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Writers reveal another side

Jan Dalley reports from the Ways With Words literary festival at Dartington
Dartington Hall in Devon is a magical place, a picture-book enclave of medieval buildings set in acres of famous gardens casually studded with the odd Henry Moore. Even the most stressed-out city visitor succumbs in minutes to its peace and well-being.

The atmosphere is familiar and collegiate, the audiences discriminating and informed. They expect a lot, and they get it.

This week, around 100 writers are here - speaking about anything from autobiography to rock music, comedy to crime - and more will arrive today and tomorrow.

Nicholas Evans, author of The Horse Whisperer, gave a surprisingly emotional account of the making of his international bestseller. Evans told how he had made a personal odyssey to Montana where he found he identified not with the "whisperer" but with the horse.

"Gee, he's just forgotten how to be a horse," was the ancient therapist's diagnosis of his recalcitrant four-legged patient. Evans himself, it seems, felt that in the process of making his book he had "rediscovered how to be a person".

Talking about Augustus John, as well as his other hirsute subjects, Michael Holroyd produced a fine range of beard jokes as he recounted the misadventures of a young biographer caught in the machinations of an eccentric Bohemian clan.

Carolyn John, granddaughter and, as she put it, survivor, shared the platform with him. Other biographers described the process of trying to impose orderly prose on disorderly lives - Miranda Seymour on the flamboyant Ottoline Morrell, Ray Monk on Bertrand Russell.

One of the undisputed high-points has been Russian dissident poet Irina Ratushinskaya, whose shining courage brought the audience to its feet in homage. She may be the only writer who caused a longer queue in the bookshop than in the bar.

This year's Ways With Words literary festival is the first to be organised in association with The Independent and Independent on Sunday, and ticket sales of 6,500 are a 30 per cent increase on last year. The festival continues today and tomorrow.