For 10 days in October, the town of Cheltenham will play host to the biggest Literary Festival in the United Kingdom, sponsored for the second year by The Independent. The streets will be crammed with perambulating literati (300 writers, taking part in more than 180 events), and the bars, museums, galleries, churches and restaurants of the Gloucestershire town will be overrun by the "Voices Off" festival fringe.
Along with some of the nation's most popular and respected novelists (including William Boyd, Hilary Mantel, Sebastian Faulks, Robert Harris, Pat Barker, John Fowles, Julian Barnes, Bridget Jones), the festival features a remarkable poly-disciplinary mix of talents: chefs (Raymond Blanc, above), cartoonists (Ralph Steadman), ballerinas (Deborah Bull), street anarchists (Tariq Ali), actors (Judi Dench, Felicity Kendal, Richard E Grant, Simon Callow), politicians (Edward Heath, Douglas Hurd), television stars (Jeremy Paxman, Edward Stourton), ex-drug smugglers (Howard Marks), national Lotharios (Alan Clark), pop stars (Ian Dury), dramaturges (Steven Berkoff) and oenophiles (Oz Clarke) - all of them coming to celebrate the primacy of the printed word, as well as to meet their fans and answer their incisive questions.
The Cheltenham Festival of Literature - the prototype of such bookish gatherings - was started in 1949 by John Moore, with a single day of readings, a special staging of the Brains Trust and a lecture by the actor Ralph Richardson. Forty-nine years later, the Festival has expanded into a succession of recitals, discussions, interviews, lectures, confrontations, wine tastings, slide shows, dramatisations and "cabaret" evenings, fuelled by drink, exhibitionism and cumulative excitement.
All enquiries, requests for programmes, booking info etc to the box office (01242 227979; fax 01242 573902). Festival runs 9-18 Oct
This year, Book It! - the children's corner of the festival - has a strong line-up of writers: Jo (JK) Rowling, will talk about the adventures of Harry Potter; Bel Mooney will introduce her strong-minded creation, Kitty; and Jacqueline Wilson will give the lowdown on Radish, Tracy Beaker, Ruby and Garnet. And the Flower Fairies will be celebrating their 75th birthday...
Quentin Blake, famous for his wild-men-with-flying-coat-tails style and his collaboration with Roald Dahl, celebrates 30 years of children's illustrations. Two other premier-league children's artists, Tony Ross and Korky Paul, take a look at Planet Earth. The Carnegie laureate Philip Pullman will read from his trilogy, His Dark Materials. And younger children can safely be left with Noddy, Postman Pat (above) and Pingu the penguin.
A major theme of this year's festival is Revolution. Thirty years after the Paris evenements, and 150 years after the conflagration that swept Europe but missed England, a score of writers will celebrate the spirit of freedom and the poetry of rebellion. Tom Paulin and Tariq Ali (right) will head up the Revolution Cabaret; Asa Briggs will anatomise the Chartist movement in 1848; Elaine Feinstein will present Pushkin as a mould-breaking poet; Orlando Figes, author of A People's Tragedy, will discuss the words for which people are prepared to give up everything (fraternite, Comrade, no pasarn!); and Richard Holmes, the distinguished Coleridge biographer, Marilyn Butler and others will discuss the literary revolution engendered by Lyrical Ballads 200 years ago. With rat-like cunning, the festival will expand the concept of "revolution" to accommodate upheavals in food, drink, music, sex, painting and style, while the Youth Drama Festival concentrates on the work of the great Weimar iconoclast, Bertolt Brecht.
The link between good writing and wild music is the theme of the final Saturday - how the Beat poets tried to write as if playing jazz, how rock journalism aspires to power chords and howling solos, how the pop lyric can invade the memory with the force of poetry. And how the creative spirit of the 1960s was channelled into TV plays, movies, advertising... Arthur Marwick and Jonathan Green, both historians of the Sixties; Graham Caveney and Steve Turner, biographers of Burroughs and Kerouac; the Homer of spliff, Howard Marks (above); top rock writers; and the great Ian Dury (discussing the poetry of the pop lyric) will all be on stage during a day which will culminate with a three- hour Sixties Cabaret. The Cabaret will feature key cultural commentators of the decade - Christopher Logue, Barry Hines, Molly Parkin, Jenny Fabian, Jeff Nuttall - discussing where literature went in the Love Decade. There will also be music from the man who made his debut 30 years ago with his head on fire in The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.