An adventure behind the lines of conflict and creativity

Come to the Cheltenham Festival of Literature and experience the global power of debate and discovery. Boyd Tonkin previews this year's programme
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The Independent Culture

Even Kate Adie still plans to be there. Global events have failed to make any dent at all in the extraordinary line-up of 400-plus writers due to appear at this year's Cheltenham Festival of Literature, which runs from 12 to 21 October. Well, we would say that, wouldn't we (The Independent is the Festival's media sponsor) – but I truthfully can't remember a broader, richer programme at this most distinguished and diverse of literary carnivals.

Let's start with some of the events that may appeal to anyone who wants to understand what's now happening, or may soon happen, in the wider world. Stella Rimington comes out of the shadows of MI5; John Pilger reflects on a career spent in other sorts of investigation; Lisa Jardine (a guest director this year) and David Cannadine consider "the rise and fall of empires". The Green campaigner George Monbiot will call for a better kind of new world order, and a formidable team – Richard Hoggart, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Lynne Segal, Peter Jay – gather to discuss the uses and abuses of "20th-century Power".

This Friday the globe-spanning Jan Morris (see page 9) opens the Festival, which closes nine days later with Vanessa Redgrave talking about her work on behalf of international human rights. Paddy Ashdown, Betty Boothroyd, Roy Hattersley, John Humphrys, John Sergeant and James Naughtie will bring news from the arena of politics and media; a panel including Michael Holroyd and Victoria Glendinning explore what it means to be a "a good writer" on an unjust planet; and William Shawcross asks whether ethics can survive a state of war.

In fact, the culture of war runs, uncannily, like a scarlet thread through this programme assembled many weeks ago. A platoon of war novelists appear – Sebastian Faulks, Melvyn Bragg, Helen Dunmore – along with photographer Don McCullin, and military historians Andrew Roberts and Richard Holmes. Joanna Bourke, Michael Burleigh and Richard Overy – a trio of unmatched authority when it comes to the conflicts of the last century – will examine the human cost of war, while Roy Jenkins discusses his new biography of Churchill.

More purely literary pleasures still abound. Novelists due in Cheltenham include Ian McEwan, his fellow Booker contender Andrew Miller, V S Naipaul, Irvine Welsh, Ruth Rendell, P D James, Louis de Bernières and Hilary Mantel. Among the poets, expect Carol Ann Duffy, Andrew Motion, Simon Armitage, Wendy Cope, and this week's Forward Prize victor Sean O'Brien, while Edward Fox will perform T S Eliot's Four Quartets.

Other highlights include Nigel Planer's hilarious impersonation of that most actorish of actors, "Nicholas Craig"; an entire cast of eminent, genuine thespians (Joan Plowright, Harriet Walter, Janet Suzman and dramatist Stephen Poliakoff); an event with the notorious "Murder Squad" of crime writers; a look at "Vermeer in Print" with Tom Paulin and Tracy Chevalier; a series of Fringe events celbrating the Seven Deadly Sins; an evening devoted to the "Chemical Pleasures" of intoxication (just the one?) with James Walton, John Walsh and Richard Davenport-Hines; and the BBC's George Alagiah glimpsing "African Visions" with authors from South Africa.

This year's historical "Booker Prize" travels back four decades to 1961: a panel featuring Francine Stock, James Naughtie and the (in this august company, slightly overawed) author of this preview will attempt to judge the finest novel of that year from a heavyweight field that features Catch-22, A House for Mr Biswas and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

This is a Festival that boasts not merely a Writer in Residence (Lesley Glaister) but also a Reader in Residence: Ann Cleeves, who will dispense advice to bemused bookworms and continue the debates begun in the events. The Book It! children's festival welcomes a gang of favourites, among them Jacqueline Wilson, Allan Ahlberg, Roger McGough and Lauren Child. And, for those impelled to literary endeavours of their own by this galaxy of talent, the "Write Away" workshops will the cover the skills required for genres from fiction to drama to biography.

You'll find many more delights and surprises in the Cheltenham Festival of Literature brochure, available from 01242 237377. The booking hotline is 01242 227979; and you can also book online at: