Stars with a place in the sun

Our very own creative Olympiad begins next week. Boyd Tonkin looks forward to this year's Cheltenham Festival of Literature
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The Independent Culture

No sooner have the heroes and heroines of Sydney come home than the Cheltenham Festival of Literature arrives (from 13 to 22 October) - a creative Olympics in which verbal gymnastics vie with intellectual fencing, and every champion belongs firmly in the super-heavyweight division. Sydney, in fact, provides the inspiration for a talk by that fine biographer of cities, Geoffrey Moorhouse, while further Australian flavour comes from the nation's premier novelist, Thomas Keneally.

No sooner have the heroes and heroines of Sydney come home than the Cheltenham Festival of Literature arrives (from 13 to 22 October) - a creative Olympics in which verbal gymnastics vie with intellectual fencing, and every champion belongs firmly in the super-heavyweight division. Sydney, in fact, provides the inspiration for a talk by that fine biographer of cities, Geoffrey Moorhouse, while further Australian flavour comes from the nation's premier novelist, Thomas Keneally.

This year, the festival - in association with The Independent - offers 200-odd main events and 50 more for children. Ideas of space and place supply the overarching theme for director Sarah Smyth and her two guest programmers: novelists Romesh Gunesekera and Michÿle Roberts. That place can be as local as your garden - Anna Pavord joins Roy Strong to discuss green-fingered literature; and Tim Smit tours his Lost Gardens of Heligan. Or it may mean the British backyard: Bill Bryson talks about the British landscape; Michael Wood tries to define "Englishness"; a panel including Andrew Marr, George Walden and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown asks, "Who do we think we are?" Roger Deakin swam through Britain; David Aaronovitch canoed across it: both report on their adventures. The novelists Zadie Smith and Tim Pears give their take on national identity.

Or the place might lie at the end of a long creative journey: Graham Robb will retrace the travels of Arthur Rimbaud; Lucy Irvine, the original Castaway, sails into town; globe-trotting journalists John Simpson and Max Hastings touch down for a spell; comedian Tony Hawks returns from Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, while Christopher Hope and Redmond O'Hanlon stride into a discussion on literary walking.

Elsewhere, you can contemplate the fertile relationship between writers and the locations that inspire them. The Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, will give the Laurie Lee lecture on Dorset poet William Barnes, and Juliet Barker goes in search of Wordsworth. The Basque novelist Bernardo Atxaga explores his own home turf; Pete McCarthy and John Walsh discuss writing about Ireland; thriller specialists Janet Evanovich, Val McDermid and Jake Arnott examine the "scene of the crime"; while Gillian Slovo and Linda Grant tackle one of the most difficult of all frontiers - between fiction and fact.

The mind, of course, can prove the most exciting place of all. Susan Greenfield delivers the Summerfield lecture on the relation between human and artificial intelligence; Steve Jones and Roy Porter debate the small question "What is a human being?" Edward Said, that peerless cultural analyst, gives the Cheltenham lecture, as Jonathan Bate and George Monbiot ponder where "culture" ends and "nature" starts.

These riches merely scratch the surface of a programme that also features novelists such as Jeanette Winterson, Doris Lessing and Beryl Bainbridge, movers and shakers such as Michael Heseltine, Ann Widdecombe and Anita Roddick, and excursions into comedy with the League of Gentlemen, John Bird and John Fortune. All this, plus Cheltenham's unique historical "Booker Prize": this year, a panel that consists of Hermione Lee, David Starkey, Victoria Glendinning, Simon Hoggart and the author of this shameless puff will go into battle for the best novel of 1925.

What I can't promise, alas, is an entirely drug-free tournament. An event entitled Literary Vintages traces the many connections between wine and writing, with liquid assistance; suspiciously, it stars both guest directors. And anyone who wishes to enhance their own performance on the page can join authors such as Anna Davis, Jane Rogers and Miranda Seymour in the Write Away series of workshops.

The Cheltenham Festival of Literature runs from 13 to 22 October. Brochure requests: 01242 237377. Booking hotline: 01242 227979

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