The Great Hall at Dartington, with its hammerbeam roof and mullioned windows overlooking the rolling lawns outside, hardly seemed the place for the witty and venal chitchat of political insiders - but Roy Hattersley proved otherwise. Opening the fifth Ways With Words literary Festival at Dartington with an hour of masterly storytelling about his 50 years in politics (his first anecdote centred on delivering pamphlets at the age of 11), he used his trademark self-deprecation to soften his delicious needling of famous figures. His jokes had a way of lingering in the air. He'd recounted how, coming back to his office one night, after a particularly dreadful grilling on the Nine O'Clock News during the Kinnock campaign John Smith greeted him chummily with the words: "Saw your thing. It was much worse than you thought." "Was it worse than I thought?" became a running joke throughout the week by performers with their applause ringing behind them.

The first IOS lecture, brilliantly delivered by Peter Hennessy, saw him at his nimble best in the face of some tough and well-informed questioning, notably from a black-clad teenage Goth and self-confessed member of the "Chemical Generation", with half a spider's web painted on her face. She proved rather a feature of the week's audience, challenging from the floor everyone including rock 'n' roll writers Giles Smith, Richard Williams and the Independent's Nick Coleman. This trio had also been leading lights of the sport's writing theme day - a new concept for this festival - where Richard Williams regaled a knowledgeable audience with the art of Ayrton Senna and the drama of hand-to-hand combat in motor racing.

Hand-to-hand combat of another sort was the theme of women novelists Clare Boylan, Helen Dunmore and Julie Myerson, in a session called Women Behaving Badly, which released some frank and fearless discussion onto the medieval walls. Boylan was not so much a writer as a stand-up comic as she read out a hilarious tale of menopausal revenge; Dunmore changed the tempo and kept the audience spellbound with a chilling extract from her new domestic thriller, and Myerson was brave enough to read out a sex-scene.

There were sell-outs for several star performers - Doris Lessing, dignified, fascinating and enigmatic as always; P D James, talking of how she turned to crime and of Jane Austen; while another criminal mind was open to scrutiny as the audience fought for tickets to hear Dr Anthony Clare and Ruth Rendell. Two luminaries gave packed lectures on days of personal significance: John Cole on his fortieth wedding anniversary, and biographer Michael Holroyd, who got an extra surprise at the end of his lecture: a cake with blazing candles and a mass rendering of Happy Birthday To You.

Michael Holroyd's chief subject was Augustus John, the bearded luminary who always patted the heads of children in the streets, just in case they were some of his. He was joined on the platform by Carolyn John, the artist's granddaughter, and when biographer Ray Monk spoke about his subject, Bertrand Russell, it was in the company of Russell's daughter Katharine Tait - and so the great figures of the past seemed somehow alive and among us.

Mary Wesley, local celebrity, presented first prize in the Penguin/Ways With Words autobiographical writing competition to Lionne Crossley for her sparky piece The Debutant. There was plenty of skittish comedy to be had with actresses Fidelis Morgan and Jill Benedict on women's wit, and the Writer's Guild lecture "Make 'em Laugh" given by David Nobbs of Two Ronnies and Reginald Perrin fame. More sombre themes were explored by David Owen and Martin Bell on Bosnia and, on the last Sunday of the festival Joan Brady and Polly Toynbee talking about the issues of death and terminal care raised by Brady's hard-hitting new novel. Ben Pimlott made us think about Her Majesty in a very new light; on the same day the Monarchy itself and New Labour came up for some vigorous discussion.

What else? Poetry, Marina Warner's lullabies, travel, how to get published, wine, gardening, aromatherapy, tabloids, and more. Weird weather was the subject of Paul Simons's excellent talk in Wednesday's science day, and raining cats and frogs was what it did on and off all week. In between showers, brilliant sunlight brought the audiences spilling onto the grass, and at night the full moon illuminated the fourteenth-century tiltyard in the gardens.

The sad news is that it's all over; the good news is that we are already planning for next year. The 1997 Ways With Words Festival will be held at Dartington on 11-20 July, extended to nine days and with an expanded programme to meet its rapidly growing popularity. The IOS will be announcing programme details and special offers; in the mean time don't miss WWW's other activities. The Sole Bay Literature Festival in Southwold in Suffolk (8-10 Nov 1996) features Malcolm Bradbury, Jane Asher, Hermione Lee, David Lodge and others; the literary weekend in Bury St Edmunds (22-24 Nov 1996) includes Antonia Fraser, Kenneth Baker and Jane Gardam. For bookings and further information, ring 01803 867311.

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