Arts: Shopping refugee creeps back to a warm welcome

Cheltenham Literary Festival sponsored by The Independent
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Nicola Horlick crept back and conquered. The megabucks banker with a penchant for Cook Report tactics and large families, had hated the town so much the last time she was here that she got arrested trying to escape.

But that was some time ago and Cheltenham Ladies College has changed considerably since then. "When I was here you were only allowed out to go shopping once a term. Can you imagine it? Once a term!"

Clearly not. Something had to give, so young Nicola went off to a day school in the North where she was able to fully develop her unerring ability to shop for even bigger and better unit trusts.

She was slimmer than they remembered, "I've lost two stone", and a lot less scary than they imagined. She wasn't able to say that she was always going to be a working mum, but she was sure of one thing: "I can't go into politics because if I do Tim has said that he will divorce me."

She answered their questions on fiscal policy and told them that she still makes her own Christmas cake and doesn't let the children watch too much television. The matrons cheered and embraced their nervous schoolgirl.

As they did the journalist and broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby. So much so that, if he was ever in need of yet another job to add to his already bulging portfolio, he could happily rely on being made mayor of Cheltenham.

The faithful wanted to know, indeed were secretly praying, if his friend Chris Patten, the Last Governor, the subject of his new book, would consider returning to the Tory Party. After a considered pause he had to admit he really couldn't say.

At the moment, Chris was in France preparing his own book. But, if pressurised, he thought it would be difficult for ex-governor Patten to resist. "But personally," he helpfully added, "I can't see why he would want to spend the next 10 years of his life in that particular piranha pool."

They sighed in agreement, after all, they too were liberals now. After the event, Dimbelby confessed that he had gone to the Waterstones book shop to warn them to expect a huge swell in customers. "I told them, be prepared, Michael Palin is due to arrive later!"