Authors ponder state of the nation at Cheltenham

Cherie Blair will today speak of her life as the Prime Minister's wife before an audience at the opening of the Cheltenham Literary Festival. Security has been increased for her appearance at the town hall this afternoon to discuss her book, The Goldfish Bowl: Married to the Prime Minister.

The book chronicles the families of British prime ministers, and was co-written with Melvyn Bragg's wife, Cate Haste. She and Mrs Blair will be "in conversation" with the festival's director, Christopher Cook, and take questions.

The Government's involvement in Iraq is expected to be vigorously challenged by intellectuals and political thinkers at the 10-day festival, which has as its theme the "State of the Nation". An account by the BBC's former director general, Greg Dyke, of his controversial departure from the corporation is already a sellout. The BBC's political editor, Andrew Marr, will be vying for audience numbers with the former Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, and the former environment minister, Michael Meacher.

Mr Cook said he had departed from choosing a traditionally literary theme for the 55th festival because of the nation's explosive response to the Iraq war. "The theme grew out of two political events, first, a sense of the astonishing divisions over the Iraq war, and second, the two anti-war demonstrations which were so extraordinary in that they were attended by people who would never otherwise turn up to a demo. These events seemed to indicate major shifts in the nation."

The festival will look at British life in the aftermath of Cool Britannia and examine the work of New Labour in the new millennium. Adam Puskhin, the festival's organiser, said: "The guests have the time and space to make an argument. Thinkers and politicians often only get a very small space in newspapers or television to talk and do not always get the chance to give a coherent argument."

Organisers are expecting up to 60,000 to the event, sponsored by The Independent. Distinguished writers, commentators and cultural critics appearing include Hanif Kureishi, Lisa Jardine, Peter Tatchell, Andrew Roberts, Michael Palin and Jonathan Miller.

Among the highlights next Saturday is a debate "Who Runs Britain?", with the writer Anthony Sampson, Tony Wright MP and the campaigner George Monbiot. Mr Pushkin said the discussion would be a "post-Iraq, post-Hutton inquiry".

Tomorrow, the film maker, Anthony Minghella will be in discussion with the novelist, Liz Jenson, whose psychological thriller, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, he adapted for cinema. Jack Vettriano, the popular artist, will make a rare public appearance a week on Sunday.

The impressionist Rory Bremner will perform a political satire the same day, using the festival's theme to appear as several political characters.

Boyd Tonkin, The Independent's literary editor, will chair discussions and introduce readings by six writers shortlisted for this year's Booker Prize, to be announced on 19 October.

The festival finishes on Sunday 17 October. The Independent will report on the festival every day next week.

THE MAIN EVENTS

TODAY

Andrew Marr, The BBC's political editor discusses modern journalism

Cherie Blair and Cate Haste, The Prime Minister's wife and the co-author of The Goldfish Bowl: Married to the Prime Minister, in conversation

TOMORROW

Carol Ann Duffy, Britain's leading female poet

Greene Day, Events celebrating Graham Greene, with a discussion between Fay Weldon, Giles Foden and Jake Arnott

SUNDAY

John Pilger, The documentary-maker on his career and the media

TUESDAY

Jamie Oliver, The celebrity chef talks on the state of the nation's food.

Peter Tatchell, The campaigner on what the gay community has achieved

WEDNESDAY

Michael Meacher, The former environment minister delivers the Green Nation lecture

THURSDAY

Jonathan Miller, The theatre director and author discusses British culture

FRIDAY 15

Neil Kinnock, The EU commissioner delivers the Political Nation lecture

SATURDAY 16

Greg Dyke, On his departure from the BBC

SUNDAY 17

Hanif Kureishi, The author on his literary calling

Full coverage of the Cheltenham Literary Festival will appear in The Independent every day from tomorrow

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