Cheltenham `97: Where high culture meets low humour

The biggest Cheltenham Literary Festival in history promises a feast for the bookish. The finest novelists, poets and biographers, from Britain and the world over, will be represented here.
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Martin Amis, Doris Lessing, Michael Palin, Rose Tremain, Alan Clark, Ian Hislop, Arundhati Roy, Will Self and the Australian super-poet Les A. Murray will star, amid a multitude of other premier-league authors, at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature next month. With 330 writers descending on the Gloucestershire town over and 230 events planned, for the main festival and the new "fringe", it will be the biggest festival in Cheltenham's 48-year history. Conservative estimates put the likely audience at 30,000 bookish souls.

The Festival is sponsored by the Independent and the Irish Sunday Independent, and runs from October 10th to October 19th.

Novelists, poets, politicians, biographers, sports stars, historians, philosophers, chefs, scientists, wine buffs, actors, psychiatrists, guitarists and bishops will all be represented in this unprecedented celebration of the printed word. High culture and low fringe humour meet in the heart of middle England. Elevated discussions of the Two Nations ("Science and literature - Schism or symbiosis? ") jostle beside beside on-stage interrogations of controversial public figures (Valerie Grove meets Nicola Horlick). Rare sightings of literary stars from Ireland (Aidan Higgins, Colm Toibin) and India (Ardashir Vakil, Githa Hariharan) alternate with hall-filling, crowd-pleasing encounters with television celebrities from the worlds of travel (Michael Palin, who will host a film show of his travels for Full Circle) and cookery (Rick Stein, who will cook squid on stage during his talk...).

British novelists will be represented in force, in interviews, readings, discussions and book signings. Doris Lessing, the doyenne of women writers in English, will read from the second volume of her autobiography, Martin Amis from his new novella Night Train and Ian McEwan from his enthusiastically- reviewed Enduring Love. Rose Tremain, whose latest book was a tale of teenage obsession in Paris, The Way I Found Her, discusses the fascination of French culture with Michele Roberts and Gilbert Adair. Sebastian Faulks, a popular and critical celebrity after the success of Birdsong, will give a sneak preview of his new novel, Charlotte Gray. Baroness James of Holland Park, also known as crime diva PD James, presents her hot-off-the-press new whodunit, A Certain Justice. Lindsey Davis, creator of the best-selling Roman sleuth Marcus Didius Falco, reveals the skill and the technical research that goes into her recreation of Imperial Rome. And two of the nation's leading prose stylists, Candia McWilliam and Rachel Cusk, discuss the evolution of their work.

Poetry is strongly represented this year, with recitals by British, Irish, American and Australian makers. Les A. Murray, the Australian Heaney and winner of the TS Eliot Award for Subhuman Redneck Poems, is interviewed by Ruth Padel. The cream of Faber & Faber, historically the world's most important poetry list - Christopher Reid, Don Paterson, Lavinia Greenlaw and Hugo Williams - will perform together on Sunday October 12. Elsewhere you can hear the newest work and the greatest hits of Robin Robertson, Bernard O'Donoghue, Mick Imlah, Jo Shapcott, Matthew Sweeney, Neil Rollinson, Sarah Maguire and the legendary Adrian Mitchell, who will conduct a one- man show on the eve of his 65th birthday.

A dozen major biographers and historians will seek to compress the essence of their newest publications into entertaining hour-long lectures. Andrew Motion the poet presents a broader and more multifaceted portrait of Keats than has ever been seen before. Jenny Uglow gives an illustrated talk on William Hogarth to celebrate the great artist's 300th birthday and the publication of her critically applauded biography. Claire Tomalin brings Jane Austen to life as a shrewd intelligence very much on the borders of the marriage market. Phyllis Grosskurth offers new insights into the chronically biographised Lord Byron, and waspish historian David Starkey offers a major reappraisal of Henry VIII. Paul Ferris the new biographer of Sigmund Freud, puts the great man on the psychiatrist's couch and analyses him with Oliver James. The eminent author of Millennium, Felipe Fernandez- Armesto kicks off the festival with Truth - A Guide for the Perpelexed, in which he examines the history of the concept, from the Gospels to post- modernism. Norman Davies's thousand-page, five-million-year history of Europe is one of the publishing triumphs of the year; here he narrows it down to a discussion of the components of European identity. And Roy Strong, author of the best-selling Story of Britain, talks about himself as a footnote in history, as the brilliant, waspishly confiding voice of his Diaries.

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