THEY WERE hanging from the ceilings to greet Chris Patten on Tuesday evening. He received a rapturous welcome from the Cheltenham faithful. More reassuring perhaps than that which he received in Manila, when he entered the port in the royal yacht Britannia to a 21-gun salute - with live bullets. Patten told the story of his first meeting, as a junior Northern Ireland minister, with the Reverend Ian Paisley. Patten, a Catholic, met the Loyalist supremo to discuss the state of the health service in Paisley's North Antrim constituency. Briefed to the eyeballs, Patten wowed Paisley with his knowledge of bed vacancy rates in cottage hospitals, but felt he should admit that he'd never visited the place. "I must confess..." he began "Confess?" roared Paisley. "Confess? Not to me you don't."
ON TO see the gorgeous Deborah Bull, principal ballerina with the Royal Ballet, in conversation with Rupert Christiansen. Ballerinas being known for their quirky relationships with food, Christiansen asked the dancer for her three golden rules of diet. "Eat what the body needs," she said. "Eat less meat," she said. "Eat fresh, unrefined, high-fibre foods," she said. "But you ate wine gums all the way here!" interjected Christiansen. Sighs of relief all round.
OVER AT the Everyman Theatre, Magnus Mills, the bus-driving Booker shortlistee, had his first encounter with a public audience. A BBC documentary team followed his every move, and the audience followed with delight his twists of whimsical humour. Why did he turn to writing? "I thought there are only three ways to be famous," he said, deadpan. "Write a good book, paint a brilliant picture or marry Will Carling." Why did he write a novel about two men sinking fence-posts? "Because there's a lot of tension in fence posts." Ice-cream vans kept invading his (increasingly surreal) discourse. Living in Brixton, he said he got used to hearing an ice cream van chiming "0 Sole Mio", followed half-an-hour later by another, chiming "Lili Marlene", and imagined a maddened German Raspberry Ripple vendor stalking an Italian rival through the streets of SW2.
His next novel is to be called All Quiet on the Orient Express - "mainly because there's no sign of the Orient Express in it". Mr Mills's ex-English teacher, who was in the audience, must have been very proud.
The festival runs until 18 October (01242 227979)
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