A palace full of authors

This year's Independent Woodstock Literary Festival was once again a melting pot of great writers and bright ideas, says John Walsh
  • @Simon_Kelner

The town of Woodstock en fete is a wonderful sight. Outside the Feathers Hotel, a magnificent 1920s Bentley is parked in all its glory. Beside it, Jo from Hendrick's Gin (one of the festival sponsors), a retro vision in a brown 1940s two-piece suit, horn-rimmed specs and seamed stockings, holds a tray of "Wordsmith" cocktails in floral teacups. Outside St Mary Magdalene Church, a tactlessly placed sign offers the passing faithful a choice of hot waxes ("Hollywood or Brazillian [sic]") at a nearby spa. Strollers from London and Oxford circumambulate the little town, bewildered by the proliferation of interiors shops, French linen and "real wood" and pause by Harriet's Cake Shop to admire Tony Carter's teapot designs.

Woodstock couldn't be more English if it tried. And 100 metres down the main road, you turn left and the sweep of Blenheim Palace and its gorgeous grounds vie for the title of the most beautiful sight in England. Both played host to the fourth Independent Woodstock Literary Festival last week, five days of talks, discussions, slideshows, dinners, drinks and enlightenment. No wonder people come in their masses – but the audiences have become international. Richard Dawkins's event was full of Americans and Canadians; Sir Mark Tully's was crammed with fans from the Indian subcontinent. From the Oxfordshire Museum to the Palace's Marlborough Room, they arrived to listen and marvel.

Mary Soames, only surviving child of Winston Churchill, told Philip Ziegler what it was like to meet Stalin: "He was much smaller than I expected. He wore the most beautiful uniform in cream sage. And he had very twinkly eyes." From David Crystal, the bearded patriarch of popular linguistics, we heard that, in the days of the King James Bible, the greengrocer's apostrophe ("Three apple's a pound") was both accepted and wildly popular: you could find words such as "hour's" and "their's" in its pages.

In the festival's only sports event, the former Arsenal defender Martin Keown, pressed by i's Brian Viner for information about Arsene Wenger, revealed that the great manager mothers his players – they must eat slowly so as not to waste energy, drink yoghurt to line their stomachs and take a jumper everywhere for fear of catching cold. Dawkins told a consternated audience that, if they wished to look through a family album that took them back to their first ancestor, they'd have to place a photo of their father on a table, then one of their grandfather on top, then their great-great-grandfather, and so on for another 185 million photos, a pile of pictures 228,000 metres high – and the final picture would be of a fish.

Anthea Bell, the veteran translator who has rendered into English the works of both W G Sebald and Asterix the Gaul, revealed that she needed therapy to conquer her chronic phobia about moths and butterflies; and that her father was the first-ever compiler of crosswords for The Times. At the back of the audience for her event in Woodstock's Methodist church sat her brother Martin, the veteran war correspondent and white-suited MP, who later, over an event-lunch at La Galeria introduced by Dame Ann Leslie, shyly revealed his secret identity as a maker of light verse.

A longer-lasting presence in the Commons was Alistair Darling. As his interviewer, i's Simon Kelner, pointed out, he's one of only three cabinet ministers who survived all 13 years of New Labour. At Blenheim Palace, he was a notably calm presence after the turbulence of the last few years – tanned, good-humoured, self-deprecating – and he recalled the horrors of 2008 as if he still couldn't quite believe them. Like the moment when, at a meeting of EU finance ministers in dismal Luxembourg, he learned that the RBS share price had collapsed. "Deep down you never believe a big bank will go bust," he said. "I'd opened my first bank account with RBS in Edinburgh, 40 years earlier. Now there was this voice on the phone saying, 'We're going to run out of cash in two hours'." Darling and Kelner ran through a dozen subjects – the IMF, the Dome, the Vickers report, the fury of Gordon Brown, the vacillation of Mervyn King – all of which Darling handled with the imperturbability of the Downton butler. "You waste your life," he said, "if you spend it being consumed by bitterness." He hopes Ed Miliband gets to No 10 but has no plans to accept a future Cabinet post. "I'm glad," he said, "not to have to go on Radio 4's Today any more. It's marvellous to have a whole weekend in which the only person who rings you is your daughter, asking for more money," he said. "As opposed to Sir Fred Goodwin," said Kelner, smartly.

Hugo Vickers enthralled his audience in the sunlit Orangery at Blenheim Palace with a gossip-filled tour d'horizon of the life of Wallis Simpson, currently the subject of two films, two TV series and a new play. Vickers was at pains to defend the American divorcée who is widely believed by the British to have stolen their king in 1936 – she never wanted to be queen, he said, but enjoyed the luxuries that went with being a king's girlfriend. But the core of his talk was on Wallis's treatment by her witchy lawyer Maitre Suzanne Blum. Blum, according to Vickers, systematically sold off her furniture and belongings, kept her a prisoner, denied her visitors or sedated her when rival lawyers came a-calling. Enlisted by Madonna as special adviser on W.E., her film of the abdication, Vickers read the screenplay. "Did you find anything to object to?" asked Madonna. "Yes I think I did," said Vickers. "You must tell me about them," said Madonna. "And you won't mind if I pay no attention."

Thankfully, Vickers didn't leave out the smut. It was popularly believed, he explained, that, when young, the Duchess had learnt intimate tricks involving the vaginal muscles from a Singapore brothel: "Young girls were taught to pick up penny pieces by this technique," he said, "But only Wallis could pick up a Sovereign."

The final event featured a man who's a hero to many sports fans and political idealists. In an unprecedented convergence of author and questioner, Imran Khan was interviewed by his own former wife Jemima, campaigner, national dreamboat and now i contributing editor. They made a remarkable couple – she teasing, flirtatious and meek, he abrupt, noisy and thunderous as he denounced the corruption endemic in modern Pakistani politics, the Mafia, the fraudulent votes, the folly of America's interventions. When she asked about Sharia law, he rhapsodised about its golden age, 30 years after the death of Mohammed. "Is it true," asked Jemima sharply, "you told a newspaper that honeymoons are overrated?" "I never said that," said Imran, "I said they're like music parties, which I think overrated." "That clears it all up perfectly then," hissed his ex-wife.

And then we sorrowfully drifted away from the Palace – all the noisy convivium of book-lovers and the authors who are the reason for the late-summer treat that is the Independent Woodstock Literary Festival. It's unrepeatable – until next year, of course.