Cheltenham Festival: Chapter & Verse

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The Independent Culture
"IF I have to choose a quality I most admire in the English character, I'd list cussedness quite high," mused Jeremy Paxman, oozing into the hearts of the Cheltenham audience like hot butter through a toasted tea- cake.

Up at the festival to discuss his new book The English, Paxo tried to thrash out the defining features of the Marmite race in conversation with Nick Clarke (the un-lather-able Radio 4 World at One presenter, not the celebrity shampoo impressario). "The most awful example of Englishness is that terrible man Sapper, who wrote Bulldog Drummond," continued Paxman, a school bully figure to strike fear into anyone's heart. "He was exceedingly dim and prodigiously ugly." "Actually," replied Clarke, "Sapper was my mother's uncle."

"Ask your questions with vigour and unpleasantness," Clarke invited the audience, with only the merest hint of cussedness.

AFTER MUCH heart-felt discussion of spanking, football hooligans, Union Jack underpants, the common European currency, and the slide downmarket of the English sex symbol from Brief Encounter's Celia Johnson to ex-Spice Girl Geri Halliwell; the debate was settled by a Yardley-scented voice from the rear of the hall. "Don't you think," asked the matron, decisively, "that the nation's decline can be linked quite precisely to the disappearance from British society of the Maiden Aunt?"

AS THE burghers of Cheltenham queued round the book-tent to touch the hem of Paxman's blazer, Paxman looked yearningly out at the horse chestnuts flanking the Imperial Gardens.

"Are we done yet?" Paxo whispered to the booksellers, with a schoolboyish flush. "I've got conkers to string." A conker player eh? You might almost hear them sighing at the Garrick. If only he'd said.

JULIAN BARNES, meanwhile, had just been answering questions about his own book on Englishness, England, England. "Can I ask about The History of the World in 101/2 Chapters instead?" asked a young girl. "We're studying it at school." "Oh dear, it does make me feel old to think of myself as a set text," said Barnes.

"Don't worry," cooed the maiden soothingly. "We all think you make a nice break from Shakespeare."

BACK AT the Town Hall, Alan Clark squared up to political columnist Simon Heffer, to mull over the life of Enoch Powell. "His rib-cage was a basket in which two squirrels, honour and ambition, were at war," quoted Clark. "We're not here to find out about Powell," hissed an agitated lady behind me. I rather suspect she had her eye on the squirrels at war inside the diarist's trousers.