Cheltenham Festival: Chapter & Verse

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The Independent Culture
THE FEISTY crime novelist Val McDermid joined her fellow sleuths Alison Joseph and Annie Ross for a discussion about their fictional female investigators. "Have you noticed how women detectives are absolutely always described as 'feisty'," McDermid observed, scanning her co-panellists' blurbs. "What on earth does 'feisty' mean? I looked it up in the dictionary, and apparently it comes from a middle-English word, 'fisten', which means to break wind," McDermid said. "Well," she sniggered, "I suppose we've already had the singing detective..."

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IT WAS a talk on cricket, however, which threw up a rather strange fact about the grandaddy of detective fiction, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The creator of Sherlock Holmes, it emerges, regularly stepped out of the pavilion with the great if curmudgeonly all-rounder WG Grace. While researching his new biography of Grace, Simon Rae discovered that Conan Doyle once managed to bowl the bearded superstar out (albeit for 110), which he celebrated in a vivacious victory poem:

With beard of a Goth or

a Vandal,

His bat hanging ready

and free,

His big hairy hands on the

handle,

And his menacing eyes

upon me.

On another occasion, however, the two great doctors were sharing a wicket at Lord's, when the ball rapped Conan Doyle briskly on the thigh. He bore his wound bravely and couldn't quite understand why his batting partner was giggling, but, looking down, he found the box of Vestas in his pocket had taken a direct hit, igniting his flannels. "They couldn't get you out," squeaked Grace, "so they had to set you on fire!"

BRIAN JOHNSTON's famed ability to nudge Test Match listeners into showering his commentary box with cake was, his son Barry reveals, a skill perfected in 1945. While Johnners was fighting on the Rhine, his mother managed to smuggle across German lines a home-baked chocolate cake.

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THE FORMER Booker prize short-listees Michele Roberts and Susan Hill met Ion Trewin to discuss this year's hopefuls. The team unanimously backed Beryl Bainbridge, but Hill was willing to put her shirt on it. "I'm a betting person," she said, "and good at it. I made a very great deal of money on Graham Swift and Penelope Fitzgerald, so if I were you I'd get down the bookies sharpish, before they hear my prediction and lower the odds."

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THE PIANIST Alfred Brendel has just published a poetry collection, One Finger Too Many, a comic selection, with quirky events such as Mozart's murder by Beethoven during a game of leapfrog. While he was reciting these endearingly dotty odes at the Town Hall, one listener, noting his hands clasped to his knees, asked: "Are you scared you're going to start playing the table?"

The festival runs until 18 October (01242 227979)

Judith Palmer

Today's Highlights

FERDINAND MOUNT, novelist and editor of the Times Literary Supplement, discusses Samuel Pepys, an entry in whose diary was the germ of his recent novel, Jem (and Sam) (10am).

The biographers Philip Ziegler and Mark Amory talk about English eccentricity, particularly in the lives of their respective subjects, the writer Osbert Sitwell and the composer Lord Berners (2.30pm).

The prolific author John Mortimer talks about his latest novel, The Sound of Trumpets (6.30pm).

Gillian Slovo discusses her childhood as the daughter of the South African political activists Joe Slovo and Ruth First (7.15pm). Two radical barristers, Michael Mansfield QC and Geoffrey Robinson QC, talk about the evolution of the British legal system and suggest further improvements (8.45pm).

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