When glitz comes to Glos

The Cheltenham Festival of Literature is 50. John Walsh invites you to join the world's best writers for the celebrations
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The Independent Culture

THE 1999 Cheltenham Festival of Literature, sponsored by the Independent, starts this weekend. It's the Festival's 50th year. A half-century has gone by since John Moore, a writer on countryside matters and a Cheltenham dweller, called up a few friends (like Joyce Grenfell and Ralph Richardson) and invited them to come up and speak on bookish subjects in front of a small local audience at Cheltenham Town Hall.

THE 1999 Cheltenham Festival of Literature, sponsored by the Independent, starts this weekend. It's the Festival's 50th year. A half-century has gone by since John Moore, a writer on countryside matters and a Cheltenham dweller, called up a few friends (like Joyce Grenfell and Ralph Richardson) and invited them to come up and speak on bookish subjects in front of a small local audience at Cheltenham Town Hall.

In doing so, he created the idea of the literary festival. He invented the multi-event, multi-media, meet-the-author bookfest that has subtly changed the image of the writer from a study-haunting solitary into something closer to a performing seal, balancing ironies and self-deprecation with splashy display. Many novelists, poets and historians, biographers, scientists and resting actors now find a hefty proportion of their working year taken up in roving from festival to festival, as they traverse the country from Ledbury to Edinburgh, from Hay-on-Wye to Brighton, from Dartington to Richmond.

A few writers take the stage under duress and protest. Some object to being contractually obliged to make public appearances. One or two display a bracing asperity towards philistine enquiries. One shudders to recall the iron-haired lady novelist who, on being asked by a youth if the heroine of her new fiction was, in fact, secretly herself, replied: "Young man, there is, I believe, a Radio One Roadshow taking place not five miles from here. Don't you think you might be happier there, among your own people?".

But, by and large, writers love festivals. They enjoy meeting peers and rivals and endure with equanimity the modern phenomenon of the book-signing queue and the slow-drip torture of being asked about movie adaptations and writer's cramp. And they, like the audience, enjoy the weird eclecticism. I remember meeting Ariel Dorfman, the great Chilean author of Death and the Maiden, on his way from a forum on, say, "Totalitarianism and Modern Man", to an hour of jokes about Riverdance by Ardal (Father Ted) O'Hanlon.

Dorfman is one of the stars of the first weekend in this specially extended mega-Festival. To celebrate Cheltenham's half-century, the organisers have pushed the boat out: 17 days, 219 events, 400 authors, a jolly bonanza of events for children, the Youth Drama Festival, the Poetry Slam. Some of the world's most distinguished writers will fly in: Joseph Heller, Dava Sobel. Ivan Kilma, W G Sebald. An exceptional line-up of travel writers - Eric Newby, Dervla Murphy, Jan Morris, Colin Thubron - will make the trek to Gloucestershire. Seamus Heaney and Melvyn Bragg will celebrate the memory of Ted Hughes, Michael Palin will discuss his fascination with Ernest Hemingway, Valerie Grove will unveil her biography of Laurie Lee. Frank McCourt, Pulitzer-winning chronicler of Irish misery, will draw huge crowds, as will John Major, that celebrated autobiographer.

Marina Warner and Tim Rice will talk about the relationship between words and music, the former songwriting duo of Clive James and Pete Atkin are reunited on stage, the poets James Fenton, Hugo Williams, Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy and Glyn Maxwell will read, while the cartoonists Posy Simmonds and Steve Bell will discuss their inspiration. A team from the New Yorker, led by editor David Remnick, will debate with a crack team from the Independent about the relationship between the UK and the US, Simon Schama will lecture on Rembrandt, and the men and women who have directed the nation's first, biggest and best Festival of Literature will toast its birthday in a cabaret that traces the literary history of the century.

It should be fun. You might enjoy one of two of the events. Perhaps you should ring the Hotline (Tel: 01242 227979) and ask for a brochure. Or read the Independent's Cheltenham coverage every day, starting Monday.

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