, especially when impersonated by the wickedly talented Ronni Ancona in a celebrated double-act with Alistair McGowan. The comedy duo have collaborated on a book, A Matter of Life and Death, in which, on behalf of women everywhere, Ms Ancona tries to wean a man off football, using an, er, arsenal of feminine wiles. Ancona and McGowan will be jointly interviewed in the Blenheim Orangery by Simon Kelner, The Independent's Editor-in-Chief.

One of the highlights of last year's festival was Ann Leslie, the queen of foreign correspondents, whose salty memories of past encounters with famous men turned the air inside St Mary Magdalen's church blue. This year she chairs a high-level discussion of reportage and the modern coverage of world events with Martin Bell, the BBC's renowned foreign reporter and independent MP, and Robert Fisk, our much-admired Middle East correspondent.

Two long-discussed but never resolved cultural questions are aired at the festival. Independent stalwarts Janet Street-Porter, Dom Joly, Johann Hari and Tracey McLeod will come to blows (unless restrained by chair Mariella Frostrup) in debating "Does reality TV debase modern culture?" while Feargal Sharkey, the Undertones singer turned live-music commissar, will discuss "Can pop music ever be poetry?" with Barney Hoskyns, the prolific music critic whose most recent work is a biography of Tom Waits, while I, in the chair, will try to stop the audience pretending that the line "Scaramouche scaramouche, will you do the fandango?" is practically, you know, Milton.

If you get too exhausted by the 10-minute scenic walk from Woodstock to Blenheim Palace, the Oxford Bus Museum is laying on a vintage bus service. Between events, you must leave time to stroll in the Palace's beautiful landscaped grounds, and check out the town's antique shops, fashion, furniture and gift stores, before returning to the hurly-burly of literature, history and famous lives. What with the teashops, pubs and restaurants, the romantic moonlit walks and late-night carousing, it all adds up to the most enjoyable way in which to spend four or five days of a bookish, English, Indian summer.

The Independent Woodstock Literary Festival, 16 to 19 September (01865 305305; www.woodstockliteraryfestival.com)

Face of a dead princess: Martin Kemp introduces a rediscovered major work by Leonardo da Vinci

After 40 years in the Leonardo business, I thought I'd seen it all. "The Mona Lisa" as Leonardo in drag, and more recently as a Honduran princess painted by Titian, to say nothing of fantastical codes. The Leonardo loonies never relent. Aspiring new "Leonardo works" appear on at least a monthly basis. At best they are adjacent to his style; at their worst they are grotesquely far-fetched.

Then, much against expectations, a very real one comes along, the first major work of art by him to appear, from nowhere, for over 100 years. Its debut was not auspicious. It was knocked down at Christie's New York on 12 January 1998 as German 19th-century. It is in a complicated technique of ink and chalks on vellum (parchment), a medium Leonardo is not known to have used. It has no earlier history. When I was first sent a digital image, I was deeply suspicious.

It portrays a beautiful young lady on the cusp of maturity. Her fashionable costume is that of a Milanese court lady in the 1490s. She wears a green dress, adorned with Leonardo-esque knots, under which is a red bodice. The shoulder of the dress is "slashed" to reveal a triangle of red. Green, red and white are the colours of the Sforza family, rulers of Milan.

The profile of her face is subtle to an inexpressible degree. The line is incised with unerring precision, yet retains a living, breathing life. Those aspects of the faces of beautiful women most praised by Renaissance poets – rosebud lips and eyes like stars – are drawn with infinite tenderness. The iris of her eye retains the translucent radiance of a living person. Her eyelashes are so fine as to elude a casual glance. The tip of her upper lip barely touches the pink curve of her lower lip with extraordinary delicacy. Her ear plays a subtle game of hide-and-seek below the gentle waves of her hair.

But – is it too good to be true?

Science helps. Carbon dating confirms the right date-bracket for the vellum. Innovatory technical analysis, undertaken by Pascal Cotte of Lumière Technology of Paris, shows that it was drawn with extraordinary graphic subtlety by a left-hander, as we know Leonardo to have been. Parallel shading orientated from top left to bottom right is visible both on the surface and in the lower layers. This and many other technical details add up.

It turns out that Leonardo was much concerned with how to draw with coloured chalks on vellum, and quizzed the French King's painter, Jean Perréal, who visited Milan with Charles VIII in 1494, about a technique in which the French specialised.

Everything is falling into place. But we need a plausible sitter. One stands out, Bianca, the illegitimate (but legitimised) daughter of Duke Ludovico Sforza in Milan. In 1496, aged no more than 14, she was married to the commander of Ludovico's armies, Galeazzo Sanseverino, an important patron of Leonardo. Four months later, Bianca was dead, afflicted by stomach disease.

The Milanese princesses were the dedicatees of books of poetry inscribed on vellum. The Leonardo portrait, which has clearly been excised from a bound codex, is likely to have come from one such volume. For Bianca's marriage or her death? I am more inclined to think the latter.

The portrait of La Bella Principessa, as I am calling her, deserves to be seen widely in public. But the public galleries approached so far have said no. Their concerns have been that they will be seen as vastly increasing the value of the portrait and as aiding a process of sale. As I said to them, it's not the object's fault that it's not yet in a public collection. We are faced with what is in effect a dereliction of duty.

In the event we are still working towards getting what is a wonderful work into the public arena, to be seen by as many people as possible. Subjecting the portrait to full scrutiny is essential if it is to prove so good as to be true.

The writer is Emeritus Professor in the History of Art at Oxford University. For more information see www.lumiere-technology.com/discoveries.html

Martin Kemp talks about The Unknown Leonardo at The Oxfordshire Museum, Woodstock on 17 Sept (01865 305 305)